English musicality meets Italian emotion
This hymn is considered a hymn in preparation of Pentecost. The 15th-century Augustinian mystic Bianco de la Siena of Tuscany, Italy wrote a poem which opens with “Discendi, amor santo”. De la Siena’s poem totaled eight verses. Not much was written about him, except that he lived the remainder of his life in that enchanting Italian town, Venice. His 92 hymns were published in Laudi Spirituali del Bianco da Siena (1851). The Italian poem of de la Siena’s English translation fell into the lap of Anglo-Catholic Rev. Richard Littledale during the 19th century. Rev. Littledale was faithful to the monastic appeal of de la Siena when he finished “Come Down, O Love Divine”. But there was one more crucial step beyond both de la Siena and Littledale’s inspired expression of emotions.
The 16th century was when musical encoding flourished with the advent of printing. Printing put the chords, the music, the scores into the hands of musical performers everywhere. So down the centuries, the instruments were improved, invented and the codebooks widely-circulated. In this light, Englishman Fr. Percy Drearmer compiled the English Hymnal which included “Come Down, O Love Divine”. The lyrics’ theme is the believer imploring the Holy Spirit to work within him and illuminate him.
Drearmer rewrote some of the compiled hymns and then made Ralph Vaughan Williams the musical director of all the hymns. Williams composed the melody ”Down Ampney” and personally paired it with “Come Down, O Love Divine”. The ethereal hymn is a combination of exacting music in irregular meter and an accomplished translation of the original. Williams was a conductor, composer and music professor and he considered English folk songs as a major musical influence in his works. He was exceptional and became an icon in English and church music in the early 20th century. He also made additions to the great American songbook with his compositions in Songs of Travel.