Service music

St. Michael and All Angels (September 29, 2019)

In addition to celebrating on this feast day the victory of heavenly hosts over the power of evil, our bishop will be confirming a number of our brothers and sisters. Today’s hymnody thus reflects a dual focus.

Before examining the hymns, you may be interested in a new page which explores one of the cantatas that J. S. Bach’s wrote for this feast day. On this page, each movement of the work is examined in turn, with the text presented in English, and an embedded video of a complete performance is featured at the bottom of the page. I think it would make rewarding reading and listening this Sunday afternoon

Our opening hymn — “Come down, O Love divine” — is a translation from Italian of a passionate devotional text by the 14th-century poet, Bianco da Siena. The text echoes one of the prayers in our confirmation service, as our bishop enumerates the blessings desired for the confirmands: “Strengthen them, we beseech thee, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and daily increase in them thy manifold gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and fill them, O Lord, with the spirit of thy holy fear, now and for ever.”

There was originally another stanza to this hymn, which has been omitted in our Hymnal. It emphasizes the gift of love conveyed by the Spirit which makes true unity possible:

Let holy charity
mine outward vesture be,
and lowliness become mine inner clothing:
true lowliness of heart,
which takes the humbler part,
and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

The tune — DOWN AMPNEY — was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams especially for this text’s inclusion in the 1906 English Hymnal. Here is a rendition of this wonderful hymn by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Our sermon hymn — “Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels” — turns our attention to the focus of today’s feast day. It was the office hymn for Lauds on this since at least the ninth century. (See this page for an explanation of “office hymn” and “Lauds.”) It is attributed (with some skepticism) to Rabanus Maurus (c. 776-856), a distinguished Carolingian poet-theologian and archbishop. Our Hymnal includes five hymns attributed to him. The other four (#108, #217, #218, and #371) focus more attention on the Holy Spirit.

Two tunes for this hymn are offered in our Hymnal. The first tune, CHRISTE SANCTORUM, was long associated with this medieval text. Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this tune on piano.

We will sing the second tune, for which we can thank (again) Ralph Vaughn Williams for tracking it down in an 1728 liturgical collection of tunes from Rouen. Vaughan Williams harmonized it for the 1906 English Hymnal. Here is the hymn sung by the St. Thomas (Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York) Choir of Men and Boys, conducted by Gerre Hancock.

During the Offertory the choir sings Come Holy Ghost, God and Lord. The text echoes the prayers we offer for our confirmands. It predates its first publication in 1524 in one of the earliest Lutheran hymnals; exactly how much of the original German was Luther’s and how much was his friend’s Johann Walther and how much was part of a traditional folk hymn, I cannot discover. The translation we sing is from a mid-twentieth-century Lutheran hymnal. Here is the text:

Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord!
Be all Thy graces now outpoured
on each believer’s mind and heart;
Thy fervent love to them impart.
Lord, by the brightness of Thy light.
Thou in the flesh dost men unite
of ev’ry land and ev’ry tongue;
this to Thy praise, O Lord our God be sung. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou Holy Light, Guide divine,
Oh, cause the Word of Life to shine.
Teach us to know our God aright
and call Him Father with delight.
From ev’ry error keep us free.
Let none but Christ our Master be,
that we in living faith abide in Him,
our Lord, with all our might confide. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou Holy Fire, Comfort true,
grant us the will thy work to do,
and in Thy service to abide;
let trials turn us not aside.
Lord by Thy pow’r prepare each heart,
and to our weakness strength impart;
that bravely here we may contend,
through life and death to Thee, our Lord, ascend. Alleluia! Alleluia!

The tune we sing accompanied this text (in German) in that 1524 hymnal mentioned above. It dates back to at least the 15th century, and probably (with some variation) much earlier. It became a standard chorale melody (thanks to Luther and his friends and successors) known as KOMM HELIGER GEIST, and years later, J. S. Bach used it in three of his cantatas and one of his motets. The setting we sing is taken from the final chorale from Bach’s cantata BWV 175, where the tune appears with a different text. Here is that chorale in the original German, sung by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, conducted by Ton Koopman.

During Communion, the choir sings an Anglican Chant setting of Psalm 23, composed by Charles Hylton Stewart (1884-1932).

Our Communion hymns are “O food of men wayfaring” and “Take my life and let it be.” This latter hymn is by Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879), the youngest child of an Anglican priest and composer. At the age of seven, she began writing verses which appeared in a magazine called Good Words, demonstrating that it’s never too early to start writing poetry.

Our closing hymn has a connection with our first Communion hymn. John Athelstan Laurie Riley (1858-1945) translated the text of “O food of men wayfaring.” He wrote the text to “Ye watchers and ye holy ones,” for inclusion in the aforementioned 1906 English Hymnal, on whose board he served as chairman. Much of the imagery in the hymn is suggested by phrases in the Greek liturgy. He had the tune we sing in mind when he wrote the hymn. VIGILES ET SANCTI dates back to at least the early 17th century. It is commonly used when singing the hymn. “All creatures of our God and King,” a paraphrase of a hymn by St. Francis of Assisi. Sadly, that hymn is not in our Hymnal, but it is on my list for a bulletin insert someday.