Canticles of Brother Sun

My personal experience with Saint Francis was rather minimal until the early 80’s. My home parish didn’t sing the hymn setting “All Creature of Our God and King” when I was a boy. The Newman Community certainly didn’t. Nor were my friends in Newman music ministry inclined to the musicians popularizing some of St Francis’ texts. It wasn’t until 1982 that I was introduced to John Michael  Talbot and his various settings of texts attributed to Francis of Assisi.

I suspect Marty Haugen’s setting “Canticle of the Sun” is the most-sung contemporary version. Along with the William Draper adaptation set to the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN, these two versions pretty much have the market cornered on this text for English speaking Catholics, at least in the US. Is this a good thing? Let’s chat about it.

The Haugen setting came up in the music plan the other weekend here. My Kansas City parish didn’t know it so it’s been only the second or third time since 2000 I’ve played the song. And in a new parish, it’s always interesting. The choir didn’t have the duplet on “glory of” right. Most places do botch that unless they learn it correctly from the start. One choir member (!) complained about all six verses–this, from people who usually like to sing a lot.

There are things I like about this piece. It plays well for guitar or piano or dulcimer–all my favorites to play. The “equal voice” arrangement is good; I’ve always liked it better than the SATB. People do sing it enthusiastically, even on that high note on the refrain. For guitarists, the key-of-G version is a perfect opportunity to master the playing of the Eb chord without using a barre.

On the other hand, my choir member is right. I like the song, and I like to use it, but for some reason, the singing of it, even just a few verses, always seems to tire my voice. And I program this fairly often for entrance instead of closing, and I still feel exhausted. Maybe some musicologist out there will have some reason why this isn’t just my excuse to shut up and play my instrument–which I’d rather do anyway.

I’m not completely sold on the German tune either. It just seems too … well … German for an Italian sentiment of rejoicing in sun, moon, earth, fire, snow, water, and all. The alleluias help, but they don’t save it, in my opinion.

Do you have a favorite setting of the “Brother Sun” text of Saint Francis? A favorite translation/interpretation? If so, tell us the good stuff about it.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Canticles of Brother Sun

  1. Colleen says:

    I must admit, I’m a big fan of the German tune – especially if it skips along (with the Vaughan WIlliams harmonization).

    Another setting that is completely worthy is by Calvin Hampton (tune: LUKKASON). The translation is by Howard Chandler Robbins. The poetry and the music draws one completely through all eight verses!

  2. Randolph Nichols says:

    What tires the voice in “Canticle of the Sun” is not the high D in the refrain, but those sixteenth rests in the verses. Giving in to the temptation to take a breath at these points has dire consequences. Holding the last note of the verse for four measures also doesn’t help.

    Colleen is right about the Vaughan Williams’ setting of “Lasst uns erfreuen.” It does require however organ accompaniment (and might I add, a player with capable pedal technique). My favorite music setting of the “All Creatures” text is unfortunately unavailable to most: Theodore Marier’s hymn tune “St. Francis” found in the out-of-print “Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Canticles” – the hymnal so often mentioned by Liam on this site. Also within that book is Marier’s compelling hymn tune “Mount Auburn” paired with “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest.” For those who find “Lambillotte” stodgy, this is an antidote.

  3. Tony Barr says:

    I have a somewhat complex but fun setting of this Canticle by Bernard Huijbers. If you are familiar with his ‘Home From Our Exile’, in which the flute plays in 6/8 against a 3/4 for the singers, he does a reversal in the Canticle with the assembly and choir singing a 6/8 against a 3/4 accompaniment.

    In recent years, I have composed two settings of this Canticle under the guise of Native American pieces. The first is called ‘Creator Spirit’, in a Lakota tradition, the second ‘Web Of Life’ in a Suquamish tradition to honor Chief Sealth. Both settings are enriched by cedar flutes (or tenor recorders) and drums.

    They are both recorded on CD. ‘Creator Spirit On The Four Winds”, under an abbreviated form “Rising Smoke’ is on the CD You Are For Me. ‘Web Of Life’ can be found on the CD Light Eternal. (There is also more fun stuff on ‘Where Might We Find You”, especially the Native American pieces).

  4. RP Burke says:

    The superiority of Vaughan Williams over Haugen is so obvious I wonder why ANYONE uses “Canticle of the Sun,” even as your choir points out some of its flaws.

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