Friday, May 25, 2007

The Venerable Bede

I decided today would be a good day to break my internet silence. My semester grades are in, I'm done playing operas for now, and my dissertation prospectus is (finally) in the mail. On such an auspicious day in which I'm done with all my projects (and am ready to actually start writing), I'm happy that it is also the Feast of the Venerable Bede.

Bede (673-735), called "Venerable" because of his wisdom, was placed in a monastery in northern England at the age of 7. Benedict Biscop, a nobleman who had become a monk, founded this monastery. Biscop traveled to Rome several times, each time returning with many books, paintings and artifacts, and, therefore, the library at Wearmouth (the monastery) was known as the best in England. Bede thus acquired great knowledge, for he rarely traveled far, and spent most of his time reading and studying. He is most famous for his Historia Ecclesiastica, a history of the English church and people. However, he also wrote many other things, among them many treatises and letters calling for reform in the church. He also lists in his works a Book of Hymns, which, to our great loss, is not extant.

Some of his hymns have survived, however, the most famous the "Hymnum canamus dominum," translated variously as "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing" and "Sing We Triumphant Hymns of Praise." I am most familiar with "A Hymn of Glory," translated by Benjamin Webb in 1854 (Webb was a friend of John Mason Neale, whom you might remember from this post). Here is its text:

A hymn of glory let us sing
New songs throughout the world shall ring
Christ, by a road before untrod
Ascendeth to the throne of God.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

The holy apostolic band
Upon the Mount of Olives stand
And with His followers they see
Jesus’ resplendent majesty
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

To Whom the angels drawing nigh,
“Why stand and gaze upon the sky?”
“This is the Savior,” thus they say.
“This is His noble triumph day.”
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

“Again ye shall behold Him so,
As ye have today seen Him go.”
“In glorious pomp ascending high
Up to the portals of the sky.”
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

O grant us thitherward to tend
And with unwearied hearts ascend,
Unto Thy kingdom’s throne, where Thou
As is our faith, art seated now,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Be Thou our Joy and strong Defense,
Who art our future Recompense,
So shall the light that springs from Thee
Be ours through all eternity,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

O risen Christ, ascended Lord,
All praise to Thee let earth accord,
Who art, while endless ages run,
With Father and with Spirit One,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Its highly appropriate for this week, so soon after the ascension. A couple of tunes that have been used for this are LASST UNS ERFREUEN (with alleluias added after the second line) and DEO GRACIAS. I do like both of those tunes, but I do prefer the latter for this hymn (showing my bias towards modal, medieval sounds). It was written to celebrate an English victory over the French at Agincourt, but its stately sounds fit well the ascending of Christ "in glorious pomp," especially if you happen to have some brass players to join in as I do. It's a great postlude, too, if your congregation can't sing it!

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