Music Notes – Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

Pentecost (‘fiftieth’) is the Greek name for the ancient Israelite festival of Shavuot (‘weeks’) marking the end of the harvest season fifty days, or a ‘week of weeks’, after its beginning at Pesach (Passover). Also known as the Day of First Fruits [Num. 28.26], Pentecost, like Passover, is an occasion of pilgrimage to Jerusalem; probably by the time of Christ it had also come to commemorate the giving of Torah to Moses [Exodus 19] and thus the constitution of Israel as a holy nation. 

The Christian feast of Pentecost is so called because the powerful experience of the Holy Spirit’s advent as recorded in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles took place at this time. It marks a renewal and radical expansion of the ekklêsía (the solemn assembly of those in covenant relationship with the Lord) already established in Israel: thus St Peter can apply the same terms used of Israel to the followers of Christ, who are themselves then known as the ekklêsía: living stones, a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s people [1 Pet. 2.9]. And St Peter comes to know that the ekklêsía is meant ultimately to encompass ‘even the Gentiles’, upon whom the Holy Spirit fell [Acts 10]. 

Thus Christians see the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost as the fulfillment of not only the divine promise to reanimate Israel after its exile and dissolution, to regrow the nation from the root-stock of Jesse (via the scion whom Christians readily identify as Christ, Himself the first-fruits), but also of the promise to pour out the Spirit upon all flesh. It is the fulfillment of Christ’s promises to send ‘another Advocate’ so that the power once concentrated in his single human Body could be shared more broadly with his differentiated human Body, the Church, and thence to the whole world. It is also an undoing of the chaos and sundering of Babel, not by the eradication but by the accommodation of difference – divers languages and peoples, varieties of the Spirit’s gifts and a whole list of her fruits – and the gathering up of all into the Trinitarian communion of love. It is nothing less than the renewal of all creation by the Spirit who is the agent of that creation, its structure and sustainer. 

The Introit antiphon on the Day of Pentecost –

The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole of earth’s compass: 

and that which holds all things together understands all that is uttered

(Wisdom 1.7) 

– speaks to this outpouring of the Spirit and her cosmic role, and this verse is taken in the liturgical context of this day to refer to the aforementioned undoing of Babel. The somewhat sprawling (perhaps composite) Psalm 68, which generally casts God as a warrior-king and in part describes a grand procession, is appointed with it, either because of this description of a procession, or as a reiteration of the Easter victory at the end of the season – or perhaps  particularly because of verse 13, which we have chosen to sing this day:

You shall be like a dove whose wings are covered with silver, 

whose [tail-] feathers are like green gold.

For information on our opening hymn, ‘Hail this joyful day’s return’ [224], please see the notes for last Pentecost, 2020-05-31.

Our Sequence hymn, ‘Spirit divine, attend our prayers’ [509], was written in 1829 for a day of prayer for revival. Each of the interior stanzas is centered upon a metaphor for the Spirit: light, fire, dove (and in two now omitted stanzas, dew and wind). The light reveals and leads; the fire purges and allows a pure and whole offering; the dove blesses and bestows love, making that part of the Church on earth more like that in heaven. The last stanza nearly repeats the first but moves the scope of the Spirit’s desired activity from ‘this house’ to the whole world. The author of the text, Andrew Reed, an English Congregationalist minister, was and is best known for founding hospitals and asylums for orphans and those with physical and mental illnesses.

Our anthem, ‘De Spiritu Sancto’ (‘Of the Holy Spirit’), was written by Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century German abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, and mystic. This stunningly brilliant woman left us with one of the largest bodies of music known to be written by a single composer in the medieval period; this œuvre is all the more remarkable for setting texts also written by the composer, many of them strikingly visionary. In the present text Hildegard praises the Spirit, who is at the root of every created thing, for her quickening, healing, and cleansing powers. 

Finally, the organ prelude and postlude are settings of the hymn ‘Veni creator spiritus’, whose popularity (in the Middle Ages it was often sung before Mass, as well as being appointed at  Evening Prayer on the Day of Pentecost; it is one of only a handful of hymns specifically mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer, where it is appointed to be sung at ordinations) is attested to by several translations and several musical versions and settings in the Hymnal. These organ settings, based upon the traditional plainsong melody, were written by the Hamburg composer Hieronymus Praetorius around 1600 for use in verse-by-verse alternation with singing. In both cases the melody is found in the lowest voice, played on the pedals of the organ.

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