Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Music for the Feast of the Transfiguration

Преображение Преображение Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of the 15th century, the Sarum Rite, used in Salisbury, England, was a rich source for new hymns, some of which are still found in our hymnals today. O wondrous type, O vision fair, which we sing every year on August 6th and on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, was one of these: Caelestis formam gloriae, Quam spes quaerit ecclesiae. Unfortunately, the first line is tricky to translate, and I don’t know that “O wondrous type! O vision fair” is the best solution. Some hymnals have “O wondrous sight,” which is more idiomatic but less accurate. “Form” would be better. Some versions use “image,” which seems inadequate to express the poet’s idea. It has been in Anglican hymnals since 1854, when the translator John Mason Neale published the following translation:

A type of those bright rays on high
For which the Church hopes longingly
Christ on the holy mountain shows,
Where brighter than the Sun He glows.

Tale for all ages to declare:
For with the three disciples there,
Where Moses and Elias meet,
The Lord holds converse, high and sweet.

The chosen witnesses stand nigh,
Of Grace, the Law, and Prophecy:
And from the cloud the Holy One
Bears record to the Only Son.

With face more bright than noontide ray
Christ deigns to manifest to-day
What glory shall be theirs above,
Who joy in God with perfect love.

And faithful hearts are raised on high
By this great vision’s mystery,
For which, in yearly course, we raise
The voice of prayer, and hymn of praise.

Thou, Father, Thou, Eternal Son,
Thou Holy Spirit, Three in One,
To this same Glory bring us nigh,
That we may see Thee eye to eye.

You can find our composite (and slightly condensed) translation in the Hymnal 1982 at number 137, beginning:

O wondrous type! O vision fair
Of glory that the church may share,
Which Christ upon the mountain shows
Where brighter than the sun he glows!

I think of the word “type” the way it is used here as being closer in meaning to our word “prototype.” To me it suggests that the vision of the Transfiguration is a symbol of some future reality, or a present reality which we are not yet ready to grasp, of which we will all be a part.

It is always worth comparing other translations, good or bad, to get one thinking afresh about the meaning of overly familiar texts, so here is one by Richard Ellis Roberts, a contributor to the English Hymnal of 1906:

An image of that heav’nly light,
The goal the church keeps ay in sight,
Christ on the holy mount displays
Where he outshines the sun’s bright rays.

Let every age proclaimer be
How, on that day, the chosen three
With Moses and Elias heard
The Lord speak many a gracious word.

As witnesses to grace are nigh
Those twain the Law and Prophecy;
And to the Son, from out the cloud,
The Father’s record thunders loud.

With garments whiter than the snows,
And shining face, Lord Jesus shows
What glory for those saints shall be
Who joy in God with piety.

The vision and the mystery
Make faithful hearts beat quick and high,
So on this solemn day of days
The cry goes up of prayer and praise.

O God the Father, God the Son,
And Holy Spirit, Three in One,
Vouchsafe to bring us, by thy grace,
To see thy glory face to face.

Two of our songs for this feast day are from the German traditions. When morning gilds the skies is a paraphrase of a German hymn from 1828, Beim fruehen Morgenlicht. Much older in origin is the favorite Fairest Lord Jesus, originally an anonymous German hymn published in 1662. Finally, Christ, whose glory fills the skies comes from John and Charles Wesley. In their Hymns and Sacred Poems, printed in 1740, they entitled it “A Morning Hymn.”

Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise!
Triumph o’er the shades of night:
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Daystar, in my heart appear.

Dark and cheerless is the morn
Unaccompanied by thee;
Joyless is the day’s return
Till thy mercy’s beams I see,
Till they inward light impart,
Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

Visit then this soul of mine!
Pierce the gloom of sin and grief!
Fill me, radiancy divine;
Scatter all my unbelief;
More and more thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day.

The image of Christ as the “Dayspring” or “Daystar” reminds us of the ‘O’ Antiphons which we sing in Advent, and which form the basis for the hymn “O come, O come, Immanuel.” New Testament titles for Christ include “Dayspring “ or “Morning Sun” (Luke 1:78) and “Bright Star of Dawn” (Revelation 22:16; “I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star”). Related Old Testament prophecies include Balaam’s Third Oracle (Numbers 24:17): “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel,” as well as the “Sun of Righteousness” described in Malach 4: “But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” Wesley’s line “Fill me, radiancy divine” suggests Christ’s Transfiguration, as in Mathew 17: “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun,” and the related account in Luke 17. Verses in 2 Peter look forward to a time when “the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

In addition to the familiar hymn tune, another setting of this joyous text is one of the choir’s favorite anthems. This is by T. Frederick Candlyn, organist and choirmaster of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City in the 1940s and 50s. A rousing rendition of it, making effective use of the Tuba stop, can be heard on our choir’s CD How shall I sing that majesty, which we recorded back in 2008.

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