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InQuire: Easter Hymns

We all love our hymns in OSP – congregation, choir and organists – and there are of course a number of the thrilling Easter hymns. While a few belong especially on Easter Day itself, such as ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’, others can and should be sung throughout the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide. When choosing the hymns, I always ensure that we sing some Easter hymns in all services up to Pentecost – and if a few have to be repeated, that’s all to the good. I’ll take three to consider today, and I invite you to sit down and read the words. The texts are all online, although I’m sure many of you have your own hymn books at home. Reading hymn texts can sometimes offer insights which we miss when lustily singing them to a great tune.

NEH104 ‘At the Lamb’s high feast we sing‘ is a great favourite; originally a Latin breviary hymn, the English words were crafted by Robert Campbell who was a Roman Catholic advocate who lived in Edinburgh (I’ve only just discovered this!) His dates were 1814-68 and he made this translation in 1849. It first appeared a year later in the St Andrew’s Hymnal and Vaughan Williams included it in the first English Hymnal in 1906. It is associated with the tune ‘Salzburg’ which is a vigorous 17th-century German chorale, with later harmonies by JS Bach. (This is not to be confused with another tune called ‘Salzburg’ which in the CoS is generally sung to ‘O God of Bethel’.) Interestingly for such a strong and optimistic tune, the 18th-century Lutheran church sometimes coupled our ‘Salzburg’ with the text ‘Alle Menschen müssen sterben’ (‘All people must die’). But in the Lutheran church at that time death was eagerly welcomed, as one learns from a number of Bach cantatas. (Cantata 82 contains a joyful final aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod’.) At all events, this tune fits especially well with our wonderful Easter hymn, and always elicits from both OSP organists an ebullient and decorated accompaniment – done in tasteful 18th-century style, of course. (The late Mary Johnstone used to like this and always comments!) Of course, adding the cymbelstern cannot be resisted; but 18th-century German organs very often had them, so one is only being authentic….

Illustration of the Red Sea scene with the text "led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea"Another ancient Easter hymn which we sing translation is NEH106 ‘Come ye faithful, raise the strain‘ – generally as the second hymn at Evensong. The original Greek words are by St John of Damascus (c. 750), and the translation is by the celebrated John Mason Neale. It is based on Exodus 15, and tells of Moses and the children of Israel singing a song of praise to God for leading them through the Red Sea to salvation. This also features as the second reading at our Easter Vigil. (Neale’s translation gives you an opportunity, surely unique in a hymn, to sing the word ‘unmoistened’ – a lovely circumlocution for ‘dry’!) Hymns Ancient and Modern sets these words to an early 20th-century tune called ‘St John Damascene’ which is in the NEH but set to a different text. For ‘Come ye faithful’ we use another German tune, this one a Catholic melody from the 16th century, first published in 1584 and entitled ‘Ave virgo virginum’. The rhythm of the tune varies in different sources, and we don’t use the version in NEH, but a slightly more interesting one with cross-rhythms. The colourful text is ideally served by this buoyant tune.

We usually sing ‘This joyful Eastertide‘ twice in the Easter season; it is another firmA black-and-white picture of Woodward on his Wikipedia page, standing in a black cassock and playing the euphonium. favourite, and the late Barnaby Hawkes’s favourite hymn; for him Easter wasn’t complete without it. (He scolded me for omitting it one Easter Day.) For the tune and words we have to thank the celebrated duo of Goerge Ratcliffe Woodward and Charles Wood who published it in their Cowley Carol Book in 1902. It has subsequently been included in most hymnals, and is NEH 121. The tune is 17th-century Dutch, and harmonised by Charles Wood. Woodward was an Anglican priest and a bit of an antiquarian who published profusely, writing religious verse and, like JM Neale, translating from ancient texts; ‘This joyful Eastertide’, however, is original. Many of his texts are still popular, such as ‘Ding dong merrily on high’ and ‘Past three a clock’; in the latter the refrain is old (by the way, it’s ‘a clock’, not ‘o’clock’!) but Woodward wrote the verses. His writing is sometimes consciously archaic and can sound dated now; that can be seen to an extent in ‘This joyful Eastertide’. which also now causes some amusement in verse 2 with the line ‘Till trump from east to west…’ – but that’s hardly Woodward’s fault! There is a diverting picture of Woodward on his Wikipedia page, standing in a black cassock and playing the euphonium!

If you feel like listening to these and any other of our hymns, you can of course hear them on the many OSP livestreams which are still available online. (John Hager often listens from USA, and was very excited to hear ‘At the Lamb’s high feast’ last Sunday! He also sends me links to hymns from his church and we compare notes.)

One last hymn-related remark, which I hope no one minds my mentioning. OSP congregation sings hymns pretty well, but many people don’t stand until the playover is finished – which is too late! I would love to see the congregation standing when the choir stands, and then everyone is ready to sing the first line with confidence! Just a thought…

John Kitchen

Photo showing a church with people sitting and the words "Am I the only one standing?" at the bottom