Ascension Day

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Psalms from the Daily Office
Motets and an oratorio
John Keble, “Ascension Day”
Christopher Wordsworth, A hymn for Ascension Day



Viri Galilaei. Acts 1
Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? Alleluia : in like manner as ye have seen him going up into heaven, so shall he come again. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. [Psalm 47] O clap your hands together, all ye people: O sing unto God with the voice of melody. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. Ye men of Galilee . . .


Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.


Alleluia, alleluia. [Psalm 47] God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump, alleluia. [Psalm 68] The Lord is among them as in the holy places of Sinai, he is gone up on high; he hath led captivity captive. Alleluia.


[Psalm 47] God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump, alleluia.


[Psalm 68] Sing ye to the Lord, who ascended to the heaven of heavens, to the sunrising, alleluia.

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Psalms from the Daily Office

MORNING PRAYER — Psalm 96 (Tone VIII 1)
Cantate Domino canticum novum
EVENING PRAYER — Psalm 24 (Tone VII 5)
Domini est terra
EVENING PRAYER — Psalm 47 (Tone VII 6)
Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus

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Motets and cantatas

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Motet Viri Galilaei
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Viri Galilaei
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Viri Galillei
Patrick Gowers, Viri Galilaei
J. S. Bach, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (“Praise God in His kingdoms,” Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11)
     Other musical works based on texts celebrating the Ascension are presented on the page for the Sunday after Ascension.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Motet Viri Galilaei

Dating from 1569, Palestrina’s motet Viri Galilaei takes its text from the Introit and Offertory propers for today, with an added text from Psalm 103:

Viri Galilaei, quid statis aspicientes in coelum?
Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven?

Hic Jesus, qui assumptus est a vobis in coelum,
This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven,
sic veniet, quemadmodum vidistis eum euntem in coelum. Alleluja.
shall so come as you have seen him going into heaven. Alleluia.

Ascendit Deus in jubilatione, et Dominus in voce tubae. Alleluja.
God is ascended with jubilee, and the Lord with the sound of trumpet. Alleluia.
Dominus in coelo paravit sedem suam. Alleluja.
The Lord hath prepared his throne in heaven. Alleluia.

Viri Galilei is sung here by the Ensemble Vocal Européen de la Chapelle Royale conducted by Philipe Herreweghe.

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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Viri Galilaei

In 1601, seven years after the composer’s death, a Mass based on the Ascensiontide motet presented above was published. Given this original source, it is likely that Palestrina intended the Mass to be sung between the Ascension and Pentecost. Listen closely to hear echoes of the motet’s melodic phrases in the movements of the Missa Viri Galilei. For example, here are the opening measures of the motet, with the singing of the words Viri Galilaei (“Men of Galilee”):

And here is the opening of the Kyrie, with the first singing of the words Kyrie, eleison (“Lord, have mercy”):

That is only one example of the way Palestrina re-purposed medlodic elements from his motet in this Mass.

The Missa Viri Galilaei has been recorded by same group that recorded the motet, the Ensemble Vocal Européen de la Chapelle Royale, conducted by Philipe Herreweghe. The recording of this Mass below also features the propers for the feast of the Ascension, which are chanted in Latin by the Ensemble Organum. The singing of the Mass is followed by the singing of the Motet Viri Galilaei, which in turn is followed by the singing of one of Palestrina’s settings of the Magnificat.

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Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Viri Galillei

Born in 1562, Jan Sweelinck spent his entire life in Amsterdam, often traveling around the Dutch Republic to serve as a consultant in the building or re-building of organs. Contemporary accounts suggest a winsome personality, which, combined with obvious talent, ensured his long tenure in Amsterdam. Organist and musicologist Pieter Dirksen reports that Sweelinck was continually the beneficiary of raises in his salary, and eventually, “with the help of his patrons, he was able to have published precious printed editions of his vocal works.”

In 1619, Sweelinck and his generous friends arranged for the publication of Cantiones Sacrae quinque vocum, a collection of thirty-seven motets for five voices in Latin. They were published in Catholic Antwerp, and possibly intended for some use outside of the more restricted liturgical life of the Dutch Reformed church.

Joy is a fixture in many of Jan Sweelinck’s compositions. Organist and musicologist Pieter Dirksen has noted that “A considerable number of the motets end on an ‘Alleluia,’ and nowhere is Sweelinck’s unflagging resourcefulness and boundless fantasy so clearly to be admired as in the numerous and varied settings of this single word.”

Sweelink’s setting of the text from the Book of Acts recounting the Ascension of Christ concludes with a long sequence of Alleluias which descend, perhaps anticipating Christ’s promised return in glory. Viri Galillei is sung below by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, conducted by Timothy Brown.

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Patrick Gowers, Viri Galilaei

English composer Patrick Gowers (1936–2014) is best known for his film and TV scores. His credits include the music to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and its sequels, a series starring Jeremy Brett which ran from 1984 to 1994. But Gowers has also written music for concert and liturgical use. His Ascensiontide motet Viri Galillei combines texts used in The Book of Common Prayer service for the Feast of the Ascension with a stanza from Christopher Wordsworth’s Ascension hymn “See the Conqueror mounts in triumph” (all ten stanzas of this hymn are presented below).

James O’Donnell, who has conducted a recording of this anthem with the Choir of Westminster Abbey, describes the trajectory of Gowers’s music:

“Gowers paints a vividly dramatic and emotional picture of the Ascension of Jesus: one can almost visualize the scene as the dumbfounded apostles gaze up in amazement while high-pitched swirling organ figurations and ethereal overlapping choral ‘Alleluias’ convey the literal other-worldliness of what they are witnessing. Gradually the chordal writing for the choir assumes a more solid, less disembodied character, and the music becomes punchier and more rhythmic (‘God is gone up with a merry noise’). The build-up continues inexorably, leading to a thrilling glissando on the full organ and an elated verse of Christopher Wordsworth’s Ascension hymn ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’, underpinned by a jazzy, propulsive organ part and dramatically interspersed with forceful ’Alleluias’ and the swirling organ figurations heard at the start, but now louder and more prominent. After this, the music gradually subsides into the mystical mood of the opening and eventually disappears into nothing.”

In the recording embedded below, Graham Ross conducts the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and the Dmitri Ensemble. Matthew Jorysz is the organist.

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J. S. Bach, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (“Praise God in His kingdoms,” Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11)

In his book, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy, Marcus Rathey observes that there are two major themes in the texts for the Ascension Oratorio: “the relationship between seeing and understanding and the presence of Christ in the heart (or soul) of the believer.” As you listen to the performance below, you may read the entire text for this stirring and comforting work here. (The text linked here includes the German text, is a recent translation into English by Bach scholars Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed, and helpful footnotes that explain some of the linguistic and theological subtleties that may either perplex listeners or escape their notice.

Or, if you prefer a simpler approach, just follow along with the conveniently provided English subtitles in the video recording.

This performance was recorded at a concert given as part of the London Proms in 2013. It features the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists are Hannah Morrison, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; and Peter Harvey, bass.

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John Keble, “Ascension Day”

The following poem is from John Keble’s The Christian Year (1827).

“Why stand ye gazing up into Heaven?
this same Jesus, which is
taken up from you into Heaven,
shall so come in like manner
as ye have seen Him go into Heaven.”
Acts i. 11

      Soft cloud, that while the breeze of May
Chants her glad matins in the leafy arch,
   Draw’st thy bright veil across the heavenly way
Meet pavement for an angel’s glorious march:

      My soul is envious of mine eye,
That it should soar and glide with thee so fast,
   The while my grovelling thoughts half buried lie,
Or lawless roam around this earthly waste.

      Chains of my heart, avaunt I say —
I will arise, and in the strength of love
   Pursue the bright track ere it fade away,
My Saviour’s pathway to His home above.

      Sure, when I reach the point where earth
Melts into nothing from th’ uncumbered sight,
   Heaven will o’ercome th’ attraction of my birth.
And I shall sink in yonder sea of light:

      Till resting by th’ incarnate Lord,
Once bleeding, now triumphant for my sake,
   I mark Him, how by seraph hosts adored,
He to earth’s lowest cares is still awake.

      The sun and every vassal star,
All space, beyond the soar of angel wings,
   Wait on His word: and yet He stays His car
For every sigh a contrite suppliant brings.

      He listens to the silent tear
For all the anthems of the boundless sky —
   And shall our dreams of music bar our ear
To His soul-piercing voice for ever nigh?

      Nay, gracious Saviour — but as now
Our thoughts have traced Thee to Thy glory-throne
   So help us evermore with thee to bow
Where human sorrow breathes her lowly moan.

      We must not stand to gaze too long,
Though on unfolding Heaven our gaze we bend
   Where lost behind the bright angelic throng
We see Christ’s entering triumph slow ascend.

      No fear but we shall soon behold,
Faster than now it fades, that gleam revive,
   When issuing from his cloud of fiery gold
Our wasted frames feel the true sun, and live.

      Then shall we see Thee as Thou art,
For ever fixed in no unfruitful gaze,
   But such as lifts the new-created heart,
Age after age, in worthier love and praise.

Christopher Wordsworth, A hymn for Ascension Day

The following hymn is from Bp. Christopher Wordsworth’s The Holy Year; or Hymns for Sundays and Holy Days throughout the Year (1862).

See the Conqueror mounts in triumph, see the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds His chariot, to His heavenly Palace gate;
Hark, the quires of angel voices joyful Hallelujahs sing,
And the portals high are lifted, to receive their heavenly King.

Who is this that comes in glory, with the trump of jubilee?
Lord of battles, God of armies, He has gain’d the victory;
He who on the Cross did suffer. He who from the grave arose,
He has vanquish’d Sin and Satan, He by death has spoil’d His foes.

While He raised His hands in blessing, He was parted from His friends;
While their eager eyes behold Him, He upon the clouds ascends;
He who walk’d with God, and pleased Him, preaching truth and doom to come.
He, our Enoch, is translated to His everlasting home.

Now our heavenly Aaron enters, with His blood, within the veil;
Joshua now is come to Canaan, and the kings before Him quail;
Now He plants the tribes of Israel in their promised resting-place;
Now our Great Elijah offers double portion of His grace.

Thou hast rais’d our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand,
There we sit in heavenly places, there with Thee in glory stand;
Jesus reigns, ador’d by Angels; Man with God is on the Throne;
Mighty Lord, in Thine Ascension we by faith behold our own.

Holy Ghost, Illuminator, shed Thy beams upon our eyes,
Help us to look up with Stephen, and to see beyond the skies,
Where the Son of Man in glory standing is at God’s right hand,
Beckoning on His Martyr army, succouring His faithful band.

See Him, Who is gone before us, heavenly mansions to prepare,
See Him, Who is ever pleading for us with prevailing prayer;
See Him, Who with sound of trumpet and with His angelic train
Summoning the world to Judgment on the clouds will come again.

Lift us up from earth to heaven; give us wings of faith and love,
Gales of holy aspirations wafting us to realms above;
That with hearts and minds uplifted we with Christ our Lord may dwell,
Where He sits enthron’d in glory in His heavenly Citadel.

So at last, when He appeareth, we from out our graves may spring,
With our youth renew’d like eagles, flocking round our heavenly King,
Caught up on the clouds of heaven, and may meet Him in the air,
Rise to realms where He is reigning, and may reign for ever there.

Glory be to God the Father, Glory be to God the Son,
Dying, ris’n, ascending for us, Who the heavenly realm has won;
Glory to the Holy Spirit; to One God in Persons Three,
Glory both in earth and heaven, glory, endless glory be!


Sheila Doyle explains that this hymn was “First published in The Holy Year (1862), where it was a long hymn of 10 stanzas in the author’s favoured metre. It was originally intended for both Ascension Day and Pentecost, and was subsequently divided to give two separate hymns, five stanzas for Ascension and four, beginning ‘Holy Ghost, illuminator’ for Pentecost, with a doxology to either part.”

Wordsworth explained his choice of meter in the Preface to The Holy Year:

It was an ancient rhythmical principle that the tetrameter trochaic of fifteen syllables should be specially employed on occasions where there is a sudden burst of feeling, after a patient waiting, or a continuous struggle. This metre never finds its place at the beginning, but is reserved for a later period in the drama, both tragic and comic, of the ancient stage. The long, rapid sweep of this noble metre, and the jubilant movement of the verse, render it very suitable for use on the great festivals of the Christian year, such as Easter and Ascension, when, after severe trial or quiet endurance, the church is suddenly cheered by a glorious vision which gladdens her heart and evokes a song of rapture from her lips.

In his 1892 A Dictionary of Hymnology John Julian judged that this hymn was “one of Bishop Wordsworth’s finest compositions, and is the nearest approach in style and treatment to a Greek ode known to us in the English language.” He further observed: “Prophecy, types, historical facts, doctrinal teaching, ecstatic praise, all are here.”