The Ring & the Gem by Anthony Esolen

The Ring & the Gem

Sometimes I wish the word "classical" would drop from the phrase "classical music" like a stone into the sea, so that we might remember how much the works of the great composers of the Western tradition meant for whole peoples. This was so even when they traveled about and sometimes settled in an adopted country. So George Frideric Handel went to England and became a star of the Hanoverian court and of the playhouses too, where Englishmen flocked to hear the mighty marches of Judas Maccabaeus, and the whimsical movements from passion to passion in Alexander's Feast, not to mention the sacred strains of Elijah and the Messiah.

The best arrangers of melodies and compilers of hymnals had vast landscapes of music in their minds, of infinite variety, nor did they draw a sharp distinction between what was fit for the rich man in the box at Covent Garden and what was fit for farmers gathering on the village green. That meant that they could sometimes, as it were, fit things in reverse: instead of writing a new text for a given melody, they could see that the melody would be splendid for a text already written, if the text were justly adapted to it.

That is what an arranger named William Dressler did for one of Handel's most hauntingly beautiful melodies, the air "And He Shall Feed His Flock," from Messiah. The poem in question is "Come Unto Me, Ye Weary," written by William Chatterton Dix (1867), a Scottish businessman—and that, too, says much about the place of song and poetry in the hearts of ordinary people.


Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (, on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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