Music Notes | Third Sunday of Easter

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

The early Christian hymn ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ became a part of Morning Prayer on Sundays and other feasts in the  by the fourth century, a position it has retained in the Eastern Church. In the West, by contrast, it became part of the Mass – at first only on certain occasions; eventually, by the end of the 11th century, at all Masses on Sundays and other feasts outside of penitential seasons. The reformed Church of England moved the Gloria to the end of the Communion service, and in the Episcopal Church’s use it regained its historic location near the beginning of the Eucharist only in the current (1979) Book of Common Prayer. In a throwback to its original use, however, the Gloria is also found, in both the Prayer Book and the Hymnal 1982, among the Canticles for use at Morning Prayer. This use and location lie behind the rubric in the Eucharistic rite that ‘some other song of praise’ may be substituted for the Gloria.

Accordingly, just as we sang a paraphrase of ‘Pascha nostrum’ at the Easter Vigil and Easter Day services, we will sing a metrical paraphrase of the Magnificat, or Song of Mary (Luke 1.46–55), during the rest of Eastertide. This version, ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’ (437/438), was written by Timothy Dudley-Smith, an important English hymnist (and later bishop), in 1961. Inspired by the translation of the relevant passage in the then new New English Bible, he took its first line over as the first line of his poem, repeating the first four words at the beginning of each stanza, and repeating the entire first line (with the same ‘Lord/word’ rhyme, though now in reversed order) as the penultimate line of the whole poem. Though iambic texts in English often make use of trochaic (or spondaic) substitution in the first foot of some lines, in this case such substitution is found in the first three lines of practically every stanza; perhaps we can see this metrical inversion as a formal embodiment of the many reversals detailed in the Magnificat, and paraphrased in the present third stanza, which remind us that those whom the world accounts lowliest are the loftiest in the eyes of God.

The text is found with two tunes in the Hymnal. Of the two, ‘Woodlands’ (438) is the more popular pairing and, taken on its own merits, the more attractive piece of music (neither tune fully accommodates the scansion of the text). This early-20th-century tune, typical of the ‘[English] public school tune’ genre of that era (compare ‘Sine Nomine’, to which we sang the Pascha nostrum paraphrase on Easter Day, for a well-known example), is characterized by a walking (or march-like) bass line and sweeping melodic lines, both of which give it a great deal of forward motion. That motion is barely checked at the end of the second line, where instead of a true cadence and/or a long note providing a point of repose there is a movement to the dominant (F-sharp) of the relative minor (B) and hardly time for a breath before the anacrustic four-note gesture with which the tune begins is repeated, now moving to that relative minor key. After a last line that rises almost a full octave, the tune ends with two notes set an octave lower than that rising line would lead the singer to expect. The expected pitches are supplied (as the natural resolution of a descending line above, and in contrary motion to, the last phrase of the melody) in the alternative accompaniment found in the accompaniment edition of the Hymnal. And then (as also with ‘Sine Nomine’) the tune begins all over again with a bass note on the downbeat kicking off the opening anacrustic phrase.

Where ‘Woodlands’ aims for grandeur and a sort of perpetual motion, two carol tunes bring a different sort of energy to Sunday’s service. 

‘Puer nobis nascitur’ (‘Unto us a boy is born’) is known to be as old as the 15th century and has appeared in many forms; in the Hymnal it is found in both duple-meter, trochaic [98] and triple-meter, iambic [124, 193] versions. The first phrase travels stepwise up and down the first four notes of the musical scale, while the second rises stepwise from the fifth scale degree to the upper final. The last two phrases then fall in somewhat similar ‘cascading’ shapes back down through the upper half and the lower half of the scale respectively. Hymn 193, which we sing this Sunday, is a translation of parts of two Eastertide Office hymns: stanzas 1–3 taken from ‘Claro paschali gaudio’, the last section of a morning hymn, ‘Aurora lucis rutilat’, and 4–5 from ‘Ad cenam agni providi’ (Hymns 174 and 202, which see). The present text usefully connects the events of Easter Day with the rest of the Easter Season. 

‘O filii et filiae’ (‘O sons and daughters’) is also found in two versions in the Hymnal, at 203 and 206, with different, though overlapping, selections of stanzas taken from a longer text. The version at 203 is, like the version of ‘Puer nobis’ being sung this week, in a lively triple meter, while 206 is cast in a pseudo-Gregorian-chant style. No one is sure which is closer to the original, which may be of similar vintage to ‘Puer nobis’, though the oldest known source comes from early-17th-century France. The text at 203 focuses upon the women at the empty tomb on Easter morning and the apostles who met that evening, while that at 206 picks up the story and focuses on St Thomas’s reaction to the Risen Christ; both versions are framed by a threefold Alleluia antiphon, whose music is identical to the last phrase of the strophic melody, which itself ends with a single Alleluia. 

These two hymns are also heard in our prelude and postlude: ‘Puer nobis’ in a setting by Nicolas Lebègue, a central figure in a great flowering of organ music in 17th-century France who published several organ books in the 1670s–80s, and ‘O filii’ in a setting by Alec Wyton, an English musician who served as organist of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York 1954–74 and Coordinator of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Church Music for a decade thereafter.

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