Onward, Christian Soldiers


IN recent decades the wonderful hymn Onward, Christian Soldiers has come under attack from the PC brigade, who (wrongly) perceive it as militaristic. Most attempts to drop it from hymn books have been resisted, but a rewritten version (by David Wright, 1982) has found a place in some Anglican hymnals.

Here is the original chorus:

Onward, Christian Soldiers,
Marching as to war,
With the Cross of Jesus
Going on before.

Here is the new version:

Onward, Christian Pilgrims,
Christ will be our light,
See the heav’nly vision,
Breaks upon our sight.

Readers will make their own judgement, no doubt.

The original words, based on references in the New Testament such as ‘Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ’ (2 Timothy 2:3, King James Bible) were written by an Anglican clergyman and scholar, Sabine Baring-Gould. He must have been superhuman. Standing at an upright desk and working far into the night, he wrote at least 248 books, including 35 novels which were popular in their day, and 1,000 or more other publications on subjects as diverse as saints, antiquities and folk songs. He also had 16 children, 15 of whom lived to adulthood.

He was born in 1834 into the landed gentry. At the age of 30, in 1864, he took holy orders, and became curate at Horbury Bridge, near Wakefield. One of the big events was the Whit Monday procession when the parish children marched to the next village, headed by a cross and banners. The year after taking up his post, Baring-Gould decided to write a hymn for the occasion, and came up with Onward, Christian Soldiers. He later said it took about 15 minutes, apologising, ‘It was written in great haste, and I am afraid that some of the lines are faulty.’ The same year he wrote the other hymn for which he is remembered, Now the Day is Over, performed here by the choir of Hastings College in Nebraska.

In Horbury Bridge he met Grace Taylor, an uneducated mill girl, who was then aged 14 to his 30, and fell in love with her. His vicar, John Sharp, presumably sensing that this was a situation of some delicacy, arranged for Grace to live with relatives in York for a few years to learn middle-class manners, as well as to read and write. The gentrification of Grace was said to have inspired Baring-Gould’s friend George Bernard Shaw to write Pygmalion, later made into the musical My Fair Lady, but this idea has largely been discounted. Sabine and Grace were married in 1868 when she was 18.

In 1871 Baring-Gould was appointed rector of East Mersea in Essex, where he stayed for ten years. He hated it, complaining that his parishioners were ‘dull, reserved, shy and suspicious’. Nor could he stand the stink of the rotting fish that was used to fertilise the cabbage fields.

According to the Mersea Museum ‘Baring Gould was well aware that he had been sent to this remote, isolated place as a form of exile. . . . [His] independent thinking and radical views had made him powerful enemies in the church hierarchy. They wanted him sent off to some part of the country where he could no longer mix with refined, educated men of culture and equal standing.’

However Baring-Gould outflanked the church hierarchy thanks to inheriting the 3,000-acre family estate near Okehampton, Devon, which included the gift of the living of Lewtrenchard parish. When the living became vacant in 1881, he was able to appoint himself to it, becoming parson as well as squire – so he called himself the Squarson. He completely remodelled the manor house, which is now a splendid-looking hotel. I found many of the details of his life on their website.

He seems to have been a strange father. One story goes that at a children’s party a child bumped into him and, upon picking her up, he asked ‘And whose little girl are you?’ The child burst into tears and wept: ‘I’m yours, Daddy, I’m yours!’

When his sons were around the age of sixteen, he threw them out and told them to earn their own living. He also controlled his daughters and one was coerced into a loveless marriage.

His own marriage lasted 48 years until Grace’s death in 1916. On her gravestone is carved Dimidium Animae Meae (‘Half my Soul’). Baring-Gould died in January 1924, just a few days short of his 90th birthday.

Onward, Christian Soldiers was originally set to a Haydn tune but did not achieve success until Arthur Sullivan composed a melody for it six years later.

Sullivan is of course well known as half of Gilbert and Sullivan, the creators of Victorian operettas such as The Gondoliers and The Mikado. But he was a notable and prolific composer of more serious works.

He was born in London in 1843, the son of a military bandmaster, and was a musical prodigy. He could play every instrument in the band by the age of eight. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Leipzig Conservatory.

Sullivan left Leipzig in April 1861 after a successful performance of his final examination piece, a set of incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In April 1862 The Tempest was performed at one of the celebrated Crystal Palace Saturday concerts. It was such a success that a repeat performance was organised for the following week, and this was highly praised by Charles Dickens. Sullivan became famous overnight.

However he had to make a living. He played the organ, conducted and taught, eventually becoming the first Principal of the National Training School for Music (now the Royal College of Music). He edited hymnals and vocal scores, composed hymns and songs, including the sublime The Long Day Closes (1868) performed at the 2008 Proms by the King’s Singers, and wrote a ballet and numerous orchestral works. Commissions began to come in.

The year 1871 was a turning point. Not only was that when he composed Onward, Christian Soldiers, but he teamed up with W S Gilbert for the first time.

By his own account Sullivan was staying with friends called Ernest and Gertrude Clay Ker Seymer at their large house at Hanford, Dorset. He dashed off the melody in a few minutes in the drawing-room, naming it St Gertrude after his hostess, then the three of them sang it in the private chapel with Sullivan at the harmonium.

Sullivan’s first work with Gilbert was Thespis, described as an ‘operatic extravaganza’. The collaboration lasted about 20 years and it overshadowed nearly all his serious music. His output included many orchestral and choral works, incidental music, the parlour ballad The Lost Chord and an oratorio called The Light of the World – here is a beautiful excerpt called Yea, Though I Walk.

The operettas are regarded as lightweight in the extreme, but Sullivan wrote some lovely melodies, for example When a Merry Maiden Marries from The Gondoliers, The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze from The Mikado (this version is from the terrific 1999 Mike Leigh film Topsy Turvy) and Fair Moon to Thee I Sing from HMS Pinafore.

The partnership with Gilbert made them both wealthy but it ended in acrimony in 1890. A reconciliation produced a couple more operettas but they achieved little success.

Sullivan had a long-standing kidney complaint which often obliged him to conduct sitting down. In the autumn of 1900 he developed bronchitis and died of heart failure on 22 November – the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music – at the early age of 58. His wish to be buried with his beloved parents and brother in Brompton Cemetery was over-ridden by Queen Victoria, who commanded that he be laid to rest in St Paul’s.

A monument in the Victoria Embankment Gardens in London is inscribed with Gilbert’s words from The Yeomen of the Guard: ‘Is life a boon? If so, it must befall that Death, whene’er he call, must call too soon.’

I think the hymn lends itself well to brass bands, and here is an impeccable performance by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, and a less perfect but robust one by the Salvation Army in Kenya.

Here it is performed by the talented pupils of Fountainview Academy in British Columbia, Canada.

Here Mahalia Jackson gives it her all.

I think this is my favourite, on a player piano or pianola. These were popular at the time Onward, Christian Soldiers was written so it is probably quite an authentic sound of the era.

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