shepherd sounds

Hymn of the month: April 2015 · III

All glory be to God on high [Hymn 421]

Adapting the tune

Last week we talked about Martin Luther and some of his friends who wanted to help ordinary people join more fully in singing at church services. A man called Nicolaus Decius was an early follower of Luther, and he was one of the first to try to write or arrange some music for people to sing in German in worship services. He especially focused on some of the most important parts of the Eucharist – the Gloria and the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), for example. For the Gloria he took part of a Latin chant Gloria that was used in Eastertide, simplified it, added some rhythm, and translated the words into rhyming German poetry with a regular beat. This became very, very popular and has been sung by Lutherans ever since. Many composers have also made arrangements of it for choir and for organ.

Here you can hear the original chant melody (and follow the music!). The part of the chant that was turned into the hymn begins with the words ‘et in terra pax...’ (and on earth peace...)

Here is a German congregation singing the hymn version (in German, of course) – the version we are singing now in Eastertide.

The English version we sing

We still think it’s important today to worship mostly in our own language. The Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal contain many ancient prayers and hymns that have been translated into English, as well as newer ones that were first written in our language. Over the last 150 years or so, Anglicans / Episcopalians have learned more and more Lutheran hymns, including this one.

The Rev. F. Bland Tucker

The version in our Hymnal was translated by F. Bland Tucker (1895–1984), an American Episcopal priest and poet who wrote and adapted many hymn texts and worked not only on the Hymnal 1982, but also on the previous Episcopal Hymnal, all the way back in 1940! Fr. Tucker served for many years as rector of Christ Church, Savannah, Georgia – a position once held by John Wesley, as we learned in January. Only John Mason Neale, whom we learned about just last month, has more hymns included in the Hymnal 1982.

Now whenever you sing the Gloria, whether in this hymn version or some other setting, you can think of all the people (and angels!) in the Church throughout the world, and even in heaven, singing this song right along with you.

Glory be to God in the highest!

Hymn of the Month: April 2015 · II

 All glory be to God on high [Hymn 421]

Translating the Gloria

At the beginning of the Church’s history, people prayed and sang and read and wrote the Bible in  languages that were familiar to them wherever they lived – at first Greek and Aramaic (the language Our Lord spoke, related to Hebrew) in the Middle East, Latin in Europe and North Africa, and not too much later Armenian in Armenia, Coptic in Egypt, and so on. In Eastern Europe, northeast Africa, and the Middle East, the Church continued to translate sacred texts into local languages as new groups of people became Christians.

You can review what we learned about the early spread of Christianity here and here:

Here is part of the Gloria in excelsis, in Greek on the left (but put into our alphabet) and in Latin translation on the right (even when people have translated sacred texts into their own languages, they often still sing some things in older languages, just like we sing a little bit of Latin and Greek even in our church):

But in Western Europe, the Church kept using Latin even after the common languages had begun to develop into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. And as the peoples of Northern Europe – Germans, Irish, English, Scandinavians, and so on – became Christians, they never got official translations of the Bible or the prayers and hymns of the Church (there were some translations that were used outside of church services, and in fact more of the Bible was translated into Old English than into any other Western European language of the time). A few people were able to learn Latin, but most people – most of whom couldn’t afford to buy books and couldn’t even read or write – couldn’t, so it was very hard for them to participate fully in church services. And from time to time, people got in trouble and were even killed for translating the Bible into familiar languages.

By the 1500s, this had changed some – more people could read, there were more books, and more prayers and so on had been translated into everyday languages. But church services were still sung in Latin. Many people wanted to change this (and many other things about the Church too), and especially in Northern Europe, where ordinary people had never spoken Latin, many Churches split from what we now call the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England was one of these, which is why we as Episcopalians worship mostly in English today. In Germany and Scandinavia, many people followed a reformer called Martin Luther – today we call them Lutherans.

Martin Luther

Luther thought it was very important that the common people be able to join more fully in singing at services. So he and some of his friends began to find or write hymns in German, and music to sing them to. Some of these were older songs that had been sung outside official services. Some were new pieces. Some, though, were adapted from the official Latin chants of the Church. The version of the Gloria we’re singing right now in Eastertide is one of these.

Next week we’ll learn about the man who made this version.

Hymn of the Month: April 2015 · I

All glory be to God on high [Hymn 421]

Gloria in excelsis Deo

Annunciation to the Shepherds
The De Lisle Psalter, England, around 1310

Gloria in excelsis Deo [GLOH-ree-ah een ek-SHELL-seess DEH-oh] – ‘Glory in the highest to God’ – is a very old hymn that has become a standard part of the Eucharist (Communion service) on Sundays and other feasts through most of the year. We don’t sing it in Advent and Lent, which are more somber seasons, and one of the most joyful things of the whole year is to sing the Gloria (and many alleluias) on Easter after ‘fasting’ from them all during Lent.

You’ve already learned the version of the Gloria that we sing during Eastertide: ‘All glory be to God on high’, Hymn 421. You sing it beautifully! This month we’ll learn a bit about where this version came from. But first we’ll talk a little about the Gloria itself.

The Gloria begins with the song the angels sang when they announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds: ‘Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace, goodwill towards men’ (Luke 2:14). You can see a picture of this at the top of this page, where the angel is singing the beginning of this song. Notice one of the shepherds is playing an instrument, and that they all look scared or at least surprised!

Here is Luke 2:14 in one of the oldest copies of the Bible, in the original Greek:

 The rest of the Gloria was written (in Greek) very early in the Church’s history – very soon after Jesus’s earthly life. It has three parts to it:

1. Praise and thanksgiving to God the Father
2. Prayer to Jesus, the Son of God, to hear us and have mercy
3. Recognizing that God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the holy Lord

Here is the version in the Book of Common Prayer (the Holy Eucharist, Rite I, page 324, which is a closer translation of the original than the Rite II version):

Glory be to God on high,
and on earth peace, good will towards men.

We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee,
we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.

For thou only art holy;
thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ,
with the Holy Ghost,
art most high in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Next week we’ll learn about how the version of the Gloria we’re singing right now came to be written.

Hymn of the month: March 2015 · III

Come, ye faithful, raise the strain [Hymn 200]

John Mason Neale,
translator of this and many, many other hymns

Since we talked about the writer of this hymn, St John of Damascus, last year, we can take some time this year to talk about the man who translated the words of this hymn from the original Greek into English. It was another John: John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest who lived in England from 1818 to 1866. Father Neale’s main official job was to be in charge of a place where a group of old people who didn’t have much money were able to live together with donations from others. He was so generous that he spent some of his own money to fix the place up. In fact he did a lot to help others who were sick or poor: he started a religious order (like nuns) devoted to nursing, and also fought against the custom of people having to pay for a seat in church, which they usually did at that time.

Father Neale is best remembered today, though, for his huge amounts of learning and writing. He studied the history, buildings, customs, writings, and other things about both the Church of England and Churches of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and he wrote many books about them. He started a group that tried to connect the Church of England and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. He wrote novels and stories, and books about history and travel, for grownups and children alike. He tried to teach people to strive for more beautiful worship and more heartfelt prayer. He wrote sermons, hymns, songs, and poems. And maybe most importantly for us, he translated prayer books and hymns from many, many languages (he knew maybe as many as twenty of them!) into English. You can look at the Index of Authors, Translators, and Sources in the back of your Hymnal to see how many of his translations are in there – it’s a lot, maybe more than any other one person!

John Mason Neale is celebrated in the Episcopal Church on August 7 every year. But you can thank God at any time for all the people who have written, translated, and arranged the words and music we sing in church. We can not only learn from their work but also praise God more beautifully because of it.

Hymn of the month: March 2015 · II

Come, ye faithful, raise the strain [Hymn 200]

Last week we looked at the first two stanzas of this hymn. Today we’ll look at the rest of it.

A picture of Jesus appearing to his friends after he rose from the dead,
painted by the Italian master painter Giotto (JOT-toe) around 1300

The third stanza of the hymn is about the feast of Easter itself: it’s the ‘feast of feasts’ because it is the first and most important Christian celebration. And Easter isn’t just a day, but a whole season of fifty days, lasting all the way to Pentecost: it’s the ‘queen of seasons’.

Now the queen of seasons, bright
with the day of splendor,
with the royal feast of feasts,
comes its joy to render;
comes to glad Jerusalem,
who with true affection
welcomes in unwearied strains
Jesus’ resurrection.

The last stanza goes back to talk about the story of Easter itself as it’s told in the Bible. You’ll remember that when some of Jesus’s friends went to the tomb (which was a cave) where He was buried in order to finish preparing His body, they found that the stone forming the door (‘portal’) to the cave had been rolled away, the seal that had been placed there was broken, and the guards were terrified. And on that first Easter Day, Jesus – who was supposed to be dead! – himself came and stood among His friends, greeting them with the words, ‘Peace be with you’.

Neither might the gates of death,
nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the seal
hold thee as a mortal:
but today amidst thine own
thou didst stand, bestowing
that thy peace which evermore
passeth human knowing.

Hymn of the month: March 2015 · I

Come, ye faithful, raise the strain [Hymn 200]

This month, as we get ready to celebrate Easter, we’ll look at another hymn by St John of Damascus, just like we did last year at this time (you might want to go back and read last year’s April series here.

Here is a recording of the tune (the people are singing a different set of words, but the organ is playing the tune clearly):

The first stanza of this hymn calls on all of us (the ‘faithful’) to sing a song (a ‘strain’) because we are so glad to share in Our Lord’s victory over death. We do this first by retelling the story of the Exodus, which we talked about both last April and just last month. The people of Israel (‘Jacob’s sons and daughters’) had become slaves in Egypt (the Pharaoh [FAY-row] was the king of Egypt). But God saw how badly they were being treated there and rescued them from slavery (a yoke is a wooden frame that joins two oxen – or maybe two people – together to pull a heavy load). As the Israelites were escaping, God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that they could cross on dry ground.

Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!
God hath brought his Israel
into joy from sadness:
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters,
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.

The second stanza uses several images to talk about Our Lord rising from the dead. If death is like prison, then Jesus went to rescue those who were locked up there. If death is like sleep, then rising to life is like waking up. And if sin is like winter (especially further north!), when the days are short and the world seems dead, or at least asleep, then Jesus is like the sun and like spring, thawing the frozen world and bringing new light and life. What beautiful ways these are to talk about Easter – and good reasons to praise (‘laud’ [lodd] is another word for ‘praise’) God!

’Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ hath burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun hath risen;
all the winter of our sins,
long and dark, is flying
from his light, to whom we give
laud and praise undying.

We’ll look at the rest of the hymn next time.

Hymn of the month: February 2015 · II

Praise our great and gracious Lord [Hymn 393]

Praise our great and gracious Lord,
     call upon his holy Name;
raising hymns in glad accord,
     all his mighty acts proclaim:
how he leads his chosen
unto Canaan’s promised land,
     how the word
     we have heard
firm and changeless still shall stand.

God has given the cloud by day,
     given the moving fire by night;
guides his Israel on their way
     from the darkness into light.
God it is who grants us
sure retreat and refuge nigh;
     light of dawn
     leads us on:

’tis the Dayspring from on high.

The words of ‘Praise our great and gracious Lord’ are a very short version of the Exodus story, which is maybe the most important part of the history of the Jewish people. It’s important for Christians, too, as we’ll read in a minute.

God leads the Israelites with a pillar of cloud
Benjamin West, 1799 

‘Exodus’ [EX-uh-duss], which is the name of the second book of the Bible, means ‘going out’ and refers to the escape of the ancient people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. You may remember that God chose Moses to help lead His people to the Promised Land. God showed the way with a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. The Israelites didn’t always follow God, however, and so they wandered in the desert for much longer than they should have had to before they got to the Promised Land.

These events, even though they happened so long ago, were remembered and their story told because what happened to Israel is a lot like what happens in each of our lives. When we do things that hurt others or hurt ourselves – which we often do in order to feel good, but in a way that won’t really last – then we are enslaved to our feelings or to what people who don’t want the best for us want us to do. This is like being far away from our home where we really belong, which is close to God.

God showed us the way to come back to Him by sending His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is like Moses, leading us towards where we belong. We trust in His leadership, trying to live our lives like His and put our whole trust in Him. When we wander from His ways, then it’s like we get lost in the desert.

Lent is sort of like a time in the desert, but one that we undertake on purpose – just as Our Lord did after His Baptism. When we fast (eat less, don’t eat during the day, or don’t eat certain things – we talked more about this last Lent, here), it’s like being in a place where there isn’t much food or water to live on, and we have to learn all over again how to trust in God. When we take on a special habit during Lent, like reading the Bible every day or praying more regularly, then it’s like a road map showing us the way through the desert to the Promised Land, where (like at Easter) there is new life close to God.