What exactly is the "central orb"? Throughout the years, I have been occasionally asked this question by adult choristers to whom I have distributed the beloved Anglican cathedral hit-anthem, "O Thou the Central Orb" by Irish composer Charles Wood (1866-1926). Composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells, also biggies in the English cathedral music world, studied with Wood at the Royal College of Music. But, I digress...
After some years of playing, singing and teaching this greatest Anglican choral classic, I finally figured out that the "central orb" is Jesus himself, who is also described by the poet as "pure beam of the Most High" and the "eternal Light" with "radiance bright." Light is a common theme when describing Jesus Christ.
One of my stock answers about the "central orb" was often, "Oh, this is one of those high-church anthems with a beautifully poetic text that we don't quite understand. Just sing the words and be proud to be an Anglican." A non-explanation, I know.
As it turns out, we are not the only ones who have pondered the meaning of this high-to-do text. In 2013, the Reverend Canon John Seymour of Leicester (pronounced "Lester") Cathedral wrote a blog on this very subject. With some brief online research, I stumbled upon his candid and scholarly thoughts.
Canon Seymour reminded me that the poet for "O Thou the Central Orb" was H. R. Bramley (1833-1926), an Anglican priest and Oxford academic in the Oxford Movement and later Canon Precentor (cathedral priest in charge of liturgy and music) of Lincoln Cathedral. Bramley was a "high-church conservative" who Seymour compares to the great metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert, two of my very favorites. Indeed, I concur with Canon Seymour's assessment.
My favorite quip from Canon Seymour's blog is "this anthem is greatly loved by choirs that are up to it." I happily and proudly affirm that our Parish Choir is "up to it." He also reminds us that this anthem was sung in Her Majesty The Queen's Diamond Jubilee service in St. Paul's Cathedral in 2012.
This "high English" text works both in Advent and Epiphany seasons. The light references, "...let thy glory shine, gilding our darksome heaven with rays divine," are perfect for Epiphany, the season of light. And the awakening of "the wintry world," the "hope soaring above" and the "bright beams dispersing the gloom of sin" all point to the advent ("coming") of the Christ Child.
For Advent 2017, we begin on a "high note" with the "central orb" as we begin the new Christian Year calendar. (Hallmark Cards begins the year on January 1, but Christians begin the year with Advent I.) Bramley's complete poetic text will be printed in the 10:30 Sunday service leaflet. Enjoy this grand text as the choir sings the soaring music.
Click here for Canon John Seymour's blog on "O Thou the Central Orb" from Leicester Cathedral.
Click here to listen to "O Thou the Central Orb" as sung by the combined choirs of St. Paul's Cathedral and the Chapel Royal for HM The Queen's Diamond Jubilee service in June 2012.