Music Notes | Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

Sunday’s Postcommunion hymn, ‘O love, how deep, how broad, how high’ [448/449], is a translation of part of a 15th-century text of 23 stanzas, ‘Apparuit benignitas’ (‘good will or favor has appeared’). The original as a whole is a hymn upon the Incarnation; the 19th-century English translator, Benjamin Webb, selected the second and last stanzas, two other early stanzas omitted in our Hymnal, and a run of four interior stanzas dealing with Christ’s Baptism and adult ministry, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, to fashion a text suited for more general use (it was assigned for Sundays after Epiphany in the 19th-century collection in which it appeared). Webb rendered the original descriptions of God’s love as ‘exstaticus’, ‘effluens’ [flowing out], ‘nimius’ [excessive], with ‘how passing thought and fantasy [that is, our ability to imagine]’, adding a reference to Ephesians 3.18 – ‘I pray that you may have the power to comprehend…what is the breadth and length and height and depth’ – that is repeated in our Hymnal’s version of the last stanza. Perhaps the most striking feature – one might say the point – of the text is the constant repetition of ‘for us… for us… for us’: ten lines out of 24 begin in this way. Also of note is the happy description of the Spirit’s role: ‘to guide, to strengthen, and to cheer’. 

This hymn is set to two different tunes in the Hymnal 1982; we sing it to ‘Deo gracias’ [449], also known as the ‘Agincourt Hymn’, ‘Agincourt Song’, etc., which dates from the same period as the text, though (as a celebration of Henry V’s victory over the French at the eponymous battle in 1415) it had nothing to do with our hymn. The Agincourt song is a sophisticated composition in two and three voice-parts; the melody at 449 consists of the original lower voice of the main part of the verse, while one of the accompaniments provided at 449 consists of both original voice-parts of that passage with a third voice added.* 

Though the Renaissance generated many hundreds of polyphonic settings of the Ordinary of the Mass (the great unchanging texts appointed to be sung by a group – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), and thousands of motets setting liturgical texts but not necessarily assigned for specific liturgical use, there are far fewer polyphonic settings of the Proper chants of the Mass (the chants which change for every occasion, and mostly take place during processions – Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion). Notable exceptions include William Byrd’s Gradualia and the Choralis Constantinus by Heinrich Isaac, both large collections intended for specific liturgical use. Both of our anthems Sunday come from these collections, though ‘Ave verum corpus’ (included with Byrd’s settings for the Feast of Corpus Christ, the Body [and Blood] of Christ) is not actually a proper text, but a devotional one. Isaac’s ‘Ecce Deus’, however, is based squarely on the Introit assigned in his time to the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (it is now assigned to the equivalent of our Proper 11, and thus it was sung on July 18). We sing it this Sunday because its text  an acknowledgement of and prayer for God’s protection, is part of the Gradual Psalm (54) assigned to accord with Our Lord’s prediction of his betrayal and the Old Testament Lesson paired with it (‘I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter’, Jeremiah 11.18). In Isaac’s setting, the antiphon and verse are each introduced with the chant alone; thereafter, the chant is heard most clearly (though not entirely straightforwardly) in the treble voice, while – given the imitative techniques of the Franco-Flemish polyphonic style which he espoused (and which he was instrumental in introducing to German-speaking lands) – snippets of the chant are heard in the other voices as well.

*Another version of the Agincourt song, derived from a setting for organ by prominent 20th-century American organist E. Power Biggs, is found at Hymn 218; using mostly the lowest voice of the original as its melody, this setting begins with a version of the first Burden (antiphon) of the original, set as a fanfare for organ, and after the verse also includes the ‘chorus’ or culmination of the verse (which set the words ‘Deo gracias’ in the original), leading into a version of the second Burden, all of which, in the Hymnal adaptation, sets a fivefold Alleluia appended to the Venerable Bede’s Ascension hymn ‘A hymn of glory let us sing’ (‘Hymnum canamus gloriae’).

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