Music Notes | Fifth Sunday of Easter

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

This Sunday St David’s offers two distinct services in additon to Choral Compline. Our webcast Liturgy of the Word honors the graduating seniors of the parish and was in part shaped by them. We are also thrilled to be offering the first celebration of the Eucharist on the church grounds (on the parking lot for now) in more than a year, and the first live offering of the choirs. Both hymns to be sung at the Liturgy of the Word have been covered in this series before: ‘Come, thou fount of every blessing’ [686] on 2020-06-14, and ‘Like the murmur of the dove’s song’ [513] on 2020-05-17. These notes therefore concentrate on the music for the afternoon Eucharist.

‘In Christ there is no East or West’ was written around 1908 by William Arthur Dunkerley, an English journalist, novelist, and poet (for his writing in the latter two genres he used the pen-name John Oxenham). Surely inspired by, though not directly quoting, various passages in the Epistles regarding the removal of divisions effected by Christ and bestowed in baptism (Gal. 3.28, Col. 3.11, 1 Cor. 12.13, etc), it celebrates the essential unity of all Christians of whatever origin. This Sunday it chimes with St John’s message of love and appropriately precedes the account of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts of the Apostles 8), which fulfills various prophetic visions of the expansion of the People of God beyond the ethnos of Israel (‘Ethiopia’ being probably the most distant place and home of the most different people the Hebrew writers could name) and beyond religious regulation regarding physical characteristics or status required for participation in the worshipping community. The account also reminds us of the antiquity of the Church in Ethiopia as well as in Egypt and, formerly, in the lands in between, in what was once called Nubia. 

The tune to which this text is set, ‘McKee’, is often called a Black spiritual; as such, it, like many other spirituals, was made popular in the late 19th century by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University (a historically Black university in Nashville). The Irish composer Charles V. Stanford identified the melody as an Irish tune which could easily have been brought to the US by Irish immigrants and just as easily have been heard, learned, and sung by others. Such an origin would by no means disqualify it from being a ‘Black spiritual’ and indeed would embody the spirit of the present text, for which it was adapted by Harry T. Burleigh, a prominent African American singer, composer, and arranger of the first half of the 20th century. This pairing of text and tune made its first appearance in a hymnal in the 1940 edition of the Hymnal of the Episcopal Church.

With the celebration of the Eucharist we once again have the privilege to join the chorus of heaven in the great song of praise ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord…’ (Sanctus). For outdoor use a setting of the common modern version of this text to the hymn-tune ‘Land of Rest’, which almost sings itself, seemed appropriate. The tune first appeared in print in an American collection in 1836, though like many tunes found in such books it may be a good deal older; like many tunes of vernacular origin the world over, it uses a pentatonic, or five-note, scale (as notated here, F-G-A-C-D), which means it can be sung in canon and accompanied or harmonized in many ways – or stand on its own without any elaboration at all.

We are also pleased to return to long-neglected communion hymns, beginning this week with ‘Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen’ [314], a translation of part of a Eucharistic devotional hymn often attributed to St Thomas Aquinas. The main point of the Hymnal text is the failure of the senses, and the requirement of faith, to discern the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. One of the three original stanzas not represented in the Hymnal refers rather strikingly to the legend of the pelican, who was said to feed her young with her own blood when there was no other food (or even to be able to revive her dead young therewith):

Dear Pelican, Lord Jesu,

cleanse me, the unclean, with your blood,

of which one drop can save the whole world from every sin.

The well-formed tune is first found in a late-17th-century French source and thus might be classified as ‘pseudo-’ or ‘neo-chant’. The first line (repeated as the second) consists of a musical ‘question and answer’: a rising, figure outlining and elaborating a major triad (the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale), followed by a stepwise descent back to the tonic, or home, note. Where this first line remains essentially within the lower half of the scale, the third line begins with a stepwise rise from the fifth scale note to the upper tonic and a return to the fifth note, followed by a stepwise descent to the second note of the scale: itself another ‘question’ or unresolved figure that must be answered in the last line. That last line begins with an ‘up-and-over’ figure skipping from the third to the fifth note of the scale and then descending stepwise again to the second though touching on – perhaps ‘foreshadowing’ – the tonic, and ends with a phrase moving only within the first three pitches of the scale; the last three notes are identical to the last three notes of line 1/2, providing a sense of closure. Though the tune sets the text almost entirely syllabically, each line is inflected slightly with a two-note figure (rising in lines 1–2, falling in lines 3–4) on the accented fifth syllable. 

Though ‘Humbly I adore thee’ does not use precisely the language found in Sunday’s Gospel portion from John 15, nevertheless we may well pray that the ‘sweetness never-failing’ of Jesus, the true Vine, be found in us as we abide in him and bear fruit, sustained by the ‘living Bread that give[th] all [his] creatures breath’. 

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