Music Notes | Fourth Sunday of Easter

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter in all three years of the Eucharistic lectionary cycle, we read portions of John 10, in which Jesus likens himself to a ‘good shepherd’; the Collect refers to this image, and we often sing one or more settings of the appointed Psalm (23). For comments on Hymn 645, ‘The King of love my shepherd is’, please see the Music Notes for 2020-10-11 (Proper 23). The Prelude by early-20th-century English composer Alec Rowley, though not based on a hymn, is a ‘Pastorale’ (= ‘having to do with shepherds’) inscribed ‘The Lord is my shepherd’; the Postlude is a recording of Randall Thompson’s anthem of the same name, previously made by the Parish Choir.

Our opening hymn, Brian Wren’s ‘Christ is alive! Let Christians sing’ [182], deals not with this theme specifically, but with the ongoing life and import of the Risen Christ, an appropriate topic as we move through Eastertide toward Ascension Day and Pentecost. ‘No longer bound / to distant years in Palestine’, Christ is now able to be present in the ‘here and now’ and ‘every place and time’. An orthodox view would suggest that this is possible because of Christ’s Ascension, and that there is no contradiction between the ascended Christ and the Christ who is present in his Body, the Church, and his Body, the Sacrament, and many places besides. Indeed the original last stanza of this hymn began ‘Christ is alive! Ascendant Lord…’, and another of Wren’s texts also begins with the reality of the Ascension: ‘When Christ was lifted from the earth…’ [603]). 

Stanza 3, however, suggests that Christ is ‘not throned above, remotely high’, highlighting the paradox of Christ’s transcendence and immanence. (An Ascension hymn [222] covering much of the same ground as ‘Christ is alive’ makes an interesting comparison.) The point, of course, is that Our Lord continues to be deeply involved in the world, and deeply hurt when, among other things, ‘color, scorn, or wealth’ [182] or ‘generation, class, or race’ [603] divide. In the end, even if ‘Christ is alive’ seems to gloss over the Ascension, its replacement final stanza nevertheless points us toward Pentecost, highlighting the ongoing role of the Spirit to teach ‘[Christ’s] joy, his justice, love, and praise’.

‘Christ is alive’ is set in the Hymnal 1982 to ‘Truro’, a tune of late-18th-century British origin that soon appeared in the US as well. It is characterized by a fanfare-like opening, a dotted rhythm setting a rising figure outlining the tonic triad (the chord built on the ‘home note’); the upward motion is continued stepwise to the upper tonic. In this, the movement to the dominant (the key based on the fifth note of the piece’s home scale) halfway through, the combination of rather static half-note motion with ‘busy’ quarter notes, and other features, ‘Truro’ is very much like, for example, ‘Duke Street’ [544], which comes from exactly the same period. The opening gesture sets the message ‘Christ is alive!’, which begins three of five stanzas, well. The excitement to which the tune is meant to rally the singer-listener – and of course joy is what we should feel about the Resurrection! – should, however, not keep us from contemplating what it might mean to follow a Lord who ‘suffers still, yet loves the more’.

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