Music Notes | Feast of All Saints’ Day (Observed)

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

On 1 November the Western Church celebrates All Saints’ Day (in the Episcopal Church it may be observed on the Sunday following, in addition to its observance on the fixed date). The hymnody for this feast is, as one would expect, glorious, and more plentiful than can be sung in one celebration of the Eucharist. Last year these Notes covered ‘For all the saints, who from their labors rest’, almost certainly the best-known hymn for the occasion in the Anglican tradition, which will indeed be sung this year.

Equally magnificent is ‘Hark! the sound of holy voices’ [275], written by Christopher Wordsworth, a Church of England bishop, scholar, and hymnist, part of an illustrious family that included the poet William and several other prominent prelates and scholars. It describes the white-robed denizens of heaven as seen in St John’s Revelation, cataloguing a number of traditional categories of the blessed ones: patriarchs and prophets; certain rulers who took seriously the responsibility to care and provide for their subjects; apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, and all those others less famous but no less saintly; women who, for part or all of their lives, set aside the rigid roles and expectations of their times and places to devote themselves to God. This parish sings this text to the pentatonic tune ‘Pleading Savior’, probably of American or British folk origin, which strips away the pomp of the (unfamiliar) tune to which it is set in the Hymnal and allows a fresh focus upon the words.

A somewhat similar catalogue to that found in the foregoing forms the basis of ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’ [618]. The first stanza consists essentially of a traditional list of the nine orders of angels: seraphim, cherubim, seraphim, thrones, dominions, princedoms, powers, virtues, archangels. The second treats the Blessed Virgin herself, who is ‘more honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim’, as a Hymn to the Theotokos (‘God-bearer’, a traditional title for St Mary) from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – which must have been Athelstan Riley’s source – puts it. The third stanza, in turn, addresses the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and finally ‘all saints triumphant’. Garlands of alleluias adorn this fine hymn, which is set to a majestic 17th-century German tune, ‘Lasst uns erfreuen’, whose many descending scale passages are reminiscent of cascades of bells.

Finally, ‘Jerusalem, my happy home’ paints a slightly more homely picture of heaven. The original text is a song of 27 stanzas ‘mad by F:B:P: to the tune of Diana’, as it is headed in its earliest known source, an English manuscript from around 1600; it has appeared in many different forms ever since then. The original begins with the present first stanza, then more or less alternates descriptions of the woes of earthly life and the glories of heaven – in the midst of which is found our second stanza – before arriving at our third and fourth stanzas depicting King David as choirmaster and Our Lady singing the Magnificat, her canticle of praise. (This part of the hymn goes on to include the traditional authors or singers of the other great canticles Te Deum, Nunc dimittis, and Benedictus Dominus Deus: Sts Ambrose and Augustine, St Simeon, and Zechariah, respectively.) Our last stanza is a revision of the original final stanza, omitting the note of woe which features so prominently throughout the original. The inspired pairing with ‘Land of Rest’, another American folk tune with a placid, even pastoral, atmosphere, heightens the portrayal of eternal bliss for which we long.

We often think of the saints as those who have lived particularly heroic lives of faith (often resulting in particularly heroic deaths as well), and who thereby set an example of boundless compassion or ascetical discipline or outspokenness in the face of evil or some other thing very much worthy of emulation.

But ultimately the category of sainthood is one of being rather than one of doing: the saints are those fully united to Christ and filled with the Spirit, who already in this life are able – by practice, by circumstance, ultimately by grace – to discern the image of God in themselves and others, the ‘eyes of whose hearts are enlightened’ to see things in their ‘fulness’, as the Epistle to the Ephesians puts it – and who are thus prepared to behold the glory of God unveiled. As a result, their lives witness to God’s glory, power, and love (often, indeed, in extraordinary acts of mercy or bravery or harmony with creation), and it is ultimately this that is celebrated on saints’ feast days, including this one. 

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