Music Notes | Trinity Sunday

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

The Holy Trinity is appropriately honored on the First Sunday after Pentecost, when the Church has completed its seasons of celebration of the coming and earthly ministry of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Acknowledgement of the Trinity of course runs throughout the Church’s liturgy, as ‘Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit’ is added to the singing of the Psalms and Canticles of the Daily Office, and Collects in certain liturgical positions are concluded with a Trinitarian formula; the Creeds, too, affirm this, the Church’s best attempt to understand and name the nature of the Godhead.

Many of our hymns also end with Trinitarian doxologies, and some are specifically Trinitarian throughout. The best known of these, ‘Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!’ [362], was covered in the notes for Trinity Sunday last year (June 7), which see. Another often sung is ‘Come, thou almighty King’ [365]. This text, indeed entitled ‘An Hymn to the Trinity’, originated in Methodist circles just before 1760. It was originally sung to the tune of the British national anthem, which Americans use for ‘My country, ’tis of thee’; the music to which it is now sung was written for it not long after its first appearance. (The composer was Felice de Giardini, an Italian musician working in London; a version of this tune is thus called ‘Italian Hymn’, while the present version is often called ‘Moscow’ after the place of the composer’s death.) 

‘Come, thou almighty King’ is cast as an invocation: each of the three stanzas asks one Person of the Trinity to ‘come’ and then to do a number of other things, respective attributes and activities of the Persons being named along the way. The Father, the loving creator, is asked to help our worship and to establish himself, and that adoration, at the center of our being: ‘build in our hearts thy throne’. The Son is petitioned to bless, and to spread righteousness abroad. The Spirit is asked to ‘bear witness’ [Acts 5.32; Romans 8.16], and, like the Father, to ‘rule in every heart’. Each of these stanzas begins and ends with epithets for the respective Persons: the Father is ‘almighty King’ and ‘Ancient of Days’; the Son, ‘incarnate Word’ and ‘Savior and friend’; the Spirit, ‘holy Comforter’ and ‘Spirit of power’. These parallelisms, and repetitions of not only the imperative ‘come’ at the beginning of each stanza, but of the same word twice more in the second stanza, and of ‘help’ in the first, give the text rhetorical force, while the dactylic meter and the stanzaic structure and rhyme scheme (6 6 4 6 6 6 4; AABCCCB), the ‘extra’ penultimate line in particular – and the musical repetition in the fourth and fifth lines – also propel the stanza forward. The text concludes with a Trinitarian doxology and a final prayer that we may behold and worship the Holy Trinity for ever.

Trinity Sunday was a rather late addition to the Western Church’s liturgy; it was not ordered to be observed across the whole Church until the 14th century, though a votive Mass of the Holy Trinity was used for additional celebrations on Sundays (see BCP 199/251 and 927, where it is still the first-listed Mass for ‘Various Occasions’) and for other occasions like weddings. Thus some of the proper chants for the Trinity Sunday Mass were adapted from older ones, including the Introit (Entrance) antiphon, whose music is based on that of the Introit for the First Sunday in Lent. The text –

Blessed be the Holy Trinity, one God and undivided Unity:

we shall glorify him for all the good things he has done for us in his loving kindness

– of this short Introit (other than the initial blessing and acknowledgement of the Trinity) has been traced to the book of Tobit, though its general themes of praise and thanksgiving for divine providence may be found in many other places. It is paired with Psalm 8, a psalm of wonder at the glories of creation, of which we sing the first two verses, beginning ‘O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your name in all the world’. 

The antiphon sung as a prelude, the striking work (like last week’s anthem) of Hildegard of Bingen, likewise praises the Trinity –

Praise to the Trinity, who is Sound and Life and the Creatress of all things in themselves in life,

and who is the praise of the angelic host, and the wondrous splendor of mysteries unknown to mortals, and who is Life in all things.

– as does the Antiphon to the Canticle at Morning Prayer, which we might read as bringing these two texts, and indeed Psalm 8, together:

Blessed be the Creatress and Governess of everything, the holy and indivisible Trinity, 

both now and always, and through all the infinite ages of ages.

(The feminine forms ‘creatrix’ and ‘gubernatrix’ were no doubt used in these Latin texts because ‘trinitas’, like most abstract nouns, is also grammatically feminine – as are, for that matter, ‘laus’ (praise) and ‘vita’ (life). Though the English word ‘governess’ has the specific meaning of ‘a woman whose work it is to bring up children in their home’, this is perhaps not a bad way to think of the Lord. The Latin pronouns in the Introit are all ambiguous as to gender, and in this instance were translated with masculine forms, but again, ‘trinitas’ and ‘unitas’ are feminine. In any case, these feminine forms counterbalance to a small degree the overwhelmingly masculine language with which we conventionally, but by no means literally, refer to the Deity, and – along with the work of writers like Hildegard – remind us of the limits of human thought and language when pondering ‘mysteries unknown to mortals’.)

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