Music for Ascension Sunday, May 24, 2020
God is gone up – Gerald Finzi (1901 – 1956)
Gerald Finzi was one of Britain’s most distinguished vocal and choral composers of the twentieth century. Ralph Vaughan Williams acted as a mentor during Finzi’s early career and helped him to obtain a teaching position at the Royal Academy of Music from 1930 – 33. In 1951, Finzi discovered that he was suffering from a type of leukemia that gave him less than ten years to live. This did not deter his creative efforts; later that same year he wrote a set of three choral pieces, of which this is the second.
Originally written for SATB chorus, string orchestra and organ, this piece premiered on St. Cecilia’s Day (November 22) in 1951 with organ accompaniment and has become a staple of the choral repertoire in that version. Edward Taylor (1646 – 1729), a British-American Puritan poet, based his original text on Psalm 24:7, Psalm 47:5-6 and Philippians 2:9. The St. James’ Choir last sang this piece on Ascension Day in 2017.
“God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding trumpets’ melodies:
Sing praise, sing praise, sing praise, sing praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphic-wise!
Lift up your heads, ye lasting doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.
Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly
In flakes of glory down, him to attend,
And hear heart-cramping notes of melody
Surround his chariot as it did ascend:
Mixing their music, making ev’ry string
More to enravish, as they this tune sing.
God is gone up…”
The head that once was crowned with thorns – text: Thomas Kelly (1769 – 1854) / music: Jeremiah Clarke (c. 1673 – 1707)
Based on Hebrews 2:9, this hymn by Thomas Kelly was published in 1820. The renowned hymnologist Erik Routley considered it “the greatest English hymn.” The Irishman Kelly, a man of great learning and considerable means, was the son of a judge and destined for a career in law. Instead, he became a noted preacher who was nonetheless prohibited by his bishop from preaching because of his “methodistical activities”. The tune sung here, ST MAGNUS, is the one most frequently associated with this hymn. It was written by Jeremiah Clarke, the composer of the famous “Trumpet Voluntary”. This tune was first published in 1707 as the setting for a metrical version of Psalm 117. It is named for the church of St. Magnus the Martyr, near the old London Bridge. It is sung in this recording by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, under the direction of the late Sir David Willcocks. Although no attribution is given for the descant on the last verse, there’s a very good chance Willcocks himself wrote it.
“The head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned with glory now:
A royal diadem adorns
The mighty victor’s brow.
The highest place that heaven affords
Is his, is his by right,
The King of kings and Lord of lords,
And heaven’s eternal light;
The joy of all who dwell above,
The joy of all below,
To whom he manifests his love,
And grants his name to know.
To them the cross, with all its shame.
With all its grace is given:
Their name an everlasting name,
Their joy the joy of heaven.
They suffer with their Lord below,
They reign with him above,
Their profit and their joy to know
The mystery of his love.
The cross he bore is life and health,
Though shame and death to him;
His people’s hope, his people’s wealth,
Their everlasting theme.”
Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn (BWV 630) – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
The hymn Heut’ triumphiret Gottes Sohn (Today God’s Son triumphs) appeared first in a Moravian hymnal published in 1591, where it was attributed to Kaspar Stolzhagen, a Lutheran pastor. Bach uses the melody in this piece for organ from his set ofchorale-preludes known as the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), his unfinished collection of 46 organ chorales, originally intended as a chorale cycle of 164 pieces to cover the liturgical year.While for the most part this hymn for Eastertide exults in Christ’s triumph over death, this organ setting is often played at Ascension. The pedal subject, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out, is almost ferocious in its representation of the risen Christ spurning his foes, as though he were treading a wine press.