Music Notes | The Day of Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music and Organist

The Easter Season culminates at Pentecost, which feast commemorates the constitution of Israel as a holy nation, and in Christian understanding, the renewal and radical expansion of this solemn assembly (ekklesia) of those in covenant with the LORD.
‘Hail this joyful day’s return’ was historically sung at Evening Prayer on this feast. Amidst a straightforward acknowledgement of the present occasion, a recounting of the original event, and prayers for the coming of the Spirit, the translator beautifully summarizes several lines of Latin and the import of Pentecost: why did the Spirit appear as tongues of fire? ‘Tongues, that earth may hear their call; fire, that love may burn in all.’ The hymn appears with a plainsong melody at Hymn 223; we sing it to the 15th-century folk tune printed at 224.
Our anthem (Hymn 226) is the Sequence for Pentecost, ‘Veni sancte spiritus’. (A Sequence in Western liturgy is a Latin text, usually in rhyme and accentual meter like modern hymns but unlike earlier Latin ones, sung before the Gospel on certain days). This most beautiful text acclaims and prays for many gifts, perhaps beyond those explicitly ascribed to the Spirit in Scripture, and too many to list here. The Hymnal translation reproduces the original rhyme scheme (aab, ccb, ddb…) and is set to a rhythmic interpretation of the plainsong melody which may reflect its original form.
Both these hymns and Sunday’s other selection, ‘O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God’, were newly chosen, or newly translated, for the Hymnal 1982 or its trial-use predecessor. One hymn proposed in that predecessor but not included in the final revision was ‘Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott’, a fine pre-Reformation German folk hymn paraphrasing a Latin antiphon. The postlude is based on this hymn, with the melody presented in dialogue between treble and bass; a Reformation-era translation by Miles Coverdale is printed in Sunday’s service leaflet.

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