In 1889 Father Knight of St George’s Church Worcester gave his departing organist a small book as a wedding present. It was The Dream of Gerontius
by Cardinal Newman, and the organist was Edward Elgar. It is a devotional poem on the death of an aged monk. As death approaches the old man rouses himself to make an affirmation of his faith, that became in Elgar’s oratorio the great aria that begins, ‘Sanctus, fortis’, and moves into English with the words ‘Firmly I believe and truly’. Later in the oratorio a chorus of angels sings ‘Praise to the holiest in the height’, so these familiar words live equally validly as part of a great oratorio and as hymns. This is a simple and succinct summary of the creed of the church, and appears in many hymn books.
It was a move of genius on the part of Vaughan Williams, as music editor of The English Hymnal, when he was refused permission to use some copyright tunes, to adapt English folktunes to take their place. This tune had been collected at Halford, near Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire. It is perhaps surprising that this simple tune works so well with these weighty words.
from notes by Alan Luff © 2004