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Sunday Music Musings December 27, 2020

December 27, 2020
Today’s hymn-writer, Martin Luther was written about by the translator of another of today’s hymns

The tune Vom Himmel hoch first appeared in the Geistliche Lieder, Wittenberg, 1535, and is attributed to Martin Luther (1485-1546) “By his orders the first seven verses of this hymn were sung by a man dressed as an angel, whom the children greeted with the eighth and following verses.” Four verses remain in our hymnal as #80, harmonized by Han Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) and translated by Catherine Winkworth (1827 – 1878) who I discussed on December 5th in relation to her translation of Comfort Ye. Winkworth was a British woman known for her piety and devotional life, and at the same time, her sympathy for the cause of women’s rights, as well as her English translations of German hymns, most famously “Now Thank We All Our God.”

On Christmas Eve I played as the first postlude a cheerful setting by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), and Sunday I will play a longer more contrapuntal setting by the same composer. (Organists tend to call the first one ‘the one with the repeated notes’). Pachelbel was one of Bach’s greatest predecessors. After organist posts in Vienna, Stuttgart, and other cities, in 1695 he was appointed organist at the St. Sebalduskirche in Nürnberg, where he remained until his death. One of his pupils was Johann Christoph Bach, who then taught his younger brother Johann Sebastian – hence a direct line.

Our psalm today also uses the Vom Himmel hoch tune as the basis of the refrain and Anglican chant, from the St. Martin’s Psalter of St. James Music Press.

Our Canticle of Praise is a “Gloria for Christmastide” that I wrote many years ago as a “quodlibet.” Many carols are quoted in the setting of the “Gloria” text, including “On this Day” “Unto Us a Child is Born” the ‘other’ “Away in a Manger” tune, and “Angels We have Heard on High” as the refrain. There are also easy bell parts that would ensure that the choristers show up on Christmas morning to ring their bells!

The gradual hymn is “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The tune, Divinum mysterium is an ancient Sanctus trope from the 11th century, collected in Pie Cantiones, a collection of late medieval Latin songs first published in 1582. This deep text on the Gospel of John by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-410), translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) captures the timelessness of the Christmas message “evermore and evermore.” This ancient plainsong melody is set like free Gregorian chant in the 1940 hymnal, but the 1982 uses a “rhythmic mode” of long-short, long-short to give it a more processional feeling. Here are two of the missing verses that point up the connection to today’s Gospel:

At His Word the worlds were framèd; He commanded; it was done:

Heaven and earth and depths of ocean in their threefold order one;

All that grows beneath the shining

Of the moon and burning sun, evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion, death and sorrow here to know,

 That the race of Adam’s children doomed by law to endless woe,

May not henceforth die and perish

In the dreadful gulf below, evermore and evermore!

Our offertory solo “Dost Thou in a manger lie?” is also from the hymnal, #97 in the 1982,  and #29 in the 1940 (a harmonization I have a soft spot for from my childhood).  The tune Dies est laetitiae is also from Pie Cantiones. The text is by Jean Mauburn (1460-1503), an Augustinian canon of various French abbeys. The translation is by another prolific Victorian British woman, Elizabeth Rundle Charles (1828-1896). “Charles’s best known book, written to order for an editor who wished for a story about Martin Luther, The Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family, was published in 1862, and was translated into most of the European languages, into Arabic, and into many Indian dialects. Mrs Charles wrote in all over fifty books, the majority of a semi-religious character, as well as writing and translating a number of hymns.” (Wikipedia). The text celebrates the humbleness of Christ’s birth. 

The tune Dies est laetitiae (literally, The Day is Joyful) became the German Chorale tune “Der Tag der ist so freudenriech” which J. S. Bach set in his Orgelbüchlein. While the hymn with the Mauburn/Charles text is subdued, this chorale is exuberant. The tune is set out loudly in the right hand while the left hand provides a tinkling ornamented figure which reminds be of a cymbelstern (a stop which sounds like tinkling bells) . This makes sense, since the German chorale text starts out

O hail this brightest day of days,

All good Christian people!

For Christ hath come upon our ways,

Ring it from the steeple!

Remember, we are just beginning the season of Christmas which lasts until Jan. 6’s arrival of the Three Kings. So, if you have not enjoyed our Christmas Eve service yet (including many virtula choirs and a children’s pageant), you can find it here.

I am deeply grateful to all the people that made it happen, especially my choirs and our wonderful video editors.

Merry Christmas!

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