Sunday, December 23, 2007

Hark a Herald Voice is calling

There are many Advent hymns that remain to be written about. It so happens that Advent tends to be a busy time and I don't get round to writing about them. Here's one that we sang this morning:

Hark a herald voice is calling; "Christ is nigh" it seems to say.

It's a translation by E. Caswall from the Latin sixth century original Vox clara ecce intonat. Or rather, the translation by Caswall was what we used to get in the English Hymnal. It went like this (Latin on the left, Caswall on the right):
VOX clara ecce intonat,
obscura quaeque increpat:
procul fugentur somnia;
ab aethere Christus promicat.
Hark! a herald voice is calling:
'Christ is nigh' it seems to say;
'Cast away the dreams of darkness,
O ye children of the day!'
Mens iam resurgat torpida
quae sorde exstat saucia;
sidus refulget iam novum,
ut tollat omne noxium.
Startled at the solemn warning,
Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her Sun, all sloth dispelling
Shines upon the morning skies.
E sursum Agnus mittitur
laxare gratis debitum;
omnes pro indulgentia
vocem demus cum lacrimis,
Lo! the lamb so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heaven;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven;
Secundo ut cum fulserit
mundumque horror cinxerit,
non pro reatu puniat,
sed nos pius tunc protegat.
So when next he comes in glory,
Wrapping all the earth in fear,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.
Summo Parenti gloria
Natoque sit victoria,
et Flamini laus debita
per saeculorum saecula. Amen.
Honour, glory, virtue merit,
To the Father and the Son,
With the co-eternal Spirit
While unending ages run. Amen.

The hymn is not all of it a very close or literal translation, but if you look at the fourth verse about the second coming, you will see that it is quite closely rendering the original Latin words. It's about Christ's second coming, because Advent looks forward to that as well as the birth of Jesus. And it's about the idea of judgement, which is the cause of the fear in "wrapping all the earth in fear".

That's the verse that the New English Hymnal editors have interfered with, and for which the hymn gets a double obelus in that book. They didn't mind the idea that we might need to run with tears of sorrow to be forgiven, but for some reason they don't imagine that the second coming will wrap the earth in fear. Why not? I don't get this.

Here's what they give us instead:

So when next he comes in glory,
And earth's final hour draws near,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.

Defender from what? If you cut out the fear of punishment, you cut out our need for a defender. Doesn't that ruin the whole motif? And isn't there something deeply unpoetic and unpictorial (unimaginative) about "and earth's final hour draws near".

What will that final hour be like? Wouldn't it be helpful to picture something of the awe and fearfulness of it? Wouldn't that help us to see why we are running for forgiveness and looking for a defender coming on the clouds. I think so.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Who on earth thy name confest

In the English Hymnal there was an excellent hymn for the feast of St Simon and St Jude (October 28th). It's by J. Ellerton and begins "Thou who sentest thine apostles two and two before thy face...". Sung to Brintyrion (in the EH) or alternatively Oriel vel sim, it is (as far as I can see) unexceptionable, indeed perfectly fine.

For some reason this has been banished from the New English Hymnal. So in order to provide a hymn for the feast of St Simon and St Jude, the EDITORS have (alas) felt themselves called upon to write some appropriate doggerel. The result is a set of three verses beginning "Lord of all the saints, we praise thee for those two apostles blest", followed by a standard doxology in the NEH's favourite form (i.e. the one that includes 'one in love and one in splendour...').

The first two verses of this hymn are pure stuffing: a kind of metrical rhyming kapok. They might be about anyone, or no one, though they have some vague relevance to the celebration of a pair of saints (any two would do, except for the description of them as 'apostles' in verse 1, which is clearly intended to try to limit the applicability and make it seem as if the hymn is about S and J).

The only specific stuff about S and J is in verse 3. Here the editors have started from the reference to Simon in Luke 6:15, as "the one who was called the Zealot" and the reference to Jude in John 14:22 as "Judas (not Iscariot)" and tried to construct a hymn on the basis of those rather minimal bits of information. The result is not exactly imaginative, and probably has virtually nothing to do with either character. First we have a reference to Simon's "zeal" ("Simon, may thy zeal inspire us Christ our Lord to serve with might") and then we have a reference to Jude as a "true disciple" ("Blessed Jude, thou true disciple, we thy faithfulness recite"), on the assumption that whereas the other Judas Iscariot was a false disciple, this one was a true one. But then so, presumably, were ten others. So this hardly picks out our Jude very effectively, does it. And I somehow doubt that the zealot Simon was actually named for his zeal, as opposed to his association with the Zealot resistance to Roman rule (though clearly the title is primarily given just to distinguish him from the other Simon Peter; if one were to describe one disciple as marked by zeal perhaps it would have been Simon Peter, no?). Apparently the Simon who was called zealot in Luke is the same one as the Simon called Canaanite in Mark 3:18 and Matthew 10:4.

Anyway, be that as it may, the fact is that despite the appearance of saying something specific here, nothing whatever that is not vacuous is actually said. Besides the two lines just mentioned (both of them badly marred by having to have the word order distorted to get the verbs at the end so as to adhere to the metre and achieve a rhyme between 'might' and 'recite') the verse finishes with this wholly fatuous request: "May God grant us grace to follow till, with thee, faith ends in light." Do we perhaps just a teeny bit get the sense that we just had to have the word 'light', in order to rhyme with might and recite? And that the rest of this wish was just constructed in order to get something that would finish with the word 'light' and could plausibly, if pointlessly, follow an address to an otherwise obscure Jude?

And when you think about it, wouldn't it have been better and more artful to have the verse finish with a couplet addressed to the two of them together (two lines for Simon, two lines for Jude and then two lines to both), rather than this four line set of trivial thoughts apparently addressed just to Jude (the 'thee' of the last line)?

One would like to say that this is not among the editors' best work as poets. Unfortunately I know of no better work by them.

By contrast, Ellerton's poem did a very good job on the basis of what little evidence we have for these two disciples. First, it refers to Simon's zeal, but cleverly suggests that he had already been a zealot before joining Jesus, and that Jesus had converted him from terrorism to a nobler cause ("One, whose zeal by thee enlightened, burned anew with nobler flame") and secondly it picks up on the idea that Jude (who may also be Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddeus) is sometimes said to be the brother of James the son of Alphaeus, and this James is perhaps taken by the poet to be the same person as James the brother of the Lord. Hence the claim that "One, the kinsman of thy childhood brought at last to know thy name." I suppose this slightly speculative genealogy may have been too much for the NEH editors to bear. But when you have no information, why not say something about what might be true, especially if it can be turned to edifying effect?

In Ellerton's second verse there is a nice construction with two lines for the two together, and then each apostle gets two lines to himself. Then in verse three the whole verse is devoted to praising God for the two of them together, attributing signs and wonders to them as well as examples of love and stern advice to the early church. All of this seems appropriate and probable, and if you need to write a hymn about two apostles who are scarcely more than names but must have played a role in establishing the very early church communities, this is at least an attempt at reconstructing a likely scenario.

And, finally, as far as I can see the spelling 'confest' in line 4 of verse 1 is probably disallowed by the OED for the meaning in question. And in any case is certainly an affectation, given the hymn was presumably cobbled together in the twentieth century, and not apparently from any archaic or archaising sources. Why not just write 'confessed'?

All in all, I can see no good reason to reject the existing hymn by Ellerton. I can see no value whatever in the new hymn by the EDITORS.

How sad.

How very sad.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Christ is the King, O Friends Rejoice!

A hymn starting "Christ is the King, O friends rejoice" was written by Bishop George Bell in 1931 for Songs of Praise. It doesn't appear in the English Hymnal—naturally since that preceded Songs of Praise.

However, I doubt many people know it in the original form in which it appeared in Songs of Praise. What we sing from the New English Hymnal bears rather little relation to it and clearly some other versions with additional bowdlerisation are also circulating.

Take this, for example, from the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, February 2003:
Christ is the King, O Friends rejoice
Brothers and Sisters, with one voice,
Tell all the earth he is your choice,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia...

Notice that the third line here differs from that in the NEH (and in Songs of Praise) which has
"Make all men know he is your choice."
Other versions of this line seem to include
"Tell all the world he is your choice"
(from the Enthronement of the Archbishop of York) and
"Make all things living know your choice".
I presume these changes (which have not been thought necessary by the NEH) are to substitute inclusive language for the "all men" of the original.

But it isn't as if the NEH has adhered to Bell's original.

Not at all.

Verse 1 in the NEH is the first three lines of the original, with an alleluia added. But the original was in six line verses, with no alleluias. The second half of verse 1 went thus:
Ring out ye bells, give tongue, give tongue!
Let your most merry peal be rung,
While our exultant song is sung.
Those lines no longer appear in our hymn books. The next verse began thus :
O magnify the Lord and raise
Anthems of joy and holy praise
For Christ's brave saints of ancient days...
These are familiar because they appear as verse 3 in the NEH, but in the original it continued without a break:
... who with a faith for ever new
Followed the King, and round him drew,
thousands of faithful men and true.
Instead of leaving those there, the NEH has moved them up to form verse 2, like this:
The first apostles round them drew
Thousands of faithful men and true
Sharing a faith for ever new.
Verse 3 in the original began
O Christian women, Christian Men
All the world over, seek again
The way disciples followed then...
—a thought that followed well after the second half of the original verse 2 (which is now our verse 2), but not so well after the revised verse 3 which is where it now comes (as verse 4).

The next three lines were what we now know as verse 5 ("Christ through all ages is the same..."), so their position has not changed, and what we know as verse 6 ("Let Love's unconquerable might...") followed, again no change. The second half of that verse, however, has gone altogether in the NEH. In the original it went thus:
So shall God's will on earth be done,
New lamps be lit, new tasks begun,
And the whole Church at last be one.
Interestingly that verse was included in the Archbishop of Canterbury's enthronement, so for that service they weren't just using the NEH version. Perhaps they were using the one from 100 hymns for today (I don't have access to that)? Or perhaps they were devising their own. Anyway, the fact is that much tampering has occurred all over this hymn, and the single dagger in NEH is a bit little to indicate the level of intervention. Arguably the change to three line verses and alleluias are an improvement, and the tune Vulpius is what has made it popular (whereas in Songs of Praise it was set to Llangoedmor, for which see 539 in the English Hymnal).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Angel harps for ever ringing rest not day nor night

This is the second line of the hymn by Francis Potts that begins "Angel voices ever singing round thy throne of light."

Robin pointed out the day before yesterday that although angel voices sing, it doesn't seem that harps ring. The bells in heaven ring, that's for sure. But do harps ring?

This hymn calls for some emendation. My proposal is "Angel harps for ever pinging..."

Annie says harps don't ping either, but I think they do.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Children of the Heavenly King

I have fond memories of the hymn "Children of the Heavenly King".

I first learnt it at LSM in the days when we still had the English Hymnal and sang real hymns as they should be sung. It's a wonderful hymn for singing on journeys, and it particularly takes me back to a rather peculiar holiday we had in Cornwall with Rowan Williams and Jane and their baby Rhiannon. They had a car, we didn't; so we all piled in together like sardines into the Williams's not-very-big yellow car; in those days you didn't have to have seat belts or car seats for children. And then, once we were in, we had to sing hymns constantly because that was the only thing that could prevent our Annie, then 3 years old, from being travel sick within minutes of getting on the road.

"As ye journey sweetly sing" we all yelled, four adults two children and a baby, squeezed in with the windows shut to keep out the howling wind and rain of the most miserable week in a miserable early spring. "Jesus Christ your father's son bids you undismayed go on."

People might be forgiven for thinking that we still sing that hymn at Little St Mary's, and that we sang it this morning. But they would be sadly wrong.

We did sing the first two verses as John Cennick wrote them, and also his fourth (out of five). But the point of the hymn lies in the last verse of the hymn, which begins "Lord obediently we go...". That verse has quietly gone from the New English Hymnal.

John Cennick (1718-55), who wrote the real hymn, including its last verse and several others that we don't usually sing, was a Methodist lay preacher, friend of the Wesleys. Besides 'Children of the heavenly king', he also composed a rather less successful poem that began
Lo he cometh, countless trumpets
blow before his bloody sign!
Midst ten thousand saints and angels
see the crucified shine.
Welcome, welcome bleeding lamb!
It was Charles Wesley who, in 1758, turned that unpromising start into a great Advent hymn (Lo he comes with clouds descending...).

Perhaps the editors of the New English Hymnal thought that because Wesley could improve upon Cennick then they, a committee of uninspired twentieth century Anglicans with little poetry but a great many sociological prejudices, must be able to do so too.

This is what they did.

They cut out the last verse, and put in, in its place, a piece of sexist doggerel based loosely on the fifth verse of Cennick's original (which the English Hymnal editors had wisely omitted—for they too evidently thought that Cennick could be saved from some of his worst errors of judgement). This is what Cennick wrote at verse 5:
Lift your eyes, ye sons of light,
Zion’s city is in sight:
There our endless home shall be,
There our Lord we soon shall see.
The editors of the New English Hymnal have come up with the following adaptation of that verse (in lieu of the last verse):
Lift your eyes ye sons of light
Sion's city is in sight;
There our endless home shall be,
There our Lord in glory see.
You might have a sense that the grammar and syntax of the last two lines don't work.

You'd be quite right.

There's no subject for the verb 'see' in the last line . To make it right, you'd need a 'we shall' somewhere in the sentence: "There our Lord in glory we'll see", but of course that won't scan. Cennick had "we soon shall see" which works perfectly well. You could get away with having the 'we' in the previous line (There our endless home we'll see, there our Lord in glory see) but of course you don't want 'see' twice, and, as it is, the subject in line 3 is 'our endless home' not 'we' so that can't serve as the subject of 'see' (unless our endless home is what sees, which I don't think is intended).

So the last two lines as written in the NEH are nonsense. That's odd because when Cennick wrote the verse, the last two lines made perfect, if somewhat uninspired, grammatical sense. As we saw, he wrote "There our endless home shall be, There our Lord we soon shall see." There's no problem with that.

So the NEH editors have garbled the syntax in order to replace "we soon shall see" with "in glory see." We'll come back to why they might want to do that in a minute.

What about lines 1 and 2 of that verse? Those are (alas) unadulterated Cennick, though he didn't put them at the very end of the poem as the editors have mysteriously chosen to do. Sadly they are not among Cennick's most lucid lines. Notice that the 'children' that we had in the first verse have now become 'sons'. OK, so we've always been happy to sing 'Fear not, brethren' in verse 6 (which we know as verse 3), for though "brethren" is officially masculine, it's a warmly inclusive term and women brethren are usually happy to be included. But 'sons' is less comfortable: it seems gratuitously exclusive, for men only. What's more, 'sons of light' is not really a very clear idea. I think we know why we believe ourselves to be (by adoption) children of the heavenly king, but I'm not sure on what basis we think we're 'sons of light'. And why are the first two lines of this verse in the second person plural while the last two are in the first person plural? Who's speaking to whom? Part of the problem with the lack of a 'we' in the last line is due to the fact that the verse started by talking about 'you' and then suddenly switched to 'us'. That would be bad enough as Cennick originally wrote it, but by the time the editors have intervened as well, we now have the impossible situation in which the verse has to change the subject from "you" to "us" without ever mentioning 'us'.

So really, the more you think about it, the more it seems that the English Hymnal was wise to omit that verse.

So why did the NEH committee think they needed to bring it back, and rewrite it to boot?

You'd think, wouldn't you, that there must have been something really awful and non-pc about the last verse of Cennick's original, if it's to be amputated in favour of this piece of drivel. For what heinous sin did the NEH thought-police see fit to garble it so?

Here's the last verse that belongs in that place (this one I shall have at my funeral, please):
Lord, obediently we go,
Gladly leaving all below:
Only thou our leader be
And we still will follow thee.
It's about our readiness to follow Christ, without heed for the things of this world, and our readiness to die, gladly, as followers of Jesus. With this verse in place we can see that there is an overall pattern to the hymn: the first verse addresses us "Children... as ye journey, sweetly sing!"; in the second verse we reply "We are travelling home..."; two other verses in the original intervene at this point in which the speaker addresses the children again, before the one which begins "lift your eyes ye sons of light" which we've just looked at. Then in the penultimate verse again the speaker addresses us "Fear not brethren...Jesus Christ your father's son bids you undismayed go on..."; and in the last verse we reply again.

We reply "Lord..." because it is Our Lord who bids us have courage as we stand on the borders of this world and prepare to go on to the next world, as our fathers went before. For, as the penultimate verse insists, "Jesus Christ, your father's son, bids you undismayed go on".

Now it is in response to that bidding that we say "obediently we go".

Jesus bids us go. We go, obediently, gladly.

What exactly is wrong with this? It's evidently not a problem of exclusive language since the editors have replaced a perfectly inclusive verse with an exclusive one.

So is there a theological problem?

Perhaps we're not supposed to be glad to leave the world below?

That seems a possible twentieth century hang up: asceticism and other worldliness weren't perhaps very fashionable in the eighties? But there's hardly anything very negative about readily leaving our earthly attachments when called away by God. After all, I presume that we sang the hymn today precisely because the Gospel reading was about leaving everything without a thought and not looking back when we hear the call to follow. So it's ironic that the relevant verse has been taken out.

Another possibility is that they have a worry about going gladly to death. This could explain the otherwise mystifying attempt to change the words of the verse we discussed above, the one that begins "Lift your eyes". Why did they so desperately want to get rid of "There our Lord we soon shall see" and replace it with "in glory see". Is it because the former suggests (correctly) that we, as believers and followers of Christ, look forward to death being before long, and greet it with some eagerness? That's not fashionable perhaps, living one's life as a preparation for something greater to come, and genuinely affirming the relative unimportance of physical death.

Or is it the idea of obedience? I must say, I rather suspect that the editors do have a sociological horror of obedience. We've already noticed that they bowdlerised 'Once in Royal David's City' to eliminate the idea that children might be supposed to be obedient. It seems clear that the NEH editors don't believe that obedience is a virtue, they don't think that Jesus's obedience to his parents is a proper model for our children, and they don't think it's appropriate for us to obey God when he calls us home.

Why not?

Do I detect, perhaps, a hint of the idea that it would be patronising for God to ask for obedience? The editors want to think that God treats us as grown ups, capable of acting autonomously, not under instructions. They think it is patronising of God to expect us to do things because he tells us. So obedience is a no-no word.

"Patronising." A word we use when we mean that we consider ourselves superior and the person who had the presumption to talk down to us was not (as he/she thought) actually as superior as she or he supposed. It is a word used only by the proud, those too proud to take advice, or to consider that others might have something to say to them. If we use it of God, it is because we are too proud to respond to the Lord's gentle bidding and his words of comfort to the dying.

If I'm right that this is why we don't like obedience any more, then it surely correlates with the attitude of a society that cannot accept death, cannot hear the call to go home singing for joy, and would rather shut its ears to that call and pretend it knows better; a society that seeks everything possible to usurp God's right to call us to die.

That's a sick society, and one that has lost its faith in God.

Boo for pride and hurrah for obedience, I say.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Ut queant laxis

There's a famous hymn for the feast of St John the Baptist, written by Paul the Deacon in the 8th Century A.D., which begins "Ut queant laxis resonare fibris".

It's famous mainly because it is the origin of the names ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la to name the notes of the musical scale (the plainsong tune to this hymn, which, alas, we did not sing this morning, starts on the tonic with the word "ut", and then "re-" of resonare occurs on the second note of the scale, and so on with each new five or six syllable phrase starting one note higher). This way of naming the notes was apparently invented by Guido of Arezzo in the tenth century. "Ut", for the tonic, was changed to "Do" in the sixteenth century by someone called Hubert Waelrant.

Paul the Deacon's hymn came in three parts. "Ut queant laxis" is the first part, five verses, and is set for vespers on the eve of the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist; the second part "Antra deserti teneris sub annis" is set for Matins, and the third part "O nimis felix, meritique celsi" is set for Lauds.

Translations of two of these parts were included in the English Hymnal, with Ut queant laxis set as office hymn for evensong and Antra deserti set as office hymn for matins (Hymns 223 and 224, both to the same tune though, oddly, the plainsong tune given in EH was not ut queant laxis.) The EH version, translated by R. Ellis Roberts, presumably specially for this hymnal, begins with a verse that goes like this
Let thine example, Holy John, remind us
Ere we can meetly sing thy deeds of wonder,
Hearts must be chastened, and the bonds that bind us
Broken asunder.
It's true that this is not entirely effective as a translation of the Latin, which is a plea to Saint John himself to cleanse our polluted lips of the sin (reatum) so that we can sing with loosened vocal cords (laxis fibris) the wonders of his deeds. It's said that this verse was composed by Paul the Deacon after he'd had some trouble intoning the Exsultet at the Easter service, and the verse is a prayer to avert such an affliction. Given how the hymn goes on, he's evidently adverting to the affliction that silenced Zechariah when he doubted the word of the Lord, and he's asking that our vocal cords won't be seized up in the same way; so, pace Ellis, it's not John's example that needs to remind us of this risk, but Zechariah's. Here's the Latin for verse 1.
Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Joannes.
Still, Ellis proceeds to give us the rest of the hymn pretty accurately, with beautifully formed stanzas that rhyme first and third, second and fourth (although Paul the Deacon didn't use rhymes in this hymn). I won't bore you with the details now, but will add them at the foot of the post.

By contrast the New English Hymnal has done some of its dastardly deeds.

First, notice that it no longer claims that this hymn is actually "Ut queant laxis" at all. No Latin is given at the head of the hymn. Yet it does have that metre and it is set to that tune.

Instead they say that it is a hymn by the "EDITORS based on the Latin of Paul the Deacon 730-99".

This is always a bad sign. It means they've decided they can improve on Paul the Deacon's sentiments with some drivel of their own.

So what heinous crimes have they committed on this ancient and famous text?

Well, predictably enough the first and oh-so-famous verse about not having our voices silenced has gone altogether.

Perhaps they didn't see that it is about the story of Zechariah's silence?

Perhaps they couldn't find a way to put it into good English in sapphics?

Anyway, what they've done is invent a kind of introductory verse in the form of one of those abbreviated death announcements in the newspaper:
On this high feast day honour we the Baptist,
Greatest and last of Isreal's line of prophets,
Kinsman of Jesus, herald of salvation,
Chosen forerunner.
Then they give us two verses that are translations of verses 2 and 3 of the Latin original, though of course, in the absence of verse 1, it's now become rather pointless to narrate the story of Zechariah's dumbness.

Verse four in the original was an extremely clever composition recalling the occasion when Mary visited Elizabeth; and John, then still in the womb, recognised the babe in Mary's womb as king, hence acting already as a prophet revealing hidden mysteries to the two mothers even before his birth. This verse has gone entirely from the EDITORS' substitute, even though it was an eminently suitable event to recall on this particular day, celebrating the birth of the Forerunner.

Instead we have what appears to be a set of completely random ramblings about John the Baptist, mostly without foundation, some positively false as far as I can see. On what basis, for example, do they say "Greater art thou than all the sons of Adam"? Presumably this is supposed to reflect Luke 7:28 "For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." Well, first what Jesus says there is nothing at all about sons of Adam, but rather about those born of woman. And since Jesus himself is born of a woman, this has got to be a paradox, since many texts testify to John saying that "He who comes after me is greater than I " and so on. And second, even if we took it straight, that among those born of woman, John is greater than any other prophet, Jesus's next saying undercuts it by saying that that's no big deal since anyone in the kingdom of God is greater than that. I suppose the editors may have been prompted by verse 8 of the complete text (see below) but they haven't really got it right, have they? In fact Ellis Roberts does it better, don't you think? (see verse 7 of the English translation at the end of this post)

The rest of their verse 'Lowly in spirit, faithfully proclaiming Israel's Messiah, Jesus our Redeemer, Thus we exalt thee"— all this is just bubble wrap to fill up the space in the verse. It has no theological import or profundity and adds no spiritual uplift. Rather, downlift.

All hymn books add a trinitarian doxology as the last verse, at the end of part one. The NEH has given us a version that presumably purports to be a translation of the last verse of Paul the Deacon's hymn.

But overall, the result is a very sad hymn, because the two really distinctive verses with some theological stuffing have been cut and replaced with a sorry mess. Oh how sad! How very sad! How twentieth century...

Read to the bottom of the post for this week's competition.

Here, for interest, is first the complete Latin text of all three parts of Paul the Deacon's work:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes!
Nuntius celso veniens Olympo
te patri magnum fore nasciturum,
nomen et vitae seriem gerendae
ordine promit.

Ille promissi dubius superni
perdidit promptae modulos loquelae;
sed reformasti genitus peremptae
organa vocis.

Ventris abstruso positus cubili
senseras regem thalamo manentem,
hinc parens nati meritis uterque
abdita pandit.

Antra deserti teneris sub annis
civium turmas fugiens, petisti,
ne levi saltim maculare vitam
famine posses.

Praebuit hirtum tegimen camelus,
artubus sacris strofium bidentis,
cui latex haustum, sociata pastum
mella locustis.

Caeteri tantum cecinere vatum
corde praesago iubar adfuturum;
tu quidem mundi scelus auferentem
indice prodis.

Non fuit vasti spatium per orbis
sanctior quisquam genitus Iohanne,
qui nefas saecli meruit lavantem
tingere limphis.

O nimis felix meritique celsi
nesciens labem nivei pudoris,
prepotens martyr heremique cultor,
maxime vatum!

Serta ter denis alios coronant
aucta crementis, duplicata quosdam;
trina centeno cumulata fructu
te, sacer, ornant.

Nunc potens nostri meritis opimis
pectoris duros lapides repelle
asperum planans iter, et reflexos
dirige calles,

ut pius mundi sator et redemptor
mentibus pulsa luvione puris
rite dignetur veniens sacratos
ponere gressus.

Laudibus cives celebrant superni
te, deus simplex pariterque trine,
supplices ac nos veniam precamur:
parce redemptis!

And now here's the EH translation:

Let thine example, holy John, remind us,
Ere we can meetly sing thy deeds of wonder,
Hearts must be chastened, and the bonds that bind us
Broken asunder!

Lo! a swift angel, from the skies descending,
Tells to thy father what shall be thy naming;
All thy life’s greatness to its bitter ending
Duly proclaiming.

But when he doubted what the angel told him
Came to him dumbness to confirm the story;
At thine appearing, healed again behold him,
Chanting thy glory!

Oh! what a splendour and a revelation
Came to each mother, at thy joyful leaping,
Greeting thy Monarch, King of every nation,
In the womb sleeping.

E'en in they childhood, mid the desert places,
Thou hadst a refuge from the city gainèd,
Far from all slander and its bitter traces
Living unstainèd.

Often had prophets in the distant ages
Sung to announce the Daystar and to name him;
But as the Saviour, last of all the sages,
Thou didst proclaim him.

Than John the Baptist, none of all Eve's daughters,
E'er bore a greater whether high or lowly,
He was thought worthy, washing in the waters
Jesus the holy.

Angels in orders everlasting praise Thee,
God, in Thy triune majesty tremendous,
Hark to the prayers we, penitents, upraise Thee:
Save and defend us.

And finally, this week's competition. Can you produce a better translation of verse 1 of this hymn, retaining the metre of the original, but not necessarily the rhyme scheme introduced by Ellis Roberts? Answers in a comment please....

Sunday, May 20, 2007

And guard and bless our fatherland

More on Bishop William Walsham How. Last week was Rogation Sunday and we sang another of WW How's not very how hymns (see last post for the background on Bishop How). It begins 'To thee our God we fly" and according to the New English Hymnal it is for Rogationtide.

According to the English Hymnal it was under the category "National". There it lived with hymns such as Kipling's "God of our fathers known of old, Lord of our far-flung battle-line...", Chesterton's "O God of Earth and Altar", and some others including the National Anthem. The New English Hymnal has moved it out of the National category and into Rogation, but not without some adjustments.

Unacknowledged adjustments: no daggers.

Let's have a look at what the alterations are.

The first thing to note is that the words of the refrain which comes at the end of every verse have been changed.

In the original, it seems, it went

O Lord stretch forth thy mighty hand
And guard and bless our fatherland.

"Fatherland" is evidently not fashionable these days. Too patriotic?

Instead we have "... and guard and bless our native land".

It's not clear what we are to think if we were not born here, but would still like it to be blessed.

The second thing to note is that it has lost a lot of verses. It had nine in the English Hymnal, four of them with stars. Nine seems to be what William Walsham How wrote. Six survive into the New English Hymnal. They've also been presented in a different order.

One splendid one that has gone is this:

Though vile and worthless, still
Thy people, Lord, are we;
And for our God we will
None other have but Thee.
It's evident that this verse troubled others before the New English Hymnal came on the scene. The compilers of the BBC Hymnal in 1951 decided to change the words of that verse (which is the last verse of the hymn) and substituted this instead:
Though all unworthy, still
Thy people, Lord, are we;
And for our God we will
None other have but thee.

But the New English Hymnal Editors clearly didn't really like this sentiment at all (or maybe they couldn't cope with the inverted sentence structure of the last two lines, who knows). Anyway, for whatever reason they cut that verse out.

Two unobjectionable verses about the Church have also gone (verses 6 and 7 from the complete hymn given below). And verse 5 has been put at the end, for reasons that are not apparent.

I suppose that the end result is a list of petitions with no particular structure, and has a mention of the "land" in the refrain, and it therefore counts as a hymn for rogation. But it was never very great even in its complete and untampered form. It now seems to me to be really quite tedious. Surely English hymnody comes rather better than this?

Anyway, here is the complete thing, as written by How, without editorial intervention.

To Thee our God we fly
For mercy and for grace;
O hear our lowly cry,
And hide not Thou Thy face.


O Lord, stretch forth Thy mighty hand
And guard and bless our Fatherland.

Arise, O Lord of hosts!
Be jealous of Thy Name,
And drive from out our coasts
The sins that put to shame.


Thy best gifts from on high
In rich abundance pour,
That we may magnify
And praise Thee more and more.


The powers ordained by Thee
With heavenly wisdom bless;
May they Thy servants be,
And rule in righteousness.


The Church of Thy dear Son,
Inflame with love’s pure fire,
Bind her once more in one,
And life and truth inspire.


The pastors of Thy fold,
With grace and power endue,
That faithful, pure and bold,
They may be pastors true.


O let us love Thy house,
And sanctify Thy day,
Bring unto Thee our vows,
And loyal homage pay.


Give peace, Lord, in our time;
O let no foe draw nigh,
Nor lawless deed of crime
Insult Thy majesty.


Though vile and worthless, still
Thy people, Lord, are we;
And for our God we will
None other have but Thee.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Who is this so weak and helpless?

A while back I did a post on "Who is this with garments gory" wherein I promised to say something about the hymn whose first line is in the title of this post. Here I am, and here I am going to say something.

"Who is this so weak and helpless" is a hymn by Bishop William Walsham How 1823-97. Now I've got nothing against Bishop W. W. How, but he does bear responsibility for a number of fairly awful hymns. Not all of them are awful: his best seems to be "For all the Saints who from their labours rest" and we certainly wouldn't want to live without that. Another good one (I think) is "It is a thing most wonderful" (at least that is good if it's sung to Herongate as in the English Hymnal and New English Hymnal: it has some other terrible tune in Mission Praise, I recall, which turns it into a trite hymn). But alas the other six hymns by How in the English Hymnal are rather less than great (surprisingly, the NEH has kept five out of the eight).

"Who is this so weak and helpless?" was written in 1867. That's 23 years after Coxe wrote "Who is this with garments gory?" and one can't help thinking that there's some intertextuality here. Both hymns are in the same metre and both begin "who is this..." But Coxe's (as we saw) is rich in complex biblical symbolism. How's, by contrast, is rather uninspired. I mean, it's true that How has picked up on the idea that we can't easily recognise the Godhead in the strange and rather powerless circumstances of Jesus's birth and life and death: that's the theme of the hymn. But it lacks the spectacle, and the density of imagery of Coxe's reflections on the one who trod the winepress all alone.

William How constructs his hymn by starting each verse with four lines describing something in the life of Jesus (first his birth, then his homeless wandering, then his trial and passion, then his crucifixion). Then in the second half of each verse, beginning in each case "'Tis the Lord" vel sim, he tells us that this is really God himself (despite appearances), and goes on to say something about the divine power that is so far from apparent in the scene just described. As you will see, the last four lines of each verse are really quite bad:

Who is this so weak and helpless,
Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
rudely in a stable sheltered,
coldly in a manger laid?
'Tis the Lord of all creation,
who this wondrous path hath trod;
he is God from everlasting,
and to everlasting God.

Who is this, a Man of sorrows,
walking sadly life's hard way,
homeless, weary, sighing, weeping,
over sin and Satan's sway?
'Tis our God, our glorious Saviour,
who above the starry sky
now for us a place prepareth,
where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold him raining
drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected,
mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
'Tis our God, who gifts and graces
on his Church now poureth down;
who shall smite in holy vengeance
all his foes beneath his throne.

Who is this that hangeth dying
with the thieves on either side?
Nails his hands and feet are tearing,
and the spear hath pierced his side.
'Tis the God who ever liveth,
'mid the shining ones on high,
in the glorious golden city,
reigning everlastingly.

If you think this isn't bad, just look at the rhymes...

Why did this unimaginative string of doggerel survive into the New English Hymnal, while its better predecessor didn't? One may well wonder.

One telling fact is that in the NEH this hymn is set to Ebenezer or Tôn-y-Botel, that fantastic Welsh hymn tune of 1890 that we've talked about before, which used to be set for "Who is this with garments gory" (whereas "Who is this so weak and helpless" had another Welsh tune called Llansannan, or, in other books, Eifionydd).

It makes you wonder whether the EDITORS still wanted to keep that great tune Ebenezer, but had some prejudice against that great hymn, so they put in this weak hymn instead, thinking we'd feel it was similar, or maybe we wouldn't even notice the difference, since it begins with the same words. Certainly it seems that must be what happened at Little St Mary's, where this hymn was set this year for evensong on Palm Sunday, as a sort of lame substitute for the wine-treading hymn that used to belong there.

I wonder what hymn Ebenezer was written for? In 1890 it could have been written for either of these things, but perhaps it was for a Welsh hymn we don't know. I'm beginning to regret that I didn't buy the Welsh Hymn book I found last summer in Hay on Wye (was it Hay on Wye? Can't recall now). It might have settled this question.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ad cenam Agni providi

Tonight's office hymn was "The lamb's high banquet we await". The translation is by J.M. Neale but has been substantially altered at various points in the New English Hymnal.

I think the one that most annoys me is the fact that they have changed "and tasting of his roseate Blood" to "and tasting of his precious Blood".

Now why do that?

The original in the Latin is

sed et cruorem roseum
gustando, Dei vivimus

Neale's translation renders that exactly, using "roseate" to translate "roseum". "Precious" is not there at all. And the phrase "precious blood" is too common and trite to be striking here. The image is, in any case, not meant to be one of price, but rather of the tasting of red wine. Sometimes these editors seem to be just crass.

The other less serious but apparently unnecessary piece of interference is in verse 4. This is what we have in the Latin:

Iam pascha nostrum Christus est,
agnus occisus innocens;
sinceritatis azyma
qui carnem suam obtulit.

In J. M. Neale's translation this went:

Now Christ, our Paschal Lamb, is slain,
the Lamb of God that knows no stain,
the true Oblation offered here,
our own unleavened Bread sincere.

The NEH editors have (in their wisdom) changed "paschal lamb" to "Passover". They have also changed round the last two lines, rendering them

And he, the true unleavened Bread,
Is truly our oblation made.

I don't think much of the rhyme (Bread and made), nor do I find the lines comprehensible in this approximation to English. Certainly these are no improvement on Neale's. In fact it looks to me as though sinceritatis azyma is a reference to the "unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" from 1 Corinthians 5.8.

So lines 3 and 4 ought to go "Sincerity's unleavened bread, who gave his very flesh instead."

Friday, April 06, 2007

Someone's reading this Blog...

Nice to discover a little appreciative mention of this Blog on the History Carnival hosted this month by Mary Beard. Find it here.

Who is this with garments gory?

Another thing missing from the Palm Sunday experience as I remember it at LSM in Fr James Owen's days is the magnificent hymn "Who is this with garments gory, triumphing on Bozrah's way?". It's surprising it's taken me so long to get round to writing about this one, since it's a special favourite of mine. I've just scoured various old floppy disks and aged computers to see if I could discover where I'd written about it before, since I know I've written on it at least once for a parish magazine. But nothing has shown up, so may be that I wrote it before the days of household computers.

Hymn number 108 in the old English Hymnal, set in the section for Passiontide, this hymn goes to the amazing welsh hymn tune Ebenezer, which makes it especially awesome. More about the tune anon.

Alas the hymn has quite gone from the New English Hymnal. Was it that they thought hardly anyone liked it or sang it? Or was it that they thought that we ought not to be allowed to sing it? Was it redundancy or constructive dismissal that was offered to Bishop A. Cleveland Coxe (1818-96)?

Here are his fine words, written in 1844 (more about what they mean in a minute):

Who is this with garments gory,
Triumphing from Bozrah’s way;
This that weareth robes of glory,
Bright with more than vict'ry’s ray?
Who is this unwearied comer
From his journey’s sultry length,
Trav'lling through Idumè’s summer
In the greatness of his strength?

Wherefore red in thine apparel
Like the conquerors of the earth,
And arrayed like those who carol
O’er the reeking vineyard’s mirth?
Who art thou, the valleys seeking
Where our peaceful harvests wave?
“I, in righteous anger speaking,
I, the mighty One to save.”

“I, that of the raging heathen
Trod the winepress all alone,
Now in victor garlands wreathen
Coming to redeem Mine own:
I am He with sprinkled raiment,
Glorious for My vengeance hour,
Ransoming, with priceless payment,
And delivering with power.”

Hail! All hail! Thou Lord of Glory!
Thee, our Father, Thee we own;
Abram heard not of our story,
Israel ne’er our Name hath known.
But, Redeemer, Thou hast sought us,
Thou hast heard Thy children’s wail,
Thou with Thy dear blood hast bought us:
Hail! Thou mighty Victor, hail!

I don't know what it would be like to read these lines without hearing the tune Ebenezer in your head. If you don't know it you'll need to go here.

Now, what on earth is it all about? Well the reference is to Isaiah 63.1-4 (which is a dialogue so I'm going to set it out as a dialogue here):
——Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength?
——I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.
——Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?
——I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in my heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.

Isaiah's vision is of meeting a solitary traveller in robes stained with blood, who compares the trampling of the heathen (in Edom) with treading the grapes in a winepress and becoming sprinkled with the red of the wine. The same chapter of Isaiah goes on to speak of the need for redemption and the idea of God's mercy as well as his righteous anger. Our hymn particularly picks up again on a later passage of the chapter, namely at verses 16:
Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting.
This passage is picked up in the last verse of the hymn, with
Hail! All hail! Thou Lord of Glory!
Thee, our Father, Thee we own;
Abram heard not of our story,
Israel ne’er our Name hath known.
Now it is true that the imagery of the traveller dressed in scarlet robes soaked in blood, and of the one who treads the winepress all alone is evocative of all sorts of Christian themes. By using these motifs on Palm Sunday we evoke the image of Christ riding into Jerusalem in triumph. By using them at passiontide we evoke the imagery of Christ clothed in a purple robe and spattered with his own blood during the trial and crucifixion, the use of wine to stand in for blood recalls the famous words at the last supper when Christ presents his own blood in the form of wine, and the idea that he trod the winepress all alone is evocative of the salvation that he wrought in solitary agony on the cross. But in my view Cleveland Coxe's hymn picks up another aspect of the Isaiah imagery: I think the hymn is really written with a view to the last judgement, and not to the passiontide imagery that is so vivid in the Isaiah reading itself. Isn't this really an Advent hymn, and isn't it supposed to be about the second coming of Christ in glory?

Take a look at verse one:
Who is this with garments gory,
Triumphing from Bozrah’s way;
This that weareth robes of glory,
Bright with more than vict'ry’s ray?
Who is this unwearied comer
From his journey’s sultry length,
Trav'lling through Idumè’s summer
In the greatness of his strength?
Imagine we are encountering Christ returning at the second coming. How do we tell that this is really the Christ we are to expect? His robes of glory are bright with more than victory's ray: the stranger at the second coming has something divine about him. This is more than just a human traveller. It is an unwearied comer, one who is not worn down by the long and sultry journey. He has a superhuman strength.
But why is he on Bozrah's way, and why has he travelled through Idumè's summer? Bozrah is a city of Edom, and Idume, alias Idumaea, is another word for Edom. Edom is the place where the Gentiles live, and it is upon them that the wrath of the stranger has been falling. He has been trampling them under his feet, and it is with their blood that he is spattered. This is an image of a judgemental God dealing out just punishment to those who are not his own chosen people.
But then as the hymn proceeds (picking up all the time motifs from Isaiah's chapter) the image of a vengeful God is transformed into the image of a merciful God whose robe is soaked in his own blood as he pays the priceless ransom for those who did not deserve to be saved. First he says he is returning to redeem his own people after treading the winepress of the heathen; from this we would think that his sprinkled raiment is sprinkled with the blood of the heathen, but the "priceless payment" begins to make us think again:

“I, that of the raging heathen
Trod the winepress all alone,
Now in victor garlands wreathen
Coming to redeem Mine own:
I am He with sprinkled raiment,
Glorious for My vengeance hour,
Ransoming, with priceless payment,
And delivering with power.”

Now, using Isaiah's words, we respond to the fact that we find ourselves unexpectedly included in Christ's priceless redemption: so Abraham had never heard of our story (what story is that: the Christian story?) and Israel never knew our name. We are not of the tribe of Israel, but suddenly we see that God is our father all the same, and that we have been redeemed by this strange man in the blood-soaked garment. Now we wonder, what was that act of treading the winepress all alone? Was it vengeful destruction? No: it turns out that Christ had gone out to the heathen to redeem them with his own blood not theirs. Thou with thy dear blood hast bought us... That is the victory we hail, not a victory over the heathen, not judgement upon them, but redemption for them by the shedding of the victor's own blood. Christ returns from his lonely journey, but the blood with which he is stained is actually his own, and the people he has redeemed are not the ones we expected, but include even those of us who did not belong to the chosen tribes of Israel and who have done nothing to deserve it.

Now why has this extraordinarily well-written and evocative hymn gone from the hymn book? One possibility is that it had fallen into disuse, perhaps through misunderstanding. Another is that we are not allowed to have hymns that repay study and cannot be fully understood without quite a lot of biblical knowledge and theological sophistication. A third is that the editors of the hymn book themselves couldn't understand what this was about and thought that it was gruesome and/or offensive to the heathen. They have (as we have previously noticed) an aversion to the notion of the 'heathen' so I guess they read (or misread) verse 3 of this hymn as expressing some kind of prejudice.

I was going to say something about the hymn "Who is this so weak and helpless?" here as well, but the entry seems rather long. so I'll make that another one.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Come, faithful people, come away

Many years ago when I was a student and later when I was a research fellow and a young mum in Cambridge, we used to go to LSM when not at King's Chapel or wherever else, and every year on Palm Sunday there was a procession from Laundress Green to LSM. That's still true, but what are no longer there are some hymns of which I have particularly fond memories.

Today's subject is "Come Faithful People Come Away". It's classified as a carol by the English Hymnal, which says (in its Palm Sunday Procession section) "If required, the following carol may also be sung". But the words are by G. Moultrie (1829-85) and the music, a jolly skipping melody written as three crotchets in a bar, is "Come Faithful People" by C. Bicknell, 1842-1918. The hymn recounts the story of Christ's entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and all that palm waving stuff.

It's a good hymn to process to. Now that might seem surprising because of the tune being in three time. For many years after we moved to Oxford we tried to persuade our Oxford Vicar to put "Come, faithful people, come away" into the Cowley St John street procession for Palm Sunday, but he wouldn't have it (there we had "Onward Christian Soldiers" and other traditional marching hymns, nothing seasonal at all, except maybe "Ride On Ride On"). The trouble is, you could never persuade anyone who didn't already know it that it could be a marching hymn.

The reason why it works so well for marching is that it really goes at one in a bar, or, if you like, in 6:8 so it's like two sets of triplets, dum de de, dum de de. So if it's taken quickly it's very easy to march to because you stride out on the first beat of each bar and the skipping triplets give you plenty of time to move at a stately pace without the tune become plodding or boring. Brilliant really.

What's tragic is that it's gone altogether from the NEH.

What a loss. Here (from the Oremus Hymnal, but converted to English spelling) are the words:

Come, faithful people, come away
your homage to your Monarch pay;
it is the feast of palms today:
Hosanna in the highest!

When Christ, the Lord of all, drew nigh
on Sunday morn to Bethany,
he called two loved ones standing by:
Hosanna in the highest!

"To yonder village go," said he,
"An ass and foal tied shall ye see,
loose them and bring them unto me:"
Hosanna in the highest!

"If any man dispute your word,
say, 'They are needed by the Lord,'
and he permission will accord:"
Hosanna in the highest!

The two upon their errand sped,
and found the ass as he had said,
and on the colt their clothes they spread:
Hosanna in the highest!

They set him on his throne so rude;
before him went the multitude,
and in their way their garments strewed:
Hosanna in the highest!

Go, Saviour, thus to triumph borne,
thy crown shall be the wreath of thorn,
thy royal garb the robe of scorn:
Hosanna in the highest!

They thronged before, behind, around,
they cast palm-branches on the ground,
and still rose up the joyful sound:
Hosanna in the highest!

"Blessèd is Israel's King," they cry;
"Blessed is he that cometh nigh
in name of God the Lord most high."
Hosanna in the highest!

Thus, Saviour, to thy passion go,
arrayed in royalty of woe,
assumed for sinners here below:
Hosanna in the highest!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Vexilla regis prodeunt

When we went to sing evensong at Bury St Edmunds one of the hymns prescribed for the service was "The Royal Banners Forward Go". There was a great to-do among us the visiting choir "because," (said some) "they've added two verses which aren't normally there."

Well I think the truth is this (though I've lost the service sheet so I'm not absolutely sure). It's not that they'd added two verses. It's that the New English Hymnal has left one out, and also that the photocopy of the words and melody that we had in our choir folders was incomplete and had the last verse left off, due presumably to the fact that the last verse was over the page in the hymn books.

The New English Hymnal supplies seven verses of vexilla regis. The old English Hymnal supplied the same seven. They are given in J.M. Neale's translation but the NEH has made one change to the translation ("The universal Lord is he who reigns and triumphs from the tree" has now replaced "Amidst the nations, God, saith he, hath reigned and triumphed from the tree" in verse 3).

But what is the eighth verse that is missing?

Eight verses are given in Frederick Brittain's Penguin Book of Latin Verse attributed to Venantius Fortunatus. You don't have to go far to find one that's missing in our hymnals: here is verse 2 of the original:

Confixa clavis viscera
Tendens manus, vestigia,
Redemptionis gratia
Hic immolata est hostia.

Roughly this means "His innards were pierced through with the nails, stretching out his hands, his feet, for the sake of redemption he here was sacrificed as victim."

However if we thought that was the missing verse we're going too fast, because the last two verses of the Latin text are also not in the translation. In fact what we get in the EH and the NEH is only five of eight verses written by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), with two extra verses that form the doxology which were apparently added (in Latin) by someone else a bit later. You can find the whole of it (ten verses, including the two that are not by VF) here along with the translation (of selected verses) by Walter Kirkham Blount (d 1717), which Michael Martin there suggests is considered to be the best one ever done. As you'll see, the three unfamiliar verses don't appear in Blount's translation either. So what we got in Bury St Edmunds was a bit more of what Venantius F wrote. However, since I don't have the service sheet with me I can't tell you exactly which other verse we got (but probably one of the last two judging by where it came in the hymn).

Not something to complain about, it seems to me. The more the merrier, I say.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

O lux beata Trinitas

Last Sunday I was a bit surprised to find that the office hymn set for Evensong was O Lux beata Trinitas (O Trinity of Blessed Light). It appears in the New English Hymnal as the office hymn for the period from Epiphany to Lent. This struck me as odd, since I felt sure that we used to sing it in the summer, in Trinity season; but the book said so, so I didn't complain.

I was also troubled to see that four verses were given in The New English Hymnal, not the three that I knew from of old, and that the hymn was said to be "From the Latin, translated by J.M. Neale 1818-66 and EDITORS". It was unclear whether that meant that the Editors had done some more translating from the Latin, or that they had done some more writing.

Well, I'm sure you've guessed. They'd done some more writing...

And they say "From the Latin" perhaps because they hadn't the heart to say that the original, from which they had borrowed some words and ideas, had once been by St Ambrose, that it was originally written in the fourth century A.D. and that it had been loved and preserved, and sung by generations of devout believers, for sixteen pious centuries before they saw fit to mess it up.

But wait. First, before we take a look at that, we need to do some detective work to settle the question what season this hymn should be proper to. Is it really the office hymn for Sunday evenings from Epiphany to Lent as the NEH suggests? Is it really the office hymn for Saturdays from Trinity Sunday to Advent, as the English Hymnal suggests? Or is it neither?

This is what we learn from the website Thesaurus Precum Latinarum
"This hymn is ascribed to St. Ambrose (340-397) and is used for Sunday Vespers for the second and fourth weeks of the Psalter in the Liturgy of the Hours. The hymn appears in the Roman Breviary under the title of Iam sol recedit igneus, where it is the Vespers hymn for the ferial office on Saturdays and Trinity Sunday."

Now I'm not entirely sure I understand that. It seems to me that the ferial office on Saturdays means Saturdays that are not a feast day and not in any special season of the year. This could explain the English Hymnal which says Saturday evensong from Trinity to Advent: that is the green season, so to speak. But does it also apply to the green season from Epiphany to Lent? Not according to the English Hymnal which provides Deus Creator Omnium for the Saturday evenings from the Octave of Epiphany to Lent. Even if it does apply to the Epiphany to Lent period, it seems it would not, pace the NEH, be for Sunday evening (other than the evening of Trinity Sunday), but for Saturday.

I also don't understand the bit that says it is used for the second and fourth weeks of the psalter in the Liturgy of the Hours. Perhaps someone can explain that claim to me.

Now for the text. Here (sourced from Michael Martin's Thesaurus Precum Latinarum) is what St Ambrose wrote (if, as we understand, it was indeed he).

O LUX beata Trinitas,
et principalis Unitas,
iam sol recedit igneus,
infunde lumen cordibus.
Te mane laudum carmine,
te deprecemur vespere:
te nostra supplex gloria
per cuncta laudet saecula.
Deo Patri sit gloria,
eiusque soli Filio,
cum Spiritu Paraclito,
et nunc, et in perpetuum.

Here, about as precise as they come, is what J.M. Neale produced as a translation:

O Trinity of blessed light,
O Unity of princely might,
The fiery sun now goes his way;
Shed thou within our hearts thy ray.

To thee our morning song of praise,
To thee our evening prayer we raise;
Thy glory suppliant we adore
For ever and for evermore.

All laud to God the Father be;
All praise, eternal Son to thee;
All glory as is ever meet,
To God the holy Paraclete.

It is not only a verbatim translation, but of course it also fits the original metre so you can sing it to the correct plainsong tune. Hooray for JMN.

The EDITORS evidently thought some improvement was needed. "Princely" in line 2 has become "primal". I guess that this is supposed to render "principalis" (principal) in the sense of 'original' instead of Neale's 'princely' which tries to render the regal sense of 'principal'. Which is more appropriate? The idea is that as the sun goes down we need another light to shine in our hearts instead, namely the light of the Trinity that is also a unity. Is the thought that the light of the trinity is older than the light of the sun? That is presumably what the NEH Editors have taken to be the thought expressed by 'principalis'. Or is the thought that the light of God is superior, a more powerful guide? That is presumably what Neale thought. And it was for that reason that he used the word "might" which is not in the Latin but comes from the "princely" sense of principalis. The NEH Editors have kept the "might" but linked it with "primal" instead of "princely". I suppose that is intended to capture the ambiguity of "principalis", by retaining something of each sense. I'm not entirely convinced that the end result is comprehensible, however.

The second verse is unchanged.

The last verse has been rewritten to get rid of the 'Paraclete' word. Sad.

And between the second and the last verse, the EDITORS have added this piece of new doggerel:

O Trinity, O Unity,
Thou help of man's infirmity,
Protect us through the hours of night,
Who art our everlasting light.

I've been trying to discover whether the editors found this verse in some other latin hymn and decided to nick it. But I'm pretty sure it's entirely of their own making. For one thing it just says the same again as was said more neatly above, that the Trinity is our light, only that it then adds some waffle about protection which does not belong to the theme of the hymn (which is the thought that we want enlightenment). The EDITORS have gone off point, as though what we wanted was light to protect us from nasty things that creep up on us in the dark.

One thing that extra verse does add is a completely pointless bit of man speak ("man's infirmity"). Not clear what that is, but if you are going to compose new words in the twentieth century, you might at least try to make clear whether the word is translating homo or vir. In this case, of course, neither. So why "man"?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Praise to the Lord the Almighty

I thought it worth observing, briefly, that the hymn "Praise to the Lord the Almighty" has seven verses in the English Hymnal (three of them starred) and only six verses in the New English Hymnal (two of them starred) and that the origin of the starred verses is something of a mystery.

The hymn is (purports to be) a translation of Lobe den Herren, a German hymn published in 1680 in A und Ω Glaub- und Lieb­es­ü­bung by Joachim Neander (1650-80). The English version that we know is said to be translated by "Catherine Winkworth and others". The minimal bit of research I've done on the matter so far suggests that four verses were translated by Winkworth, that is the four that are unstarred in the hymn books. However, the Cyberhymnal gives seven verses and implies that all of them are by Winkworth. Still it seems that the EH and NEH concur in believing that some of their verses at least are not by Winkworth (and since those in the NEH are all, without exception, in the Cyberhymnal's version, it seems that it cannot be true both that everything in the Cyberhymnal entry is by Winkworth and that some of what is in the NEH entry is by "others".)

However, the plot thickens, for I have so far been unable to find more than five verses in the German. Indeed, Frank Colquhoun affirms that the original was of five stanzas (A Hymn Companion, page 22). This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the Cyberhymnal and several other sites provide five verses of the German text, the same five in all cases. This is what they have:

Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren!
Meine geliebte Seele, das ist mein Begehren.
Kommet zu Hauf! Psalter und Harfe, wacht auf!
Lasset den Lobgesang hören!

Lobe den Herren, der alles so herrlich regieret,
Der dich auf Flügeln des Adelers sicher geführet,
Der dich erhält, wie es dir selber gefällt.
Hast du nicht dieses verspüret?

Lobe den Herren, der künstlich und fein dich bereitet,
Der dir Gesundheit verliehen, dich freundlich geleitet.
In wieviel Not hat dich der gnädige Gott
Über dir Flügel gebreitet.

Lobe den Herren, der deinen Stand sichtbar gesegnet,
Der aus dem Himmel mit Strömen der Liebe geregnet.
Denke daran, was der Allmächtige kann,
Der dir mit Liebe begegnet.

Lobe den Herren; was in mir ist, lobe den Namen.
Alles was Odem hat, lobe mit Abrahams Samen.
Er ist dein Licht; Seele, vergiß es ja nicht;
Lob ihn und schließe mit Amen!

The five verses in the German appear to be verses 1 to 4 and verse 7 of the seven provided in the Cyberhymnal, that is these ones:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.

Praise to the Lord, Who over all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires ever have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the Lord, Who hath fearfully, wondrously, made thee;
Health hath vouchsafed and, when heedlessly falling, hath stayed thee.
What need or grief ever hath failed of relief?
Wings of His mercy did shade thee.

Praise to the Lord, Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him.

Of these you will notice, perhaps, that verse 3 is unfamiliar. It doesn't appear in any of the hymn books that I own. So four of the verses we normally sing are from Neander's original, and there is a fifth that we do not normally sing (and which, perhaps, Winkworth did not translate?).

So where do the rest come from? There seem to be a total of eight verses in circulation, those five and three more. The English Hymnal had all three of the additional ones which it marked as "Part 2", all of which were starred. They went like this:

Praise to the Lord, Who, when tempests their warfare are waging,
Who, when the elements madly around thee are raging,
Biddeth them cease, turneth their fury to peace,
Whirlwinds and waters assuaging.

Praise to the Lord, who when sickness with terror uniting,
Deaf to entreaties of mortals, its victims is smiting,
Pestilence quells, Sickness and fever dispels,
Grateful thanksgiving inviting.

Praise to the Lord, Who, when darkness of sin is abounding,
Who, when the godless do triumph, all virtue confounding,
Sheddeth His light, chaseth the horrors of night,
Saints with His mercy surrounding.

Of these the first and third survive into the NEH but the second has been cut. None of them seems to be based on anything written by Neander.

Now it seems to me that the correct description of this hymn as it currently appears in the NEH is that it is part of a hymn by Neander, that part being translated by Winkworth, with some additional interpolated verses, perhaps composed in English not German, by someone else we know not whom. In this, the EH was if anything slightly less close to authenticity than the NEH because it had added three of those interpolated verses, not just two. Why they made it look as though they were translations of Neander's original we shall perhaps never know. But one wonders whether the NEH editors just copied the EH in pretending that it was all a translation from Neander.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Disposer Supreme

A hymn by Jean Baptiste de Santeuil (1630-97):

Supreme quales arbiter
Tibi ministros eligis,
Tuas opes qui vilibus
Vasis amas committere.

Haec nempe plena lumine
Tu vasa frangi praecipis;
Lux inde magna rumpitur,
Ceu nube scissa fulgura.

Totum per orbem nuntii
Nubes velut citi volant:
Verbo graves, Verbo Deo
Tonant, soruscant, perpluunt.

Christum sonant: versae ruunt
Arces superbae daemonum;
Circum tubis clangentibus
Sic versa quondam moenia.

Fac, Christe, coelestes tubae
Somno graves nos excitent:
Accensa de te lumina
Pellant tenebras mentium.

Uni sit et trino Deo
Supremam laus, summum decus,
De nocte qui nos ad suae,
Lumen vocavit gloriae.

I've copied out the whole of the Latin here, partly because it doesn't seem to be included anywhere on existing web sites that I can discover. And also because the point I want to make about this hymn is that there is a sequence of thought to it.

The first verse, "Disposer supreme and judge of the earth" remarks on the fact that God chooses "frail earthen vessels" as his ministers. "Frail earthen vessels" (vilibus vasis) means unprepossessing pots. That is a reference to us (or rather, to the saints).

The second verse remarks on the fact that these pots soon break. In fact God breaks them, even the ones that are full of light. Tu vasa frangi praecipis: at thy decree they are broken. But out of them bursts a great light, a kind of lightning bolt. That is, on the death of the saints the light that was concealed in the unprepossessing pots bursts forth and fills our world with a new blast of light, like lightning breaking out of a cloud.

The third and fourth verses pick up on this idea and suggest that once it's been released from the unprepossessing pots, the light of the saints becomes God's messengers. These fly round the world thundering the sound of God's word. Christum sonant: they trumpet out Christ, and immediately the devil's citadels fall like the walls of Jericho which fell at the sound of the trumpet.

Verse five asks that Christ should ensure that these heavenly trumpets should wake us from our sleep. And verse six concludes with a doxology, which praises God for calling us out of night to his glory.

Now apart from the fact that the New English Hymnal has (for reasons that are not apparent) re-written the perfectly good translation by Isaac Williams to which we were accustomed, what you might not have noticed is that they have cut out verse 2. You might not have noticed because the sequence of thought has become so disjoined that you'd be forgiven for thinking that there was none, and that trying to work out how verse 3 followed from verse 1 was a wasted effort. Well indeed it would be a wasted effort, because alas without verse 2 it would be impossible to see the connection.

The point is this: verse 1 sees the saints from the outside, their vile pots. Verse 2 explains why God breaks the pots, to let the light out. Verse 3, with its image of lightning blasts and the thundering sound that they make, only makes sense if you know where the lightning blasts have come from and how they connect with the vile pots mentioned in verse 1. And then, once you know why the lightning is sounding like a trumpet, you can understand what the imagery of the fall of Jericho has got to do with it, and also why we ask to be wakened from our sleep by those trumpets.

But without verse 2? Bad case of lost coherence.

Monday, January 01, 2007

O happy day!

Some hymns just get left out of the new hymn books, not always with justice.

There's a hymn set in the English Hymnal for the feast of the Circumcision, which I don't think I've ever sung in Church. Its first line is "O happy day when first was poured..."

The fact that I've never sung it in Church might have something to do with the fact that no one used to go to Church on New Year's Day until the Church got all confused by the so-called Millennium in 2000 (and 2001), at which time the C of E tried to invent some connection between Christianity and the practice of counting of years starting afresh from January. Now I was always brought up as a child strictly to understand that the Church had no interest in secular years, because the new year for the Church was Advent Sunday. And even if we count years of Our Lord, we should surely think that they begin on the day we mark his birthday, no? So I'm not sure why the feast of the circumcision should be the first day of anyone's year. But anyway, that's by the by.

In any case, for whatever reason, at LSM we do make an attempt at a Sung Mass for the feast which they now prefer to call the Naming of Jesus on the 1st of January. Not that the New English Hymnal provides any useful hymns for such a festival. There's a fairly tedious New Year hymn, number 258, written by Timothy Dudley Smith (born 1926, now retired ex Bishop of Thetford) which is set to the Londonderry Air—it goes "O Christ the same through all our story's pages"—a nice idea until you realise that the Londonderry Air has a range of a twelfth, which means that even if it is set in the key of D flat major, your congregation has to negotiate a top F and a bottom B flat. Now when did you last have a large enough congregation on the feast of the circumcision to make that sound really strong and lusty? Fortunately we don't attempt that one, though I remember a previous vicar at another church trying to implement it on the 1st of January in the year 2000.

Besides that hymn, the NEH provides an office hymn for the 1st January, number 153, "O let the heart beat high with praise". I've never sung that either. It has a plainsong tune and an alternative tune, both unknown.

The English Hymnal provided two little known but perfectly nice hymns for New Year, numbers 285 and 286. "Another year is dawning" went to the tune of the Cherry Tree carol and was probably quite fun, and "For thy mercy and thy grace faithful through another year" went to a simple 1657 chorale called Culbach. Both eminently suitable, though I'm quite certain I've never sung either of them in any Church.

But for the feast of the circumcision two wonderful hymns were provided in the English Hymnal. One is a perfectly lovely hymn, originally in Latin (victis sibi cognomina) but translated as "Conquering Kings their titles take" which goes to a merry little tune called Innocents which is also know to our family as the tune for the birthday song "Comes a birthday once a year, happy day, O happy day!" which was sung at the SS Mary and John First School (to which our children went in the 1990s). I could write a Blog entry about Conquering Kings, which, as I say, is an extremely fine hymn. But it's the other one I wanted to mention now.

The other one is "O happy day, when first was poured..." Also originally in Latin (Felix dies quem proprio) this was written by Abbé Sebastian Besnault (the source named by Cyberhymnal, Revised Paris Breviary 1736, can't be the original since Besnault died in 1724). It too, like the other, is translated by J. Chandler. This is how it goes:

O happy day, when first was poured
The blood of our redeeming Lord!
O happy day, when first began
His sufferings for sinful man!

Just entered on this world of woe,
His blood already learned to flow;
His future death was thus expressed,
And thus His early love confessed.

From heaven descending to fulfill
The mandates of His Father’s will,
E’en now behold the victim lie,
The Lamb of God, prepared to die!

Lord, circumcise our hearts, we pray,
Our fleshly natures purge away;
Thy Name, Thy likeness may they bear:
Yea, stamp Thy holy image there!

O Lord, the virgin born, to Thee
Eternal praise and glory be,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost for evermore.

Well it is a little gruesome perhaps. I suppose it wouldn't seem so bad in Latin, so the mistake was to translate it into the vernacular. But the imagery—the idea that the circumcision is a foretaste of the future suffering, and that the child undergoing circumcision is like the sacrifical lamb on the altar—all that is quite evocative, as is the idea that we might "circumcise" our hearts to purge away fleshly preoccupations.

But the interesting thing to ask is this: why don't we say very much about how gruesome circumcision must have been? Why don't we make much of the fact that Jesus went through it? Why do we talk more about the naming of Jesus than about his circumcision? And why have they eliminated that hymn from the Hymn Books? Are we too squeamish? Or are we too embarrassed? Or what exactly? I sometimes wonder.