Limitations needn’t dictate whether you are able to create something great.
English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934), composer of the hymn tune Thaxted, wanted to be a concert pianist when he grew up. But Holst battled chronic health issues including asthma and severe neuritis in his hands. (Not a good thing for a concert pianist!)
So when life hands a musician lemons (or limitations), he becomes…a trombonist.
Holst took jobs as a trombonist (believing deep breathing helped his asthma) in touring bands and taught music at various schools to make ends meet. Through it all, and encouraged by fellow English composer and friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, Holst composed music. Most of it was criticized during his life and labeled as “too austere”.
But buried inside the middle section of the Jupiter movement of his (now highly regarded) orchestral suite The Planets, he had written the gem of a melody. So when asked in 1921 to compose some music to fit Cecil Spring Rice’s patriotic poem I Vow to Thee My Country, Holst borrowed his own melody from the Jupiter movement, extended it slightly to fit the text, and arranged it for unison voices with orchestra.
In 1926, Holst harmonized I Vow to Thee My Country so it could be sung as a hymn and named the tune Thaxted after the English village where he lived most of his life. His friend Ralph Vaughan Williams included the new hymn in Songs of Praise and many years later the hymn garnered attention when Diana, Princess of Wales said the hymn had been a favorite since her school days. It was sung at both her wedding to Prince Charles and at her funeral.
In 1982, Michael Arnold Perry (1942-1996), an Anglican priest and British hymn-writer with over 300 hymn texts to his credit, decided to pen words with a more religious theme for Thaxted. Perry capitalized on the grandiosity of the tune by focusing his text on God’s majesty and created O God Beyond All Praising – a hymn that has recently become quite popular in churches.
Perry may or may not have known of Holst’s lemons-to-lemonade history, but a portion of his text echos Holst’s experience. For those of us facing down our own bowls of lemons (I’m still in the process of squeezing mine), O God Beyond All Praising encourages and challenges us to praise God and overcome our barriers to create something lasting and meaningful.
And whether our tomorrows,
Be filled with good or ill,
We’ll triumph through our sorrows,
And rise to bless you still.
Unlike Princess Diana, I didn’t grow up singing either I Vow to the My Country or O God Beyond All Praising. But when I did first hear the tune a few years back, I immediately fell in love and knew I needed to arrange it for piano. Since Thaxted is gorgeous on its own, I kept the embellishment to a minimum and focused on enhancing the beauty and majesty of the melody. The result? An impressive sounding but very playable piano arrangement for church services, weddings, funerals, and even recitals. And thanks to the blend of religious and patriotic (but not overtly nationalistic) themes in the text of I Vow to Thee My Country, the arrangement is especially appropriate for church services that fall near national holidays (e.g. Memorial Day, Independence Day/Fourth of July, Veterans’ Day, etc.) Enjoy!
we worship you today
and sing the love amazing
that songs cannot repay.