Music Notes | Feast of the Epiphany

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

Although the Epiphany was originally a feast celebrating the various aspects of the Nativity as well as the inauguration of Christ’s public ministry (in his Baptism and first miracle), over time and in different places, the different parts of the story were assigned to their own feasts, and in the West the Visitation of the Magi has come to be the focus of the Feast of the Epiphany itself. Our three hymns for this service (one sung as an anthem) offer three slightly different perspectives upon that event.

‘Earth has many a noble city’ is a translation of a few stanzas taken for liturgical use from a long ‘Hymn of the Epiphany’, one of a set of twelve devotional poems written around the year 400 by the Spanish Roman poet Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ [82] also comes from this collection). The fourth stanza of the Hymnal text shows that already by the end of the third century the gifts of the Magi had been given symbolic interpretations:

Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:

incense doth their God disclose,

gold the King of kings proclaimeth,

myrrh his sepulcher foreshows.

For Episcopalians, the pairing of the tune ‘Stuttgart’ with this hymn creates a welcome echo of Advent, when the same tune is used to sing ‘Come, thou long-expected Jesus’: neat bookends for the season as the promises of Advent are fulfilled (as the Prayer Book subtitles it, this feast celebrates the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles – the subject of the Epistle for the feast).

Though the connections between the royal Psalm 72 and the Epiphany are clear (v.10: ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts’), the Latin original of this same stanza of ‘Earth has many a noble city’ makes the connection even more explicit: the incense is specifically ‘Sabaean’ (a connection also made in the Lesson from Isaiah 60). Psalm 72 is appointed as the Gradual Psalm; verses of the same are also sung as the Introit, where they interpret the antiphon –

See there! The ruler and Lord is drawing near: 

and in his hand are the kingdom and the power and authority

– which acclamation continues the Advent theme (indeed the word translated ‘is drawing near’ is advenit) and is fulfilled in the Eucharist, in the world around us, and at the end of all things. The melody of this Introit is the basis for the organ prelude, a short work by 20th-century French composer Maurice Duruflé, whose famous Requiem and a shorter Mass are also based closely on chant melodies. 

If the foregoing focus particularly on the kingly aspects of both Christ and his illustrious  visitors (they are not called kings in the Matthaean account, but the adduction of Psalm 72.10 to the symbolism of this feast no doubt spurred that tradition), another hymn about the Visitation of the Magi, ‘As with gladness men of old’, brings the event much further down to earth: there is no royalty, no symbolism imputed to the gifts; instead, the focus is on the desired parallels between the adoration and gifts offered by the ‘men of old’ and our own worship: each of the first three stanzas is set constructed ‘As they …, so may we…’. In the last two stanzas this pattern gives way as the author returns to the image of the star that began the hymn, with a prayer that we may follow Jesus (the true Light) in our earthly lives, and be brought at last ‘where they need no star to guide’: an idea expanded upon in the final stanza, which borrows from Revelation 21 and 22. The graceful tune, of German origin, was first adapted for English-language use with this text and so was named for the hymnist, William Chatterton Dix. (Two other hymns by Dix appear in the Hymnal, including ‘What child is this’, which, though not an Epiphany hymn, actually mentions ‘incense, gold, and myrrh’ whereas the present one does not.)

If ‘Earth has many a noble city’ tells the story mostly in the third person, in a combination of the past and present tenses, and ‘As with gladness men of old’ draws parallels between the Magi and ourselves, ‘Brightest and best of the stars of the morning’ casts us, the singers, as the Magi: we are journeying by the light of the star; we ask whether the most precious things on earth are worthy gifts, before concluding, no doubt correctly, that ‘richer by far is the heart’s adoration, / dearer to God are the prayers of the poor’. ‘Brightest and best’ is sung on this occasion to a sturdy tune that first appeared in print (in 1826 in Maine) with this text, though its strictly modal and nearly hexatonic character (that is, it does not deviate from the basic scale that is used, and the sixth note of the scale is used only as a passing tone in one phrase) strongly suggest an older or folk origin. The repetition of the first stanza as the last is a trait found in some other hymns by the same author, Reginald Heber (see 362 and 258); its use also as a refrain stems from that first pairing with the present tune.

This entry was posted in Music Notes, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.