Music Notes | Easter Day

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

One of the Easter hymns enjoying perhaps the most widespread use in English-speaking Christianity is ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’ (207). Behind the English text lie a Latin trope, or expansion, of the ‘Let us bless the Lord’ sung at the end of the Office, and one or more 15th- or 16th-century German versions thereof. The English text now in use took shape gradually through the course of the eighteenth century and appearances in various collections. Neither the English nor its Latin or German predecessors is particularly profound, but items sung in procession – and with a repeated Alleluia acclamation with which the people can respond from memory to lines sung by a cantor or choir, this is eminently suited to such use – need not be.

The tune associated with this English text first appeared with it in the first publication of the text’s original version, in the 1708 collection Lyra Davidica. The full title of the collection goes on to note that its contents are ‘set to easy and pleasant tunes, for more General Use’, and the editor of that collection states that these tunes were intended to provide ‘a little freer air than the grave movement of the Psalm-tunes’ then commonly in use. The present tune, called simply ‘Easter Hymn’, is certainly pleasant to listen to, making good use of the system of tonal harmony that had developed by that time, as well as of contrasts of range, to give it shape; and it is easy to learn and remember thanks to the repetition of motivic material as well as to the Alleluia refrain that is sung identically twice, and with the same shape but at a higher pitch the third time. (In the original form of the tune, the final Alleluia was also the same as the first two.) The tune is attractive enough to encourage singers to meet the challenges of a wide range and the melismatic (many notes to each syllable) setting of the Alleluias.

The use of the anthem(s) Pascha nostrum (‘Christ our Passover’) in the Prayer Book has its roots in later medieval tradition. It was the custom after the Good Friday liturgy for the cross, and later the Blessed Sacrament, to be laid in an ‘Easter sepulchre’, which took various forms. The liturgical procession before the first Mass of Easter went first to that sepulchre, whence the Sacrament and cross were returned to their usual place of honor; the procession was accompanied by a chant consisting in part of Romans 6.9–10.

In the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) of the reformed Church of England, Romans 6.9–11 with Alleluias, with I Corinthians 15.20–22 and a collect that is now the first Collect for Easter Day, were thus appointed to be ‘solemnly sung or said’ before Morning Prayer on Easter Day. In subsequent Prayer Books, these ‘Easter anthems’ (later preceded by I Corinthians 5.7–8) were appointed to replace the Invitatory Psalm (Venite, Psalm 95) at Morning Prayer on Easter Day; our current Prayer Book retains this custom, as well as suggesting this text for use, as an alternative to the Gloria in excelsis, at the beginning of the Easter Vigil Eucharist.

It is by analogy with this latter usage that we sing a much abridged metrical paraphrase of ‘Pascha nostrum’ this Easter Day. Found in one of the supplements to the Hymnal published by Church Publishing, Wonder, Love, and Praise, this text by Episcopal priest-poet Carl Daw is based on the traditional-language version of ‘Christ our Passover’ (BCP 46), using, among other older phraseology, ‘is sacrificed’ (in the older present-perfect sense of this construction, rather than ‘has been sacrificed’ as newer translations would put it). This construction, which translates a Greek aorist but sounds to modern English-speakers like a simple present* (and is the construction used in the ‘Christ our Passover’ acclamation at the Breaking of the Bread), along with the collapsing of the two lines concerning ‘the leaven of malice and evil’ vs ‘the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’ to the single line ‘forsaking sin, we share the bread of truth’, inevitably tie the text, and the events of which it speaks, to the Eucharistic celebration at which it will most often be sung. The text is set to Vaughan Williams’s tune ‘Sine Nomine’, which, since it expects Alleluias at the end of each stanza, is appropriate for the ‘Pascha nostrum’, which similarly has an Alleluia antiphon. (The responsorial form of the text in conjunction with the march-like style of the music, however, suggests processional rather than static use. It might also be said that this combination of text and tune causes rather a lot of emphasis to be put on ‘us’, and more than is warranted, given their ordinary pronunciation or their importance in this text, on a number of other words or syllables.)

Our Sequence hymn, ‘At break of day three women came’, comes from another Hymnal supplement, Voices Found: Women in the Church’s Song. A paraphrase of selections from the Orthodox liturgy for the Third Sunday of Easter, which honors the ‘Myrrh-bearing women’, it was written by Janet Wootton, an English Congregational minister and theologian who works in the arts and among those experiencing homelessness. The first stanza of this text tells the story of the three women who, faithfully going to finish preparing the body of Our Lord for proper burial, instead became the first witnesses to his resurrection. It begins in the past tense – three women came; they wept and mourned – but shifts to the present as soon as they make their discovery: the stone is rolled; they worship and then run to tell. This sets up the rest of the text, which is cast in a series of imperatives. In the second stanza, these are addressed to Biblical subjects: Mary, see; shine, Jerusalem. In the third stanza, these imperatives are now, presumably, addressed to the ‘congregation here present’, and/or to the whole Church, called the ‘New Jerusalem’: come celebrate, come share, leap (which is what ‘exult’ means) and praise

It is also worth noting that, while most English-language hymns use rhyme, and some modern ones (including the previously discussed ‘Pascha nostrum’ paraphrase) do not, this text makes regular use of half-rhyme, with full rhyme used consistently only in lines 5–6, in the following scheme (x = no rhyme; lower case = half-rhyme; upper case = full rhyme; two letters together = internal rhyme):

x a x a B B cc b 

Perhaps intentionally, more full rhymes are found at the end of  the final stanza: 

x a x a B B CC B

Much of this text draws upon Isaiah 60; Psalm 107.3 is another likely source, and there are probably still others. The portions of the Orthodox text which most immediately inform stanzas 2 and 3 of this hymn are as follows:

Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord hath arisen upon thee; dance now and be glad, O Zion, and do thou exult, O pure Theotokos, in the arising of him whom thou didst bear.

Come from the vision, O ye women, bearers of good tidings, and say ye unto Zion: Receive from us the good tidings of the Resurrection of Christ; adorn thyself, exult, and rejoice, O Jerusalem, for thou hast seen Christ the King, like a bridegroom come forth from the tomb.

We celebrate the death of death, the destruction of Hades, the beginning of another life eternal, and leaping for joy, we hymn the Cause, the only blessed and supremely glorious God of our fathers.

O thou who hast crushed the might of death and hast opened the gates of Paradise unto manking, glory be to thee.

Truly sacred and all-festive is…this shining, light-bearing day, the harbinger of the Resurrection, whereon the Timeless Light bodily from the tomb upon all hath shined.

*Verb tense and aspect can fail when we speak of things that happen or are the case in divine or liturgical time, but, whatever the Eucharistic theology of the Episcopal Church today, it is clear, from the version of the text appointed at the Breaking of the Bread in the first Prayer Book, that the framers of that book understood Christ’s sacrifice as a past event, and stated so explicitly in opposition to any sense that it was being repeated in the Eucharist: 

Christ our Pascall lambe is offred up for us, once for al, when he bare our sinnes on hys body upon the crosse, for he is the very lambe of God, that taketh away the sines of the worlde: wherfore let us kepe a joyfull and holy feast with the Lorde.

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