Music Notes | Trinity Sunday

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music and Organist

Trinity Sunday is sometimes called ‘the only feast that honors a doctrine’, but orthodox Christianity affirms that the Trinity is not just a doctrine, but rather a living reality, the very nature (or our best attempt to understand it) of the Godhead. The evocative Old Testament readings for the day celebrate Creation (Genesis 1 this year; Proverbs 8 in Lectionary Year C) and the majesty of God (Isaiah 6); there is thus no shortage of suitable hymnody. 

‘Holy holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!’, the best-known of Reginald Heber’s texts and one of the most popular of all Protestant hymns, is based on Revelation 4, where the thrice-holy appears as in Isaiah 6. The similar outer stanzas (a trait found in other hymns of Heber’s such as 117/118 and 258) end with a Trinitarian acclamation, while the inner stanzas end with other triads: ‘which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be’; ‘perfect in power, in love, and purity’. Heber, a parish priest and then briefly Bishop of Kolkata before his death, helped establish hymn-singing in the Church of England with his 1826 collection, written when the congregational singing of anything but psalm-paraphrases was not officially sanctioned. The tune, called ‘Nicaea’ after the location of the fourth-century Council that worked out the Trinitarian doctrine, was written for this text in 1860. Its opening notes, forming a major triad, may symbolize the Trinity.

The perhaps equally popular ‘All creatures of our God and King’ is based upon the ‘Canticle of Brother Sun and of all Creatures’ of Francis of Assisi, noteworthy as an early example of religious song in the Italian vernacular. This translation was written for the present tune, ‘Lasst uns erfreuen’, which derives from the same Strassburg Reformation source as ‘Old 113th’ (printed with Hymn 429). A somewhat closer translation of the original is found at Hymn 406/407.

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