Category Archives: Hymn Notes

The Day of Pentecost 08 Jun 14


Opening Voluntary: Prelude on DOWN AMPNEY –  Chester Alwes (1947-)

Today’s opening voluntary is based on DOWN AMPNEY, tune to the much-loved hymn, “Come Down, O Love Divine” which we sing today as our offertory hymn (#516, The Hymnal 1982).  The text of the hymn is a translation of writing by Bianco da Siena (d. 1434).  Other than that he was a member of the short-lived Order of Jesuates (an order of unordained men following the Augustininan rule) and the place and year of his death, little else is known of this Italian writer.  A collection of his poems, some 92 in all, were published for the first time in 1851 in Italy.  Four of these were later translated by Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890).  Littledale was an Irish-born cleric of the Church of England. with many others of the 19th century, he participated in the revival of catholic ideas and content in the English church and was, in a sense, one of the fathers of Anglo-Catholicism.  Musically, he was the creator of The People’s Hymnal (London, 1867), prepared for Anglicans who felt, as he did, that they might benefit from many traditional Catholic teachings and practices without leaving their own church.  Unaccountably, The Hymnal, 1982 omitted the third stanza of the hymn, but we include it here for your consideration:

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

The tune DOWN AMPNEY was composed to be used with this text by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and was published for the first time in The English Hymnal (1906) for which he shared authorship with Percy Dearmer (1867-1936).  Although The English Hymnal had this tune anonymously, it is now known as Vaughan Williams’ work and is appropriately named DOWN AMPNEY after the town of the composer’s birth.  It is rightly considered a masterpiece of English hymnody. Chester Alwes, composer of the voluntary, was born in 1947 in Louisville, KY and studied at Union Theological Seminary in NY.  He later studied and taught at the University of Illinois and is the author of A History of Western Choral Music published by Oxford University Press in 2011.


Fourth Sunday of Easter – 11 May 14

Dale Wood

Dale Wood

Voluntary before Mass: Prelude on BROTHER JAMES’ AIR – Dale Wood (1934-2003)

Today’s Voluntary before Mass is a prelude on the well-known hymn tune, BROTHER JAMES’ AIRWe sing this tune as the melody for a metrical version of Psalm 23 today in our liturgy.  Metrical versions of the Psalms became popular in the early years of the European and English protestant reformations, particularly where there was a significant Calvinist emphasis.  In a response to the ideal that all of worship should be in the words of scripture, it became clear that a new musical form would be required to meet that need.  Although the first full English Metrical Psalter, that of Robert Crowley (1517-1588), contained music that had similarities to the chants of the Latin Sarum Psalter, it was not widely adopted, and it was the slightly later version of Sternhold and Hopkins (first published in 1549 but later repeatedly expanded and revised) that became more popular. Pairing rhyming psalm paraphrases with tunes in mostly common meter, many of which were borrowed from the French Genevan Psalter, it was published frequently bound up together with the protestant Geneva Bible. Tunes such as the well-known “Old Hundredth” (All people that on earth do dwell), belong to this tradition.  Such was the extent of the influence of the Puritan reformers that metrical psalms were virtually the only music sung by the people of the post-Reformation Church of England until the advent of non-biblical hymnody in the 18th century.

BROTHER JAMES’ AIR was the composition of Scottish spiritualist minister, healer and poet, James Leith Macbeth Bain (1840-1925), who was often known as “Brother James.”  Although relatively few details of his life are known, an anecdote told by a friend of his youth who had asked, after Bain’s death, of a neighbor as to whether Bain played a musical instrument was answered, no but “he was aye hummin’.” It was said that Bain and his fellow spiritual healers often sang to their patients during healing sessions.  The song was published in 1915 in Bain’s book,  The Great Peace: being a New Year’s greeting. In hymnography, the tune is typically paired with either a metrical version of Psalm 23, as we do today, or with “How lovely is they dwelling place” a metrical version of Psalm 84.

The composer of today’s Voluntary, Dale Wood, was born 13th February, 1934 in Glendale, California.  He won a hymn writing competition at age 13 and served in Lutheran and Episcopal churches in Los Angeles and Riverside, California and finally at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in San Francisco.  Mr. Wood was an editor for Sacred Music Press for over 20 years and published many organ works.  His “Prelude on BROTHER JAMES’ AIR” was published by that firm in 1986.  Mr. Wood died in April 2003 in Sea Ranch, California.

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – 23 Feb 14

Equality in Arizona

Opening Voluntary: Prelude on O Welt, ich muss dich lassen – J. G. Walther (1684-1748)

Final Voluntary: We Shall Overcome – LEVAS #227 (Those who wish may sing along)

“We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right; “no lie can live forever”. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right; “truth crushed to earth will rise again”. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right:.

Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the then unknown
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy, every valley shall be exalted. And every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment—figuratively speaking in biblical words—the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sermon at Temple Israel, Hollywood , CA




Second Sunday of Christmas (Epiphany Observed) 05 Jan 14


Opening Voluntary: Prelude on “We three kings of orient are” – Carlos Staszeski (b. 1935)

Today’s opening voluntary is based on the American Christmas / Epiphany carol, “We three kings of orient are” found in our Hymnal 1982 as # 128.  Both text and tune of this carol are the work of John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891).  Hopkins was born in Pittsburg, PA in 1820 as the son of the Right Reverend John Henry Hopkins, an Episcopal bishop.  He was initially educated at the University of Vermont, where he took both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.  He worked for a time as a journalist and then entered and was graduated from General Theological Seminary, the oldest seminary in the Episcopal Church, in the year 1850.  He served as the seminary’s first teacher of music in the years 1855-1857, and it was during this period that he wrote and composed the carol, “We three kings of orient are,” for a Christmas pageant for his nieces and nephews.  It was not published until six  years later in 1863 in his work, Carols, Hymns and Songs. Hopkins subsequently served as rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, PA.  He died in Hudson,  York and was buried next to his father at Bishop’s House, Rock Point, Burlington, Vermont.

The text of “We three kings” recounts the Epiphany story from the Gospel of Matthew of the coming of the Magi.  There is, of course, no mention in the Gospel as to the actual number of the Magi, but from the three-fold gifts that they presented to the Christ child, they have been traditionally pictured as having been three.  This numeration in Western Christianity dates at least as early as the time of the church father, Origen (185-254), although in the Syrian Church there are traditions that suggest that there were was many as twelve.  By the Middle ages, the “three” Magi had even acquired names, and their place in popular piety was enlarged by episodes in mystery plays and a whole genre of what are known as “three kings plays.” Their supposed relics were transferred in 1162 by Frederick Barbarossa from Milan to Cologne Cathedral where they are enshrined to this day in a magnificent silver and bronze gilded and jewel-covered reliquary created by Nicholas of Verdun in 1190.  The shrine was opened in 1864 and found to contain bones and clothing.

The opening voluntary, presenting several variations in harmony and registration on the carol tune, is the work of Carlos Staszeski, born 1935 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He studied in New York City at the Guilmant Organ School and the Manhattan School of Music.  He currently serves as organist and director of music at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Waretown, New Jersey.

1st Sunday of Advent – 1 Dec 13

Philipp Nicolai

Philipp Nicolai

Opening Voluntary: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 645) – J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

Choral Introit: “Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” – H. Alexander Matthews (1879-1973)

Today’s organ voluntary is based on the great German hymn, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, which we sing in English translation as our entrance hymn today (“Sleepers wake! A voice astounds us,” # 61, The Hymnal 1982). This classic hymn, sometimes known as “King of Chorales,” was both written and composed by 16th century Lutheran pastor, Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608). The hymn was written during the time of a deadly epidemic that raged in his town of Unna, Westphalia from July of 1597 to January of 1598.  Claiming some 1300 victims in total, the pestilence resulted in as many as 30 burials per day, most of which Nicolai could observe from his home that overlooked the churchyard. In such dark times, it was not surprising that Nicolai’s thoughts turned to death and the contemplation of the “last things.”  Nicolai reported that he was, at this time, most concerned with “the contemplation of the noble, sublime, doctrine of Eternal Life, obtained through the Blood of Christ. This I allowed to dwell in my heart day and night, and searched the Scriptures for what they revealed on this matter.” It is hardly surprising that the full German original is, thus, filled with scriptural illusions (from Isaiah, Ezekiel, The Revelation to John, 1st Corinthians and the Gospel of Matthew). It is most obviously related to the parable of the wise virgins from the Gospel of Matthew as evidenced by Nicolai’s subtitle “Of the Voice at Midnight, and the Wise Virgins who meet their Heavenly Bridegroom.” The text and tune were first published in an appendix to his meditations in the year 1599.  It first appeared in English in the Lyra Davidica of 1708, a hymnal published in London of translations from German and Latin.  It was made popular to English listeners as part of Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) “St. Paul” oratorio which premiered in English translation in Liverpool in the year 1836.  Although most often sung to the translation by the famous Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), the editors of The Hymnal 1982, commissioned a new translation by Carl Daw which they felt conveyed more of the vigor of the German original.

Our opening voluntary is the famous “Schübler” chorale version (BWV 645) of Wachet auf, Bach’s own transcription of his setting from his Cantata 140, composed originally for the 27th Sunday after Trinity. The name “Schübler” is that of the engraver and publisher of the 1748 collection of organ transcriptions. Originally for solo voice and orchestral accompaniment, Bach sets the chorale tune in the solo tenor line accompanied by the main orchestral motive in the soprano line and a correlating base in the pedal.  Our entrance hymn, #61,“Sleepers wake! A voice astounds us,” is the chorale harmonization from the same cantata, an isorhythmic ( in even rhythm) form of the original unevenly rhythmic composition (found as #62 in The Hymna 1982) by Nicolai.

Sunday in the Octave of All Saints’ Day – 03 Nov 13

Heavenly Jerusalem

Organ Voluntary: Chorale Prelude on Cælestis Urbs Jerusalem – Flor Peeters (1913-1986)

Cælestis urbs Jerusalem,
Beata pacis visio,
Quæ celsa de viventibus
Saxis ad astra toleris,
Sponsæque ritu cingeris
Mille angelorum milibus
Thou heavenly, new Jerusalem,
Vision of peace in prophet’s dream!
With living stones built up on high,
And rising to yon starry sky;
In bridal pomp thy form is crowned,
Yea, with thousand, thousand angels round! 
 Urbs beata Jerusalem
dicta pacis visio
Quæ construir in cælis
vivis ex lapidibus
Et angelis coronata
ut sponsata comite.
Blessed city of Jerusalem,
called “vision of peace,”
Built in heaven
out of living stone
And crowned by the angels
like a bride for her consort. 

Today’s organ voluntary is a chorale prelude based on the melody of the Gregorian hymn, “Cælestis Urbs Jerusalem.”  The original text is anonymous and may date from as early as the 6th century of the Christian era. Originally, the text (see above) was “Urbs beata Jerusalem,” but was altered under Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) by a group of correctors.  In its original form (see above), it was later translated and adapted by hymn writer and Anglican priest, John Mason Neale (1818-1866) and appears in The Hymnal 1982 as #519, “Blessed city, heavenly Salem.” The composer of the voluntary was Flor Peeters (1913-1986), a renowned Belgian composer and teacher of organ music.

St. Francis of Assisi (observed) – 6 Oct 13


Opening Voluntary: Prelude on Lasst uns erfreuen – George A. Lynn (1915-1989)

Choral IntroitMihi autem absit – Simple English Propers

Today’s opening voluntary is based on the tune (Lasst uns erfreuen) of our offertory hymn today, “All creatures of our God and King” (#400, The Hymnal, 1982), an English translation and adaptation of the original text attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  St. Francis’ Cantico di fratre sole, laude della creatur, (Canticle of Brother Sun and of All Creatures), often titled “Canticle of the Sun,”  was originally written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian rather than Latin and is believed to be the first genuine religious poem in the Italian language. Whether or not this is precisely true,  it is most certainly a very early example of Italian vernacular religious song known as the Laude Spirituale, that flourished in the early thirteenth century. It is believed to have been written in about 1225-1226 during the last year of life of St. Francis, a period of intense pain and suffering for him. By tradition, the first time that it was sung in its entirety was by Francis along with his religious brothers, Angelo and Leo, two of his original companions,  while St. Francis was on his deathbed. Pious legend also asserts that the final verse to “Sister Death” was composed only moments before.  Although the hymn version by William H. Draper (1855-1933) has become a classic in its own right, it does omit some very characteristic features of the original, most notably the personifications of the natural world as “Brother/Sister” as in Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, etc.  Draper also makes a particular use of the ambiguity of the Italian word “per” which can mean both “for” and “from” by choosing the latter sense and turning the hymn into a pæan not “for” sun, moon, wind, air, water, death but a song of praise sung “by” these elements of nature.

 The tune, Lasst uns erfreuen, dates to the year 1623 when it was published in a hymnal by Catholic musicians in the city of Cologne.  It was, however, based in part on an even earlier Strassburg melody, first published nearly a century earlier in 1525. Several slight melodic and rhythmic variations are known to exist, and the version we sing today, arguably the most popular one, dates to the English Hymnal  of 1906 and was the work of its musical editor, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The short prelude that we hear today as our opening voluntary is a work of George Alfred Lynn (1915-1989).  Lynn taught at Westminster Choir College and the University of Colorado in Boulder. He was also organist of several churches in Denver and Colorado Springs. Musically, the work is in the form of a trio in which the upper two voices present the melody, slightly varied, in the form of a canon  supported by a simpler pedal line that serves to complement the harmonic progressions created by the interweaving of the canonic melodies.

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