Service music

Sexagesima (February 16, 2020)

Between now and Holy Week, these posts will include less original material than usual. With more than a full year of material stockpiled on this site, many of the hymns and motets we’ll be singing have already been introduced, so I will be copying a lot of text from earlier posts. Any hymn or motet that has it’s own page will feature a link that will take you to further reading.

Such is the case with the first two hymns in today’s service: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing” and “Behold a Sower!”

The Offertory anthem, Orlande de Lassus’s Perfice gressus meos, is a setting of three verses from Psalm 17, a text which serves as the Proper chanted (in a different English translation than what follows) before the Offertory: “Perfect thou my goings in Thy paths, that my footsteps be not moved. Incline Thine ear, and hear my words, show forth Thy wonderful mercies, Thou who saves them that trust in Thee, O Lord.” To learn more about the work’s composer, see my essay “Eloquent Lamentation.”

During Communion, the choir sings a setting of the 14th-century Eucharistic hymn, Ave verum corpus, by the Spanish Renaissance composer Francisco Peñalosa (1470–1528). Though he was one of the most famous Spanish composers of the generation, much of his music was not widely distributed, as there was not a strong printing industry in Spain during his lifetime. A 1517 letter from Pope Leo X to the Cathedral Chapter of Seville, where Peñalosa was visiting, declares: “Among the singers in our chapel on solemn occasions is our beloved son, Francisco de Peñalosa . . . musician extraordinary (who) displays such exquisite art . . . that we fervently desire his continuing presence.” The pope was able to steal the composer away from Seville from 1517 until 1525, when we returned to Seville, where is is buried close to the grave of another great Spanish composer, Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599).

The Communion hymns are “Now, my tongue, the myst’ry telling” and “Therefore we, before him bending,” both taken from one of Thomas Aquinas’s great Eucharistic hymns.

The closing hymn — “He who would valiant be” — is (with slight alterations) from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, from the chapter entitled “Mr. Valiant for Truth.” The tune ST. DUNSTANS was composed by noted liturgiologist, linguist, pastor, and musicologist Charles Winfred Douglas (1867-1944). He composed this tune — especially for use in a 1917 hymnal with Bunyan’s text — while returning to his home in Peekskill from New York City. He later commented on the hymn:

Bunyan’s burly song strikes a new and welcome note in our Hymnal. The quaint sincerity of the words stirs us out of our easy-going dull Christianity to the thrill of great adventure. The ballad-like rhythm requires special musical treatment incompatible with a mechanical regularity of measures. The tune is, therefore, in free rhythm, following the words. It should have a quality of sturdiness which always reminds the writer of St. Paul valiantly battling through manifold disaster in “the care of all the churches.