Music for the Feast of the Holy Cross

Vexilla regis Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)


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The hymn Vexilla Regis prodeunt (The Royal Banner forward goes) is ascribed to Venantius Fortunatus (530-609) and is considered one of the greatest hymns of our liturgy. Fortunatus was commissioned to write this hymn for the arrival of a large relic of the true cross at a church near Poitiers, France. Since then, this hymn has been sung at Vespers from Passion Sunday to Holy Thursday, and on Holy Cross Day. Anton Bruckner’s setting of this hymn, presented here, was the last motet he wrote; in his words, “I composed it out of a pure impulse of the heart.” The piece alternates between the old Phyrgian mode and Bruckner’s characteristic chromatic shifts and startling modulations. The austere ending is well-suited as a musical depiction of the Passion.


Vexilla regis prodeunt
Fulget crucis mysterium
Quo carne carnis conditor
Suspensus est patibulo.

O crux ave spes unica
Hoc passionis tempore
Auge piis justitiam
Reisque dona veniam.

Te summa Deus Trinitas
Collaudet omnis spiritus
Quos per crucis mysterium
Salvas rege per saecula. Amen.

The Royal Banner forward goes,
The mystic Cross refulgent glows:
Where He, in Flesh, flesh who made,
Upon the Tree of pain is laid.

O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide
With us now in this Passion-tide:
New grace in pious hearts implant,
And pardon to the guilty grant!

Thee, mighty Trinity! One God!
Let every living creature laud;
Whom by the Cross Thou dost deliver,
O guide and govern now and ever! Amen.


The royal banners forward go – Text: Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), tr. John Mason Neale (1818-1866); Music: Percy Carter Buck (1871-1947).


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More than anyone else, John Mason Neale made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian and Syrian hymns. A priest, scholar and hymnwriter who was very much affected by the Oxford Movement, Neale has left us a rich legacy, particularly of Latin hymns. A search of the indices of either of our hymn books provides ample evidence of this.


The unison tune GONFALON ROYAL was composed for this hymn by Percy Buck for the boys at Harrow School, where unison singing was the rule; it first appeared in Fourteen Hymn Tunes 1913. Buck was for many years the director of music at Harrow, and professor of music at the University of London. ‘Gonfalon’ is an old Norman-English word meaning ‘banner.’


The royal banners forward go,

the cross shines forth in mystic glow,

where he in flesh, our flesh who made,

our sentence bore, our ransom paid.

Where deep for us the spear was dyed,

life’s torrent rushing from his side,

to wash us in that precious flood,

where mingled water flowed, and blood.

Fulfilled is all that David told

in true prophetic song of old,

the universal Lord is he,

who reigns and triumphs from the tree.

O tree of beauty, tree of light,

O tree with royal purple dight,

elect on whose triumphal breast

those holy limbs should find their rest!

On whose dear arms, so widely flung,

the weight of this world’s ransom hung,

the price of humankind to pay

and spoil the spoiler of his prey.

O cross, our one reliance, hail!

So may thy power with us prevail

to give new virtue to the saint,

and pardon to the penitent.

To thee, eternal Three in One,

let homage meet by all be done:

whom by thy cross thou dost restore,

preserve and govern evermore. Amen.


Lift high the cross – arr. Paul Manz (1919-2009)


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The hymn Lift high the cross (Common Praise 602) has its origin in verses written by George William Kitchin, Dean of Winchester and then of Durham. These verses were subsequently revised by Michael Robert Newbolt for Hymns Ancient & Modern and by Shirley Erena Murray, a New Zealand hymn writer whose version appears in our blue hymn book.


The tune CRUCIFER was composed for these words by Sydney Hugo Nicholson when they first appeared in Hymns Ancient & Modern. Not only is it his most successful tune: it has become so thoroughly wedded to Lift high the cross that no one would think of proposing a competitor. The tune is presented here in an arrangement by Paul Manz, for many years the beloved Cantor (organist and choirmaster) at Mt Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Although the notes in this recording don’t state it explicitly, it’s quite likely that Dr Manz himself is playing on this recording; the organ has the distinctive sound of the Schlicker instrument he had installed at Mt Olive Church.


Gerald Harder