Sunday, April 23, 2006

Hail thee festival day

The English Hymnal included three of the four versions of the hymn Salve festa dies, one for Easter, one for Ascension, one for Whitsun. They were provided separately, though there was one common verse repeated in the first two hymns. The fourth hymn, for Corpus Christi, is apparently not included in any of our current hymn books and was not included in the English Hymnal.

The New English Hymnal has cut out the Whitsun version of the hymn altogether (despite the fact that Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Hymns 157, informs me that this is the one most widely sung nowadays--probably not true any more given the pernicious invasiveness of the NEH in otherwise sound places of worship).

It has also attempted, rather inelegantly, to combine the Easter and Ascension versions in a single printing-- an economy which is hardly helpful, given that it generally means that the priest has to make an intrusive announcement at that most special moment when the Mass of Easter day begins, to guard against total chaos emerging around the end of verse 7 (if it hasn't already emerged by the end of the first chorus). Indeed it's hard to think that this is much of an economy, since the two hymns together take up 8 pages of the hymn book and both tunes have to be printed twice over (i.e. four tunes are printed). The English Hymnal got round this by providing Vaughan Williams' tune only once, and the plainsong all three times (but neatly with just the plainsong staves not all the extra lines of accompaniment, so they take up little space).

The other effect of combining the two versions of the hymn is that we get a poor selection of verses. In the English Hymnal the Easter hymn had 11 verses, of which five no longer survive, and the Ascension hymn had 10 of which two no longer survive (instead we sing four of the ascension verses at Easter as well, and one of the Easter verses at Ascension as well). In addition of course seven verses from the Whitsun version have disappeared. So we are deprived of fourteen verses in total.

Not that the EH had all the verses by any means. The Latin version that I've traced appears to have 100 lines (50 two line stanzas). It's not entirely clear what the status of the separate versions is, or how they relate to the words of Bishop Venantius Fortunatus (who lived from 530 to 609). I think the answer must be that modern hymn book editors have chopped up Venantius Fortunatus's 100 lines to make several hymns (but since I can't see any of the Whitsun or Corpus Christi verses in the Latin that I've got in front of me, and the EH tells us that the Easter and Ascension ones are from the Sarum Processional and the Whitsun one from the York Processional, I suspect there must have been different versions in different places, with added verses for those feasts).

The New English Hymnal claims that its words are by "Editors, based on the Latin of Venantius Fortunatus." This seems a trifle unfair, since those verses that they have preserved from the EH were translated by known individuals who deserve to be named (Maurice F Bell for the Easter ones, Percy Dearmer for the Ascension ones). Granted they've made a few changes: Percy's "Gay is the woodland with leaves, bright are the meadows with flowers" has become "Green is the woodland with leaves, bright are the meadows with flowers", and it's been tacked (probably correctly) onto "Daily the loveliness grows.." (also by Percy Dearmer) instead of "Christ in his triumph ascends..." (which has become, as a different verse, "Christ in thy triumph ascend...", again probably correctly), but this seems to me to be revision of an existing translation, not a translation by the editors from the Latin.

The plainsong tune has got somewhat displaced from communal memory by the success of Vaughan Williams' tune called (somewhat confusingly) salva festa dies (confusingly because that's what the plainsong tune is called).

However, having spent this Easter Sunday in the congregation instead of in the choir has caused me to notice that people can't get the idea of how you fit the words to the tunes for the verses, in Vaughan Williams' tune. It's not actually that difficult, but people seem to get confused. I see that in the English Hymnal it specifies in no uncertain terms that the verses are to be sung by "Clerks only". In fact the Clerks are to sing the chorus first time, then the "Clerks only" sing the verses, while the people sing the chorus each time. So the assumption is that the boys and the congregation don't need to deal with the verses at all. I think perhaps there's something to be said for that. It would recapture something of the old plainsong feel of it.

Not that the original Latin hymn had a refrain: it was just 100 lines of Elegiac couplets (it's the rendering of this into Elegiac couplets in English that produces the complexity for fitting it to the tune, and perhaps the ability to sing this tune comes with being suitably steeped in such things).
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