George Herbert: Poems

Musical settings

Herbert was a skilled lutenist who "sett his own lyricks or sacred poems".[38] Musical pursuits interested him all through his life and his biographer, Isaac Walton, records that he rose to play the lute during his final illness.[39] Walton also gave it as his opinion that he composed "such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven",[17] while Walton's friend Charles Cotton described him as a "soul composed of harmonies".[40]

In view of such tributes, it is no surprise to find that more than ninety of Herbert's poems have been set for singing over the centuries, some of them multiple times.[41] Beginning in his own century, there were settings of "Longing" by Henry Purcell and "And art thou grieved" by John Blow. Some forty were adapted for the Methodist hymnal by the Wesley brothers, among them "Teach me my God and King", which found its place in one version or another in 223 hymnals. Another poem, "Let all the world in every corner sing", was published in 103 hymnals, of which one is a French version.[42] Other languages into which his work has been translated for musical settings include Spanish, Catalan and German.[43]

In the 20th century, "Vertue" alone achieved ten settings, one of them in French. Among leading modern composers who set his work were Edmund Rubbra, who set "Easter" as the first of his Two songs for voice and string trio (op.2, 1921); Ralph Vaughan Williams, who used four by Herbert in Five Mystical Songs, of which "Easter" was the first and "Antiphon II" the last; Benjamin Britten and William Walton, both of whom set "Antiphon" too; Ned Rorem who included one in his "10 poems for voice, oboe and strings" (1982); and Judith Weir, whose 2005 choral work Vertue includes three poems by Herbert.


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