Of all the themes addressed in the catalog of sacred music, few weigh more heavily on the soul than the the loss of those who have given their lives in military service. Whether it is heard or sung by a mourning friend or a family member, or merely by a grateful fellow citizen, a hymn of remembrance for the fallen can provide sorely needed comfort and assurance to the spirit that the departed soldier, sailor, or airman did not die in vain, but "gave the last full measure of devotion" (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address) to his or her country and everything that that it, and we, hold precious.
Military hymns are widely heard on November 11, which is observed as Veterans Day in the United States and as Remembrance Day in Great Britain and Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These observances were established in the 1920s to commemorate the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 that ended World War I--the so-called "War to End All Wars." If only it had been! The Great War, as it was called then, cost more than 117,00 American lives, but more than 10 million lives in Europe, in four short years. The fighting devastated large swaths of Europe, and with its mud-and-disease-ridden trench warfare, machine gunning, huge artillery barrages, and poison gas, involved combatants and civilians alike in a seemingly interminable orgy of suffering and death.
British wounded at Bernafay Wood, France, 19 July 1916
It's no wonder, then, that those who survived the Great War struggled to find some meaning in the tragic sacrifice of so many promising lives--young men they had known, loved, and cheered as they marched away into the most awful killing fields man has ever seen. For some, faith in God was shattered, but others turned to Him for comfort and hope with an even greater devotion. From that spirit was born the heart-rending, yet stirring hymn O Valiant Hearts. The text was taken from a poem by Sir John Stanhope Arkwright (1872–1954), a member of Parliament from Herefordshire, England, and published in "The Supreme Sacrifice, and other Poems in Time of War"(1919). It was set to music by Dr. Charles Harris, who was the vicar of Colwall in the same county. The combination of Harris' tune and Arkwright's words was an immediate success; the hymn was sung at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, London, on November 11 1920. Interestingly, according to a BBC feature on the hymn, "both men knew the pain of losing a loved one first hand - Dr. Harris lost a son in the First World War, and one of Sir John's two sons was killed in a submarine accident in World War II."
Sir John Stanhope Arkwright
The text and music of O Valiant Hearts are below:
O Valiant Hearts, who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle-flame,
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the Land you loved.
Proudly you gathered, rank on rank to war,
As who had heard God's message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave
To save Mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.
Splendid you passed, the great surrender made,
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet-call of God.
Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way.
Still stands his cross from that dread hour to this
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still through the veil the victor's pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.
These were his servants, in his steps they trod,
Following through death the martyr'd Son of God:
Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice.
O risen Lord, O shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and whose staff has led-
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to thy gracious hand.
What most impresses me about O Valiant Hearts is the compelling way in which it compares the brave sacrifice of the men who fought for their country and people with the selfless sacrifice of Christ ("[t]o save Mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.") Our Lord is presented as the One who showed the way through awful trial to eternal victory, and in whose footsteps the valiant marched: "These were his servants, in his steps they trod/Following through death the martyr'd Son of God:/Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise/They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice." No greater tribute could be paid to fighting men than this.
This moving video presentation of O Valiant Hearts features the singing of the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, and was created as a tribute to the author's grandfather and father, who fought in World Wars I and II, respectively.
Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
~ John 15:13
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
~ John 15:13
**********One other indispensable feature of Remembrance Day is the playing of the Last Post. Originally a bugle call used in British Army camps to signal the end of the day, the call is now used at Commonwealth military funerals and ceremonies commemorating those who have fallen in war. The Last Post was featured in a post to this blog on November 11, 2009. To me it still means Remembrance, of America's fallen heroes as well as those of the Commonwealth. Once again, here is a rendition by the Royal Marine Buglers at the 2008 Remembrance service at Whitehall, London.
NOTE: This post was imported from my other blog, Songs of Praises. Visit that site for a full exploration of the best in sacred music, its history, and its meaning for us.