Sunday, March 6, 2011

Let Us For a While Give O'er

Iu many churches today the readings will be recounting the story of the Transfiguration, which appears in three of the gospels. I believe this year's appointed version will be from Matthew 17:1-9. This is a twentieth-century innovation, because the true Feast of the Transfiguration falls on August 6. In earlier times, this Sunday was known as Quinquagesima, the last Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The latest this day can fall in the calendar is March 7, so we are pretty much at the limit this year.

One of the customs associated with Quinquagesima in some places was a kind of farewell observance, in preparation for giving various things up for the duration of the Lenten season. In liturgical worship, the word Alleluia (from the Hebrew, meaning praise to God) is not used during Lent, neither spoken, sung, nor chanted, so this would be its last Sunday appearance until it re-emerges at Easter.

There were various local rites in the medieval church for this renunciation. In the French city of Toul, up until the fifteenth century, they would celebrate a full requiem mass and bury a coffin ostensibly containing the word Alleluia, which may have been the most extreme form of observance.

The Latin hymn for this occasion, from the eleventh century, is still sung today, though not quite as they sang it in Toul. It originally began:

Alleluia, dulce carmen
Vox perennis gaudii,
Alleluia vos suavis
Est choris coelestibus,
Quam canunt Dei manentes
In domo per saecula.

This was translated by our old friend John Mason Neale, preserving the original meter, and appeared in his Hymnal Noted (1851), and does still in several hymnals today.

Alleluia, song of gladness,
Voice of joy that cannot die;
Alleluia is the anthem
Ever dear to choirs on high;
In the house of God abiding
Thus they sing eternally.

Alleluia thou resoundest,
True Jerusalem and free;
Alleluia, joyful mother,
All thy children sing with thee;
But by Babylon’s sad waters
Mourning exiles now are we.

Alleluia though we cherish
And would chant forevermore
Alluluia in our singing,
Let us for a while give o'er
As our Savior in his fasting
Pleasures of the world forbore.

Therefore in our hymns we pray thee,
Grant us, bless├Ęd Trinity,
At the last to keep thine Easter
With thy faithful saints on high;
There to thee forever singing
Alleluia joyfully.

Latin, 11th cent.; tr. John Mason Neale, 1851; alt
Collection of Motetts and Antiphons, 1840

(there is, unfortunately, an egregious error in the harmony at the end of the third line)

The tune, which derives its name from this Latin text, had earlier appeared in plainsong form in An Essay on the Church Plain Chant (1782) by Samuel Webbe, but was arranged into its metrical form in a later book by Webbe. It's also been known as CORINTH and TANTUM ERGO, among other names.

Neale's first line of the translation was originally Alleluia, song of sweetness, which is really closer to the Latin dulce, but less often used today. His original third stanza is also quite different.

Alleluia we deserve not
Here to chant forevermore;
Alleluia our transgressions
Make us for a while give o’er;
For the holy time is coming
Bidding us our sins deplore.

I believe the revised version was written for the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 but I don't know by whom.

So here we have seven Alleluias to tide us over for the next six weeks. Alleluia will be back before we know it (nearly any good Easter hymn will have several of them). I'm kind of glad we don't have to actually bury it any more.

One (Liturgical) Year Ago: Not always on the mount may we

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