Cecilian Ode #3 (Sort Of): “In Terra Pax”

The British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956, pictured above) did write a “ceremonial ode” For St. Cecilia in 1946-47, setting a text by Edmund Blunden (1896-1974).  But, with your indulgence, this month’s Cecilian Ode post veers in a different direction!  According to his publisher, Finzi’s “Christmas scene” In terra pax, composed in 1954-56:

conflates Robert Bridges’s poem Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913 and Luke 2: 8–14. Finzi suggested that the Nativity ‘becomes a vision seen by a wanderer on a dark and frosty Christmas Eve, in our own familiar landscape’. In terra pax is a masterpiece in miniature, Finzi’s pacifism at its heart, and his belief that men and women of goodwill should live harmoniously. Weaving through the music are three ideas: the pealing of the bells with their joyous message, a phrase from the carol The First Nowell, and the alleluia refrain from the hymn ‘Lasst uns erfreuen’.

Why not spend 16 minutes with this ravishingly beautiful evocation of the first Christmas in the here and now?  The complete text of In terra pax follows the work:

A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.

Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.

And there were shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence.

 

(This is an appendix to a series exploring the Cecilian Ode, a uniquely English poetic and musical genre that spans the centuries from the late 1600s to the present. Check out previous Odes here and here; look for a new ode on or about the 22nd of each month!)

— Rick Krueger

The O Antiphons: O Dayspring

The O Antiphon for the Magnificat at Vespers on December 21:

O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

One of the earliest sightings of the O Antiphons in English literature is in part 1 of Cynewulf’s Christ.  This collation of Advent lyrics from before the 10th century incorporates four of the seven antiphons; Cynewulf paraphrases O Dayspring in lines 105-109 and 113-119. (A modern translation by Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter follows.)

Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended,
ond soðfæsta sunnan leoma,
torht ofer tunglas, þu tida gehwane
of sylfum þe symle inlihtes! …

swa þec nu for þearfum þin agen geweorc
bideð þurh byldo, þæt þu þa beorhtan us
sunnan onsende, ond þe sylf cyme
þæt ðu inleohte þa þe longe ær,
þrosme beþeahte ond in þeostrum her,
sæton sinneahtes; synnum bifealdne
deorc deaþes sceadu dreogan sceoldan.

“Hail shining ray! Hail brightest of angels
and illumination of the soothfast sun
sent over middle-earth to all mankind,
more brilliant than the stars—always
you light up every season of your own self! …

so now needfully your own creation
abides you faithfully, so that you send us
the bright sun, and that you come yourself
to illuminate those who for the longest time,
shrouded in shadow and in darkness here,
reside in the everlasting night—
enfolded in our sins, they have had to endure
the dark shadows of death.”

If admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien feel a familiar frisson here — well, they should!  In Cynewulf’s expansion of “O Dayspring” — specifically, in the word “earendel” — we find one of the deepest linguistic roots of Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium.  From that word sprang the work of his heart that occupied him for nearly six decades — The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion.  Tolkien even riffs on Cynewulf (and thus indirectly on today’s antiphon) on pp. 248-249 of The Silmarillion:

Hail Eärendil, of mariners most renowned, the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope! Hail Eärendil, bearer of light before the Sun and Moon! Splendour of the Children of Earth, star in the darkness, jewel in the sunset, radiant in the morning!

Healey Willan (1880-1968), professor at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and organist at St. Mary Magdalene Church in the same city, composed a setting of The Great O Antiphons of Advent for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Concordia Publishing House in 1957.  Here’s Willan’s setting of “O Dayspring,” as sung by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia:

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

— Rick Krueger

(Image: O Oriens by Linda Witte Henke, Te Deum Designs.)

Light in the darkness | Kindred

It’s five a.m., and I’m wide awake. Again. Was it a dream that woke me or the Christmas lights shining in my window? Usually I can squeeze one more sleep cycle in before rising for the day. In fact, I haven’t consistently or voluntarily been up this early since high school, when my morning toilette…
— Read on kindredmag.com/2018/12/21/light-in-the-darkness/

Music, Books, Poetry, Film

%d bloggers like this: