Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hail thee, festival day

Easter is in less than two weeks, which means that the activities of church music programs are reaching a fever pitch: this Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. It's easy to get overwhelmed by anxiety (the choir will never sing that anthem properly) or self-pity (everyone else gets a four-day weekend, and I'm stuck at the church to play one hundred and seven services), but these liturgies are also among the most rewarding of the year.

There are often fringe benefits, as well. This year, for example, is the first that we'll be using the hymn "Hail thee, festival day" in a service. To the worldwide community of Anglican musicians, this may seem odd, but the hymn doesn't seem to have caught on in Canadian parishes. Of the three hymnals I've used in my career (for those who care: the 1938 Book of Common Praise, the 1965 Anglican Hymn Book, and the 1998 Common Praise), none include any version of the hymn. The only hymnal in common use in Canada which includes it, in fact, is the thirty-five-year-old joint Anglican-United Church hymnal; this, of course, is the same book that gave us such delights as "God of concrete, God of steel / God of piston and of wheel", so most churches leave it on the shelf.

This unfortunate state of affairs, unfortunately, is rather typical in church music. Every new hymnal reveals its true flaws only after a few years of continuous use - some of the once-promising new inclusions become old and tired, and you begin to sorely miss the older selections that were left out. There's no reason, of course, why you can't include materials from older hymnals by printing bulletin inserts, but this takes work and planning; far easier just to pick the second-best choice (or third-best, or eleventh-best) and learn to live with it. Yet, take a look at the words to "Hail thee, festival day" (warning: hideous MIDI soundtrack) - this has more meat to it, theologically, than almost anything else you might sing Easter morning. And the tune, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is superb. I'm looking forward to this enormously.


C.W.S. said...

Will you get to do the Pentecost and Ascension versions as well? I don't think I have ever been anywhere where they did all three in a single year, though that would be the best way for the congregation to absorb them, I should think.

shogart said...

And this is why you, William and I need to compile our own hymnal. :)

Anonymous said...

And one of the most astonishing things about this hymn is that the Latin is translated into the original Latin elegiac metre (hexameter and pentameter). It is really really hard to write English verse in classical metres (try googling Sir Richard Stanyhurst's hexameter version of the first 4 books of the Aeneid).

Osbert Parsley said...

Indeed! Compare "Hail thee, festival day" with "Welcome, happy morning" - another translation of the same text - and the difference is striking. You would never guess that "Welcome, happy morning", with its flat-footed diction and predictable rhythms, had ever been a Latin office hymn - everything about it is thoroughly nineteenth-century. "Hail thee, festival day" is a vast improvement in every possible way; its diction is loftier, its rhythms more lively, and its affect more timeless. And, as you say, it captures the rhythm of the original Latin text, a difficult feat!

I'm sure there's a reason why the elegiac metre goes into English so poorly - the Sapphic metre (, by comparison, is frequently found in modern hymnals, and seems to flow much more naturally.