Sunday, May 4, 2008

Hark! the Songs of Peaceful Zion...

Though technically the Feast of the Ascension was on Thursday, many (if not most) churches will observe it today. I've been told that there are only two feast days in the Episcopal Church that can "legally" be transferred to the following Sunday: Saint Michael and All Angels (September 30), and the patronal feast of a parish, but it's hard to believe, since Ascension, Epiphany, and All Saints' Day seem to be moved all the time. Naturally, non-Episcopalians have no qualms about movable feasts, since they rarely have any sort of worship on weekdays, and I'm not at all up on what the Roman Catholics do.

Anyway, if your church follows the liturgical year, you may be singing this hymn today. It's not as inevitable as Jesus Christ is risen today on Easter, but it's one of the best-known Ascension hymns with a tune everyone knows and sings.

Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!
Thine the scepter, thine the throne.
Alleluia! Thine the triumph,
Thine the victory alone.
Hark! the songs of peaceful Zion
Thunder like a mighty flood.
Jesus, out of every nation
Hast redeemed us by thy blood.

Alleluia! not as orphans
Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! Thou art near us;
Faith believes, nor questions how;
Though the cloud from sight received thee
When the forty days were o’er
Shall our hearts forget thy promise,
“I am with you evermore”?

Alleluia! Bread of Heaven,
Thou on earth our food, our stay;
Alleluia! Here the weary
Flee to thee from day to day:
Intercessor, Friend of sinners,
Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,
Where the songs of all the faithful
Sweep across the crystal sea.

William Chatterton Dix, 1866; alt.
Rowland Hugh Prichard, c.1830

The popular HYFRYDOL first appeared in a collection called Haleliwiah Drachefn (Welsh, as if you couldn't guess) in 1855, some years after Prichard is supposed to have written it. It has been used for many, many different hymn texts since that time. One thing that makes this tune especially singable is that the melody is all within a fifth until the last line, which only rises to a sixth, so everyone can find a comfortable range to sing it in.

James Lightwood, in The Music of the Methodist Hymnbook (UK, 1933), writes that "a generous elasticity in its rhythm enables enthusiasts to fit it to other metres than the one for which it was written." I knew of one such enthusiast who was attempting to find a different text for every Sunday of the church year that could be sung to HYFRYDOL. You'd start with Come, thou long-expected Jesus for the First Sunday in Advent, I suppose, and proceed from there, but the congregation would probably mutiny during Epiphany and even the choir couldn't make it to Easter.

P.S. The picture above is a woodcut by Albrecht Durer that I couldn't resist as it depicts the Ascension from a slightly odd angle. Like the way I look at hymns sometimes.

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