Music Notes | Seventh Sunday of Easter

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

In the days between the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord (the Thursday 40 days after Easter) and the Day of Pentecost (the Sunday seven weeks after Easter) the Church dwells on Christ’s teaching and promises regarding what would happen after his departure. At the Daily Office several items change for this mini-season of Ascensiontide, and the proper texts at the Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday of Easter – indeed subtitled ‘The Sunday after Ascension Day’ – continue these themes.

The Collect for this Sunday –

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before…

– sums them up: we celebrate Christ’s return to the Father, victorious in what he was sent to accomplish on earth; we await the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit; and we live in the hope that we will follow where Our Lord has led. The Introit for this Sunday, from Psalm 27, speaks especially to this latter theme: 

…Your face is all my longing; your face, O Lord, will I seek out; do not turn your countenance away from me. One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple.

A most powerful hymn on Christ’s exaltation, ‘At the Name of Jesus’ [435], will be sung this week; please see the notes for Proper 29.

Another fine hymn suitable for this day is ‘Alleluia! sing to Jesus!’ [460]. Written by William Chatterton Dix (also the author of ‘What child is this’ [115], and ‘As with gladness men of old’ [119]), it was titled ‘Redemption by the Precious Blood’ and published in one of Dix’s own collections, Altar Songs, Verses on the Holy Eucharist (1867). Indeed stanzas 3 and 4 are much concerned with the subject that is the title of this collection, and for this reason stanza 4 is omitted at our Liturgy of the Word.

This Eucharistic heart of the text is much inspired by the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which Christ is described as the great High Priest who has entered the Holy of Holies; made the one perfect, eternal sacrifice of himself; and then ‘sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high’ – a place to which God has lifted him up. This exaltation is alluded to in several Epistles and described in vividly physical terms in St Luke’s Gospel and Acts of the Apostles and in this hymn. From there we can back up to Our Lord’s promises – ‘I will not leave you orphaned’ [John 14.18]; ‘I am with you always’ [Matt. 28.20] – and look forward to the Revelation to St John, also quoted or alluded to in the first stanza (and its repetition as the last), and in the third. The repetition of ‘Alleluia’ at the beginning of each stanza ties them all together and reminds us that Ascensiontide is part of the larger season of Eastertide, throughout which rings this acclamation of praise to God.

This hymn is set in the Hymnal 1982 to two tunes, of which the much more popular is ‘Hyfrydol’ [460, also used in this book for ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’, 657, and used for several other texts in other collections]. This tune, whose Welsh name (pronounced huh-VRUH-doll) means ‘joyful’, was written by the 20-year-old Roland Huw Prichard in 1830 and later published in a collection of his own. This original version was in three voices, with the melody in the middle voice (just as in American collections of the same period such as The Sacred Harp), with rather less adventurous harmony, and in one or two places a simpler melody, than that found in the Hymnal 1982 (written for the 1940 edition). ‘Hyfrydol’ became widely known in English-language contexts through further publication in the early 20th century.

Hymn 222 was referred to in the notes for the 4th Sunday of Easter in comparison to 182, ‘Christ is alive!’. This week 222 serves as our anthem. Written by Albert Bayly (like Brian Wren, the author of ‘Christ is alive!’, a Congregationalist minister and a prominent 20th-century hymnist much concerned with social issues), 222 is titled simply ‘Ascension Hymn’. It begins, as does our Collect, with Christ’s triumphant ascension (on Christ’s triumph and ‘strife with human hatred’, compare two Passiontide hymns, 156 and 163), then continues with Our Lord’s promise, fulfilled in the experience of his followers, of his continuing presence among us. The clause ‘He reigns’, introduced in the second line of the second stanza, is then repeated to begin both the third and fourth stanzas. In the third, Bayly continues to explore the paradox of Christ’s transcendence and immanence, with particular attention to Christ’s care for us in all our struggles: his ‘strife with human hatred’ may in one sense have ‘end[ed]’, but at the same time he ‘takes…the cares…pain…and shame of human strife’. In the last stanza, Bayly looks beyond past and present concerns to the future: ‘He reigns in heaven until’ he comes again to complete his work and ‘rule the world’; the love that stoops to share our troubles is in the end characterized by ‘glorious power’.

For use as an anthem we have chosen to set this text to the tune ‘Compline’ [41]. Written by the living American composer David Hurd (several other of whose hymn-tunes, e.g. ‘Mighty Savior’ [35] and ‘Andújar’ [104], and many of whose plainsong accompaniments, are among the finest new material in the Hymnal) for a modern translation of the Compline hymn ‘O Christ, you are both light and day’, it is itself a chant melody provided with a hauntingly beautiful accompaniment. Like many plainsong hymn-tunes, especially those for the Little Hours and for Ordinary Time, it is entirely syllabic and has a limited range. In the present case Hurd’s music provides an opportunity to reflect deeply upon the mysteries touched upon in Bayly’s hymn.

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