Voluntary before Mass: Prelude on BROTHER JAMES’ AIR – Dale Wood (1934-2003)
Today’s Voluntary before Mass is a prelude on the well-known hymn tune, BROTHER JAMES’ AIR. We sing this tune as the melody for a metrical version of Psalm 23 today in our liturgy. Metrical versions of the Psalms became popular in the early years of the European and English protestant reformations, particularly where there was a significant Calvinist emphasis. In a response to the ideal that all of worship should be in the words of scripture, it became clear that a new musical form would be required to meet that need. Although the first full English Metrical Psalter, that of Robert Crowley (1517-1588), contained music that had similarities to the chants of the Latin Sarum Psalter, it was not widely adopted, and it was the slightly later version of Sternhold and Hopkins (first published in 1549 but later repeatedly expanded and revised) that became more popular. Pairing rhyming psalm paraphrases with tunes in mostly common meter, many of which were borrowed from the French Genevan Psalter, it was published frequently bound up together with the protestant Geneva Bible. Tunes such as the well-known “Old Hundredth” (All people that on earth do dwell), belong to this tradition. Such was the extent of the influence of the Puritan reformers that metrical psalms were virtually the only music sung by the people of the post-Reformation Church of England until the advent of non-biblical hymnody in the 18th century.
BROTHER JAMES’ AIR was the composition of Scottish spiritualist minister, healer and poet, James Leith Macbeth Bain (1840-1925), who was often known as “Brother James.” Although relatively few details of his life are known, an anecdote told by a friend of his youth who had asked, after Bain’s death, of a neighbor as to whether Bain played a musical instrument was answered, no but “he was aye hummin’.” It was said that Bain and his fellow spiritual healers often sang to their patients during healing sessions. The song was published in 1915 in Bain’s book, The Great Peace: being a New Year’s greeting. In hymnography, the tune is typically paired with either a metrical version of Psalm 23, as we do today, or with “How lovely is they dwelling place” a metrical version of Psalm 84.
The composer of today’s Voluntary, Dale Wood, was born 13th February, 1934 in Glendale, California. He won a hymn writing competition at age 13 and served in Lutheran and Episcopal churches in Los Angeles and Riverside, California and finally at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in San Francisco. Mr. Wood was an editor for Sacred Music Press for over 20 years and published many organ works. His “Prelude on BROTHER JAMES’ AIR” was published by that firm in 1986. Mr. Wood died in April 2003 in Sea Ranch, California.