Epiphany Music

For mainstream Christian worship, is today about picking Christmas carols that happen to mention the Magi? “The First Nowell” –decent. “W3K” and “What Child Is This” leave me wanting, but the people seem to expect to sing them. Lots of my colleagues like “What Star Is This” set to the tune Puer Nobis. Usually I like the music of Praetorius, but this tune doesn’t thrill me. While I appreciate the shape of the melody to rise in the middle, those five high notes out of six in the center of the hymn don’t always get the robust sound of a congregation behind them.

As for texts, Psalm 72 is pretty majestic. I adapted the preliminary ICEL version to a jazz harmonization twenty years ago. Haven’t used it since; I think the words need a little teasing out for a good contemporary setting. The Benedictine hymnwriter Genevieve Glen has a nice text, “The Star of Morning.” Her third verse (of five) is good:

Grant us the faith no darkness daunts
And guide us to the dawn that haunts
Our longing for salvation’s day,
However near or far away.

This image of dawn being haunting for us: this is an unusual twist. The text, by the way, is copyright 2002 by the Benedictine Nuns of the Abbey of St. Wallburga, and published by OCP Publications. You can catch many of the good sister’s hymn texts in the publication Magnificat.

As for the audio above, it’s the Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers, Orlando di Lasso’s setting of “Omnes de Saba” (All from Sheba). The text is from Isaiah 60:6 and Psalm 72:10. I like the Anonymous 4 singing an anonymous setting on their masterful disc On Yoolis Night, which is still on the Christmas rotation in the family car’s cd player.

Anybody with Epiphany recommendations, loves, things like that?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Epiphany Music

  1. Gavin says:

    I always play for a prelude Durufle’s Prelude on the Introit of Epiphany. The Introit and communion chants are both spectacular. For hymnody, I save “We Three Kings” for the hymn after Mass. Last year I took the Epiphany season to teach “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star”, which is a must-know chorale.

    If you treat the so-called “ordinary time” as the old Epiphany season, you can get a lot of mileage including hymns like “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” and other hymns that, while excluding the Magi, focus on the Epiphany “revelation” theme.

  2. Liam says:

    One especially lovely polyphonic anthem: “Ab Oriente Venerunt Magi” by Jacob Gallus (aka Jacob Handl), from the late 16th century. It’s starts with musical mystery, and ends in musical splendor. The alleluia section has fantastic rhythmic splendor (I cannot think offhand of any alleluia quite like it in that regard), and is lovely if repeated in fullest voice.

    (Ignore the awful last note. Don’t know why it’s in that midi file.)

    Ab oriente venerunt magi in Bethlehem
    adorare Dominum
    et apertis thesauris suis,
    aurum sicut regi magno,
    thus sicut Deo vero,
    myrrhae sepulturi eius,

  3. Liam says:

    Sorry, dropped a line:

    Ab oriente venerunt magi in Bethlehem
    adorare Dominum
    et apertis thesauris suis,
    *pretiosa munera obtulerunt:*
    aurum sicut regi magno,
    thus sicut deo vero,
    myrrhae sepulturi eius,

  4. Mollie says:

    Oof, I hate “The First Nowell.” It’s so sing-songy and repetitive, and the lyrics sit so awkwardly on the tune. No thanks. “We Three Kings” has always struck me as faintly silly — today the choir at my parish had soloists sing the verses where the kings speak, which worked well, I thought.

    “What Child Is This” is much more rewarding, I think, if you’re using the full lyrics, where each verse has its own version of the chorus (instead of just repeating “This, this is Christ the king…”).

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