Versions of ‘My song is love unknown’

In 1918, while still in his post as organist and choirmaster of St Luke’s, Chelsea, Ireland dashed off a potent little setting of Samuel Crossman’s words of 1664, ‘My song is love unknown’, the first stanza of which is shown below:

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die?

Ireland’s version, written for The Public School Hymn Book of 1919, became a popular and well-known hymn, heard here as sung at King’s College, Cambridge. In many ways this fluid melody bears all the hallmarks of Ireland’s personal musical style, with its wistful, drooping turn at the end of the first line, and harmonic twist at ‘who am I’.

Less well-known, or rather less knowingly connected to the composer, are two recent works based on Ireland’s hymn tune. One of these is by the Sydney-based composer Paul Stanhope (b.1969) (seen left), who has written a piano quartet bearing the title of the hymn. Stanhope is one of Australia’s most talented creative musicians, with a particular gift for writing chamber and choral music as well as having produced several large-scale orchestral and choral works. His quartet, written in 2000, uses Ireland’s melody, repeating the phrase ‘My song is love’ and passing fragments of the tune across the ensemble. The effect is of a meditation on the hymn, akin to the way in which English composer Judith Weir ruminates on one of her own tunes in her chamber work, Distance and Enchantment, with the full tune gradually emerging before the piece takes off in a different direction altogether. The piece can be heard on Stanhope’s Soundcloud site.

In 2013 Stanhope returned to this hymn for another piece, this time a Piccolo Concerto. His fascinating account of how the piece was written, including his cutting up of Ireland’s melody, turning bits upside down and reconstructing them, can be read here.

Back on the other side of the world, another version of Ireland’s hymn tune appeared in  2005. This time it had a new title, ‘A Message’, part of Coldplay’s third album, X&Y, and one of a number of songs on this album that bears homage to other musicians. In this version the text is only loosely retained, with the words ‘My song is love’ assuming central importance, and Ireland’s melody for these four words forming the basis of the song. In this version it has appeared numerous times across continents. 

 

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