Behind the Easter anthem

By now the world should know that I like text-driven music for the liturgy. Of course, I have my favorites. We all do.

I love the Mozart Ave verum corpus, which technically would work for Communion all the time. And since we celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday, we could “liturgically, legally” sing it every Sunday morning.

It is also no secret that I would program the Victoria O magnum mysterium every Christmas Eve if given my druthers. For me, that marriage of text and tune captures the mystery of the Incarnation like none other.

But I try to be a better liturgist and sacred musician than this.

The same is true for music on Easter morning. In this parish, the majestic Georgian colonial arches in our nave would crumble if we did not sing certain hymns. Luckily, they are all hymns we all love. And there is no reason to fight City Hall in Eastertide.

However, I do try to change up the big choir anthem each year for Easter morning. I am forever trying to recapture the glorious, triumphant nature of the event we celebrate. I am attempting to bring a fresh experience to our worshippers while we sing our big, standard hymns.

And I am trying to ever grow the repertoire of our choirs, which I believe I am called to do. Indeed, I am extremely fortunate that our choirs are on board and up for the challenges.

In 2013, we sang an anthem by Healey Willan, the Canadian father of church music. In 2014, we sang an Anglican greatest hit from the Edwardian era by Edward Bairstow. In 2015, we sang a brand-new anthem by the American composer Roland E. Martin. In 2016, we sang an English cathedral staple by Charles Villiers Stanford. In 2017, we sang the Church of the Holy Communion oldie-goldie favorite by Will C. Macfarlane.

This Easter, we will sing another Edwardian chestnut, this one by the American composer Horatio Parker, whose name I had never heard until walking onto the Yale campus as a young graduate student. That fact quickly changed.

Horatio Parker (1863-1919) studied music in Europe, which was vogue for American music students in that day, and graduated from the Königliche Musikschule in Munich where he studied with Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), another major name in music.

Upon returning to the United States, Parker became organist of Trinity Church Wall Street in New York and then organist of Trinity Church Copley Square, Boston. In 1893, he joined the faculty of the Yale School of Music as professor of music theory. In 1904, he became dean and kept that position for the remainder of his life. The American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) was one of Parker’s students and protégés.

As dean, Horatio Parker did not serve as university organist at Yale, but as a budding organ student. I quickly realized how important his name and musical works are. His compositions include oratorios, cantatas, operas, orchestral works, chamber music and works for solo organ and piano.

His Easter anthem “Light’s glittering morn bedecks the sky” opens with both organ and choral fanfare passages (we have also added brass to the accompaniment) followed by a bass solo and a brief section for four-part soloists. He then includes the hymn “The strife is o’er,” with a bass solo superimposed on top, and ends with a choral fugue on the word “Alleluia.”

The text is a fifth-century Latin hymn translated by the great Anglican priest, scholar and hymnist, John Mason Neale (1818-1866). Neale’s vivid, Victorian imagery is not to be missed. When did the choir last have the opportunity to sing the words “bedecks,” “groaning hell" and “despoiling death?” Do we not just love the 19th Century?

Light’s glittering morn bedecks the sky; 
Heaven thunders forth its victor cry; 
The glad earth shouts her triumph high, 
And groaning hell makes wild reply, 
While he, the king, the mighty king 
Despoiling death of all its sting, 
And trampling down the powers of might, 
Brings forth his ransomed saints to light.

That Eastertide with joy was bright, 
The sun shone out with fairer light, 
When to their longing eyes restored 
The apostles saw their risen Lord: 
He bade them see his hands, his side, 
Where yet the glorious wounds abide; 
These tokens true which made it plain 
Their Lord indeed was risen again.

O Jesu, king of gentleness, 
Do thou thyself our hearts possess, 
That we may give thee all our days, 
The tribute of our grateful praise. 
O Lord of all with us abide, 
In this our joyful Eastertide, 
From every weapon death can wield, 
Thine own redeemed forever shield.

The strife is o’er, the battle done, 
The victory of life is won, 
The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia. 
All praise be thine, O risen Lord, 
From death to endless life restored; 
All praise to God, the Father be, 
And Holy Ghost eternally. 
Alleluia. Amen. 

There much is left to do this Holy Week however before we arrive at this glorious text. Happy Eastertide to all!


Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 16:18