Come ye thankful people come

Come, ye thankful people, come

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In this post we’re looking at that hoary old chestnut of Harvest-tide: ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’ by Henry Alford (1810-71), to the tune ST GEORGE’S WINDSOR by George Job Elvey (1816-93).

Henry Alford was, at the time he wrote this hymn in 1844, simultaneously a Cambridge divinity don and Rector of Wymeswold, Leicestershire. Then titled ‘After Harvest’, it originally had seven verses, but when published in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861 was revised to Alford’s dissatisfaction. He produced his own four-verse version in 1865, and then another two years later, which endures to this day with a few further modifications. We may think of it as the quintessential hymn of thanksgiving sung lustily by grateful farmers, but verses 2 and 3 also allude strongly to the Parable of the Tares (weeds), with the final verse using the harvest metaphor for Christ’s second coming. Alford was no stranger to such literary tropes: he contributed heavily to religious and classical academia, issuing a definitive version of the New Testament in Greek (which took twenty years to produce) and a far less definitive translation of Homer’s Odyssey (‘Tell of the man, thou Muse, much versed, who widely / Wandered, when he had sacked Troy’s sacred fortress’).

George Job Elvey was born in Canterbury and gained his early musical education there and at the Royal College of Music, before becoming organist at the Royal Chapel of St George, Windsor, in 1835. He remained there for the next forty-seven years, tutoring several younger members of the royal family. This hymn tune of his, named after the Chapel, is one of his two most famous (we’ll take a look at the other, DIADEMATA, for the feast of Christ the King in November). As with so many others, it was originally written (in 1858) for a different set of lyrics entirely, but paired with Alford’s text for Hymns Ancient and Modern three years later. The match now appears seamless: the characteristic repeated rhythm of the first line is carried throughout, and the tune is rousing just when the text needs it to be. No wonder it’s a perennial favourite of the season.

Rob Charles takes us through the organ stops at All Saints, Oystermouth:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tftb0HdCjUU

Arthur Nobile, Jr. provides an energetic Prelude:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GlIK9_5vFc

With Jason Payne from Texas giving us a Postlude:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRMo8UIsJ9E

We’re pleased to present an original and exclusive descant for choirs, with an alternative harmonisation for organists. It’s free to download and use, so please do so, and let us know how you get on. We’d be delighted to receive any audio or video of your attempts!

As the text to this particular hymns exists in a few different versions, we’ve included lyrics from the two most popular.

St George’s Windsor descant

If you’re using Henry Alford’s hymn in a lesson or assembly, try considering the following points:

  • Alford’s background in academia;
  • The idea of giving thanks to God (verse 1);
  • The Parable of the Tares; Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43 (verse 2);
  • Christ’s second coming and the Day of Judgement (verses 3 and 4);
  • The British idea of ‘harvest-home’ compared to the American notion of ‘Thanksgiving’;
  • The rhythmic nature of the lyrics, and how this is consolidated by the music;
  • A comparison to other hymns with similar themes, such as ‘Now thank we all our God’ (Martin Rinckart, tr. Catherine Winkworth), ‘For the fruits of his creation’ (Fred Pratt Green), ‘We plough the fields, and scatter’ (Matthias Claudius, tr. Jane Campbell), or ‘Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go’ (Charles Wesley).

What does this hymn mean to you? Do you sing it at Harvest-tide in September, or Thanksgiving in November? Perhaps you sing it to a different tune? Or have written your own arrangement? As ever, do let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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