We might be singing your favorite hymn this Sunday morning at 10:30. Yes, indeed.
Everyone has favorites, and each parish church has its own “top 25” list. However, I venture to say that “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” is a serious favorite in this parish, in the Episcopal Church, in the Anglican Communion, and of Anglicans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and Lutherans everywhere.
This ancient Greek hymn of Eucharistic devotion is based upon Habakkuk 2:20, “Let all the earth keep silence before him.” The hymn originates as an Offertory chant in the Divine Liturgy of St. James (9th Century) from the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox tradition, which is the basis of numerous liturgies in Christian churches worldwide.
“Let all mortal flesh” was translated by hymnist Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885), schoolmaster and chaplain of Shrewsbury School. Many of his hymns are devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus, the angelic hosts, the communion of saints and the Eucharist, as one would expect in the “high church” tradition.
This text is most closely associated with the hymn tune Picardy, a 17th Century folk tune named for the region in France from where it is believed to originate. Coupled together, “Let all mortal flesh” and Picardy made their way into the Anglican tradition via Ralph Vaughan Williams’s (1872-1958) arrangement for The English Hymnal (1906), which along with Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), a result of the Oxford Movement, are the two most significant Anglican hymnals published in the modern era.
As editor of The English Hymnal and to best serve the Anglo-Catholic faith tradition, Vaughan Williams sought to include many plainchant tunes, of which Picardy is one. We have The English Hymnal to thank for numerous, beloved plainsong hymns including “Of the Father’s love begotten,” “O come, O come Emmanuel” and “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,” which we sing most Maundy Thursdays and Good Fridays.
We can also thank The English Hymnal and Vaughan Williams for “For all the Saints” (Sine nomine) and “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” (Lasst uns erfreuen), also beloved favorites of this parish and Anglicans worldwide.
With its hymn tune Picardy, “Let all mortal flesh” has been published in 142 hymnals globally, testament to its popularity and longevity.
When planning liturgies, we often do not repeat hymn and anthem texts in the same service. This Sunday is an exception.
The congregation will sing the hymn from The Hymnal 1982 during Communion. We cannot prevent our worshipers from singing one of their most beloved favorites!
And at the Offertory, the Parish Choir will sing Gustav Holst’s setting, which is based on this same tune Picardy. Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was an English composer, arranger and teacher probably best known for his orchestral suite The Planets (1914).
Holst was a trombonist and a trombone teacher – a great one, according to Vaughan Williams – who was not known to mince words. A great confirmation and accolade, indeed.
Don’t miss your favorite hymn this Sunday, if it is one of your favorites. Chances are …
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
Comes the powers of hell to vanquish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
trans. Gerald Moultrie (1829-1885)