Music Notes | Palm Sunday

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

The liturgy on the Sunday of the Passion ordinarily begins with the Liturgy of the Palms, in which the narrative of Our Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is read and branches are solemnly blessed and carried in a procession into the church. Because of the great length of this procession in many places, a number of psalms, antiphons, and hymns are traditionally appointed to be sung as needed. Prominent among them is the hymn ‘Gloria, laus, et honor’, translated in our Hymnal as ‘All glory, laud, and honor’ (154/155). This is taken from a poem of 39 elegaic couplets written by Theodulf, who was Bishop of Orléans ca. 798 to 818 and a key member of Charlemagne’s court, central to his program of ecclesial and educational reforms. 

The first and second stanzas (the first used as a refrain, as is typical of, and suited to, processional use) represent the acclamations recorded in the Gospel accounts: 

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

(Matthew 21.9)

‘Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!’ 

(John 12.13)

(Children are not recorded as being part of the Triumphal Entry itself, but Matthew 21.15 refers to ‘the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David”’. Two of the antiphons also sung at the palm procession likewise refer to the ‘children of the Hebrews’, perhaps following the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate, which does place ‘the children of the Hebrews’ at the scene of the Triumphal Entry.)

The remaining stanzas in liturgical use today draw parallels between the original event and its liturgical re-enactment: angels sing praise in heaven, while we and all creation answer them; the Hebrews went in procession acclaiming Jesus, and we do the same; they sang hymns before Christ’s Passion, and we sing hymns after his Ascension; their praises were acceptable, and we ask that our prayers be as well.

The hymn, in John Mason Neale’s syllabic-meter translation (he also made one in an approximation of the original quantitative meter), is usually sung today to a German tune dating from 1613–14; it is known in German as ‘Valet will ich dir geben’, after the text for which it was written, but in English-language usage it is often called ‘St Theodulph’. The Hymnal 1982 also includes (at Hymn 155) the proper chant melody for ‘Gloria, laus, et honor’, adapted to fit the meter of Neale’s translation and in a rhythmic reading which there is good evidence to believe is authentic to chant of its period.

Our Sequence hymn, ‘Ride on! ride on in majesty!’, was written by poet, playwright, and Oxford professor Henry Hart Milman in response to efforts in the 1820s by Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta, to make a collection of new hymns for the Church year. It is customarily sung, as we will do, to ‘Winchester New’, a sturdy and familiar tune with which it was paired in some earlier hymnals. The structure of the text, however – in which the first line of each stanza is set off from the rest by its repetition, its sense and punctuation, and its lack (for us, at least) of true rhyme with the second line – ideally would invite the use of a tune that does the same, whether the ‘The King’s Majesty’, written for it and paired with it in the 1940 and 1982 editions of the Hymnal, or another.

However sung, this magnificent text is heavy with the relentless inevitability (embodied structurally in the aforementioned first-line repetition) and deep sorrow of the Passion that the Gospels so vividly portray: while a patristic commentary on the Ascension imagines the angels not recognizing the glorified Christ – ‘Who is this King of glory?’, as Psalm 24 asks – here, by contrast, the heavenly host know all too well whom and what they are watching. At the same time the text hints at the peculiar kind of ‘triumphs’ and ‘power’ characteristic of the Kingdom of God: a pomp that is ‘lowly’, a power found in sacrifice; the whole showing us the truest sort and sense of ‘majesty’. 

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