“. . . the fiery sun now goes his way; shed thou within our hearts thy ray. . .”

Sunset over Paradise Beach, Oregon

(Sunset at Paradise Beach, Port Orford, Oregon. Photograph by Harold Knight, 2010)

Some people have the songs of Sondheim musicals in their minds. Some have Gilbert and Sullivan. I have one friend who claims to be able to sing every John Lennon melody. I know a pianist who studied with Rosina Lhévinne and at any moment of any day or night can play from memory any movement of any Beethoven Sonata. I tested him.

When I was a kid, we sang a (shall I say, ‘banal’) little tune, of which the “chorus” is the most memorable part. I often sing it yet. Not exactly. I think it when I have some unbidden tune caroming around in my head. I often try to supplant the unwanted tune with another unwanted tune.

In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody with Heaven’s harmony;
In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody of love
.

Many of America’s finest musicians grew up in the same musical milieu I did—composers Virgil Thomson and Gardner Read come immediately to mind, and more church musicians than I could count. I’m afraid unlike them in many ways, I never really rose above the musical level of “I have a song that Jesus gave me.”

That is not to say I have not lived with, loved, and performed great music all of my life. I’ve written before about the near sanctity in our home of Monday evenings and the “Bell Telephone Hour,” the “good music” (as my parents called it) program. I wrote recently about the operas I heard as a child. I grew up hearing the very best and the very worst in music.

The hymn tune Bromley was composed by either Jeremiah Clarke or Franz Joseph Haydn. It seems each of them left a trio version of the tune, identical but for a couple of notes in the last line. Musicologists are in some debate which came first—obviously Clarke lived first. His version is, however, in a manuscript which is of uncertain origin. The Haydn manuscript is undoubtedly authentic. Did Haydn copy Clarke, or did some third party copy Haydn and put Clarke’s name on it. Oh, the arcaneness of musicology.

This evening on the way home from my friend’s home where I had a delicious but sensible Thanksgiving dinner, I found that “in my heart there [rang] a melody, there [rang] a melody with” –Bromley, with either Jeremiah Clarke’s or Joseph Haydn’s harmonies.

The text I sing to Bromley is the evening hymn, “O Trinity of Blessed Light.”

O Trinity of blessed light,
O Unity of princely might,
the fiery sun now goes his way;
shed thou within our hearts thy ray.

To thee our morning song of praise,
to thee our evening prayer we raise;
O grant us with thy saints on high
to praise thee through eternity.

Words: Ambrose of Milan, fourth century; trans. John Mason Neale, 1851

The tune sounds Haydnesque to me. It trips sweetly along in F major for the first eight bars, but in the ninth it moves to F Minor on the word “fiery,” and moves to a B-flat minor sub-dominant on the word “sun.” One does not need to understand this musical jargon to hear the startling result. It’s one of those tiny moments (nearly unnoticeable) that carries with it the entire cosmos. It is one of those rare events in the music I know wherein I would be willing to posit a connection with “heaven’s harmonies.”

Few music theorists or musicologists or composers, I daresay, would use such important sounding language to describe this tiny two-chord, almost millisecond harmonic progression. They would say I need to get a life, that only the Mahler Sixth can be said to carry with it the entire cosmos. Or the David Diamond Ninth. Or the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata.

I learned Bromley singing the Office of Compline with the Chapel Singers of the University of Redlands Choir in 1966. We sang without conductor, standing in the darkened chapel at 9 PM on Sunday evenings. I have in my heart, and do not have to conjure it, the physical, mental, and spiritual—to say nothing of emotional—effect those minor chords had on me every time we sang the hymn, the fourteen of us breathing and vocalizing together in as perfect harmony as it is possible for any group to experience.

If I have not spoiled my genetic heritage by smoking (years ago), drinking alcoholically (years ago), and being overweight, I could possibly live another twenty years. In that time, the fiery sun will go its way approximately 7300 times. I have already experienced slightly fewer than 25,000 sunsets.

As best I can remember, the Service of Compline begins:

READER: The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.
CHOIR: Amen.
READER: Brethren, be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us.
CHOIR: Thanks be to God.

Later the Service continues:
CANTOR: Keep me as the apple of an eye.
CHOIR: Hide me under the shadow of thy wings.
CANTOR: Preserve us, O Lord, while waking,
CHOIR: and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we rest in peace.

Whenever for the last time I see the fiery sun go its way, whether the seventh or the seven thousandth time from now, I will carry into the void with me that minor shift in harmony in Bromley. I will know that the Lord Almighty will grant me a quiet night and a perfect end. I will be kept as the apple of an eye.

Truth be told, I don’t believe any of that. Or do I? My one certainty is this. Every time I sing (or play) that F minor to B-flat minor progression in the middle of that F Major tune, I have already experienced that quiet night and that perfect end.

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