Our new (yet very old) Evensong hymn

Last week we sang (for many of us, for the first time) hymn #176 in our Hymnal. The opening words are “O gladsome light, O grace.” Those words come from an ancient Greek hymn best known by the first two words in the text, Phos hilaron. (Attentive readers will recognize light and gladness in those words; our English word “phosphorescent” is based on the Greek word “phos,” meaning “light,” And “hilarious” is from the Greek “hilaros,” meaning “cheerful.”)

Phos hilaron dates to the late 3rd or early 4th century and is sometimes referred to as the “Candlelighting Hymn,” or the “Lamplighting Hymn.” This nickname is a tribute to the place Phos hilaron has in the daily Orthodox Vespers services.

The hymn has been translated into English by many prominent clergy and poets, including the Oxford Movement’s John Keble (1792–1866) and the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) The translation we sing is by English poet laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930).

1. O gladsome light, O grace
of God the Father’s face,
th’eternal splendor wearing:
celestial, holy, blest,
our Savior Jesus Christ,
joyful in thine appearing.

2. Now, ere day fadeth quite,
we see the evening light
our wonted hymn outpouring,
Father of might unknown,
thee, his incarnate Son,
and Holy Spirit adoring.

3. To thee of right belongs
all praise of holy songs,
O Son of God, Life-giver;
thee, therefore, O Most High,
the world doth glorify
and shall exalt forever.

The tune to which we sing Phos hilaron is by the French composer Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510–1559), and was harmonized by his sometime colleague, a lesser-known French composer and music theorist Claude Goudimel (c. 1514–1520).

If you don’t have a Hymnal at home, here is a pdf of the page that includes this hymn.

Here is “O gladsome light” sung by the Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter. Note that in stanza 2, the tenors sing the melody, and the sopranos sing the tenor part (an octave higher). Also, at the end of the 2nd stanza, they sing “Holy Ghost” instead of “Holy Spirit,” which actually fits the rhythm of the music much better.

As mentioned above, John Keble also translated this ancient hymn. Here is his rendering.

1. Hail, gladdening Light, of his pure glory poured
who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
holiest of holies, Jesus our Lord.

2. Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest,
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.

3. Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung with undefilèd tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life, alone:
therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.

The sense of luminous glory and joy suggested by this text was captured well in an anthem by Charles Wood (1866-1926), whose Hail, gladdening light is sung here by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.