Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


The Spring of Souls

The problem with being one-half of the team of Gilbert and Sullivan is that no one ever takes you seriously. But, in addition to the fourteen operettas, Sir Arthur Sullivan, having studied classical composition in Leipzig for three years in his youth, wrote serious symphonic music and church music which he hoped would be his legacy. His oratorio, ‘The Light of the World,’ composed in 1873, held a place in English church music for decades. And we all know at least a few of his many hymn tunes, which include “Onward, Christian soldiers,” “Welcome, happy morning,” and “Come ye faithful, raise the strain.”

We always sing “Come ye faithful, raise the strain” during the Easter season. The text is based on the “Song of Moses,” or “Cantemus Domino,” from Exodus 15, which begins:

I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song, and he is become my salvation;
he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation;
my Father’s God, and I will exalt him.

We sing a few verses from the “Song of Moses” every year at the Easter Vigil. It was John of Damascus who wrote a hymn based partly on that canticle in the middle of the eighth century, which became part of the Greek Orthodox liturgy for the Sunday after Easter. We owe the existence of an English version of the ancient Greek hymn to the nineteenth century translator, John Mason Neale, who published “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain” in 1859. It has been in the Episcopal hymnal, with Sullivan’s tune, since 1894. In our current hymnal, you can find it at number 199. The hymnologist Erik Routley offers a more literal translation from the Greek in his book, “A Panorama of Christian Hymnody,” (Collegeville Press, 1979):

All peoples:
let us sing praise to him who has delivered Israel from Pharaoh’s bitter bondage, and who has led him through the depths of the sea dry-shod, by a way of victory, to his glory.
Today is the spring of souls, for Christ, like the sun shining after a dark winter, has shone out again after three days, driving away the winter of our sin; we sing praise to him, to his glory.
On this royal light-bringing day of days, the gift-bearing Queen of seasons brings joy to the chosen people of the church, ceaselessly praising the risen Christ.
Neither the gates of death, nor the seals on the tomb, nor the keys of its doors, held you back, O risen Christ; but risen, Master, you gave your Peace to your friends, a gift which exceeds all understanding.
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