Thou Whose Almighty Word


I THOUGHT we could do with something uplifting this week, and I hope this hymn, with its repeated line ‘Let there be light!’ fits the bill.

The words were written by an Anglican clergyman and poet, John Marriott (1780-1825). He was born in Cotesbach, Leicestershire, the son of a rector. From the age of eight he was educated at Rugby School, then went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he obtained a first-class degree in classics in 1802. He left Oxford in 1804 to become tutor to George Henry, Lord Scott, heir apparent to the dukedom of Buccleuch, at the family seat in Dalkeith. He was ordained priest in 1805, and two years later became rector of Church Lawford in Warwickshire, a benefice in the gift of the Buccleuch family. However Marriott continued to live at Dalkeith until his pupil died at ten from measles in 1808. The same year he married Ann Harrison of Rugby; they had five children. Although he remained rector of Church Lawford, his wife’s health was poor so they went to live in Devon where he served successively as curate at St James, Exeter, St Lawrence, Exeter, and Broad Clyst. In 1821 his wife died and in 1924 Marriott developed a brain condition called ossification. He was taken to London in the hope of treatment but without success. He died in 1825 at the age of 45.

He wrote several hymns but the only one that survives is Thou Whose Almighty Word. It is thought to have been written in 1813 and was published posthumously in The Friendly Visitor in 1825 with the title Missionary Hymn. These are the words:

1. Thou whose almighty word
Chaos and darkness heard
And took their flight,
Hear us, we humbly pray,
And where the Gospel day
Sheds not its glorious ray,
Let there be light!

2. Thou who didst come to bring,
On Thy redeeming wing,
Healing and sight,
Health to the sick in mind,
Sight to the inly blind,
Oh, now to all mankind
Let there be light!

3. Spirit of Truth and Love,
Lifegiving, holy Dove,
Speed forth Thy flight;
Move on the water’s face,
Bearing the lamp of grace,
And in earth’s darkest place
Let there be light!

4. Holy and blessed Three,
Glorious Trinity,
Wisdom, Love, Might!
Boundless as ocean’s tide,
Rolling in fullest pride,
Thro’ the earth, far and wide,
Let there be light!

The usual tune is variously known as Italian Hymn or Moscow, by Felice Giardini (1716-1796), an Italian violinist and composer. He was born in Turin, but when it became clear that he was a child prodigy, his father sent him to Milan to study singing, harpsichord and violin. By the age of 12, he was playing in theatre orchestras. In a famous incident about this time, Giardini, who was serving as assistant concertmaster (i.e. leader of the orchestra) during an opera, played a solo passage for violin which the composer Niccolò Jommelli had written. Showing off his skills, he improvised several bravura variations. The audience applauded loudly but Jommelli, who happened to be there, was not pleased. He stood up and slapped the young man in the face. Years later Giardini said: ‘It was the most instructive lesson I ever received from a great artist.’

After touring Europe extensively he settled in England. For many years, he was the orchestra leader and director of the Italian Opera in London and gave solo concerts under the auspices of J C Bach, of whom he was a close friend. He was a prolific composer, and this is an example of his chamber music.

In 1753 he married an Italian singer at Bramham near Leeds. From the mid-1750s to the end of the 1760s, he was widely regarded as the greatest musical performing artist. In 1784, he returned to Naples to run a theatre, but encountered financial setbacks. In 1793, he returned to England to try his luck. But times had changed, and he was no longer remembered. He went to Russia, but again had little luck He died in Moscow in 1796.

The hymn was sung at the Armistice Centenary service at Westminster Abbey, attended by the Queen, on November 11, 2018.

And here is the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, with a lovely descant.

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