Advent recital

Feast of St Lucy
2018.12.13 · 12.00
St David’s Episcopal Church

Jesus comes in sounds of gladness
Organ and chant for Advent

Verbum supernum    Nicolas de Grigny
Rorate coeli    Jeanne Demessieux
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland    Nikolaus Bruhns

This recital (unfortunately, due to the exigencies of scheduling, missing the Feast of St Nicholas by a week) features the work of two great, short-lived contemporaries called Nicholas, based on chant melodies, intended for use at the liturgy, and indeed incorporating earlier styles and techniques, but written at a time and with a genius that also looked beyond the scope of liturgical need and propriety. Both these works (Grigny’s four versets on the Matins hymn for Advent and Bruhns’s extended fantasia on the Vespers hymn for Advent or Christmas Eve) as well as the short piece on the Advent Prose by twentieth-century virtuoso organist-composer Demessieux will be presented with the singing of the chants upon which they are based.

Program notes

Nicolas de Grigny was organist at the abbey of St Denis and later at the cathedral in Rheims. His sets of versets for five Office hymns and the Ordinary of the Mass (to be played in alternation with the chant) are among the most complex and beautiful examples of French Baroque organ music; Bach admired his works and copied them out for his own study.

The first verset for the Advent Matins hymn ‘Verbum supernum prodiens’ is played on the full organ, with the chant tune stated in long notes on the trumpet stop in the pedal. The second is a fugue, also based on the chant melody, in five parts: two played on the Cornet combination, two on the Cromorne, and one in the pedal. The third is a lovely dialogue for these same two solo sounds, heard in alternation and then together, as in a vocal duet; the fourth is a lively piece with a bass solo featuring the Trumpet stop, in a style borrowed from works for solo viol.

St Ambrose was Bishop of Milan in the fourth century, one of the great Fathers of the Church, and the fountainhead of hymnody in the West. His hymn ‘Veni redemptor gentium’ was one of those, and one of the first, which Martin Luther found so useful and appealing that he made a German translation, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’. Luther fit his text to a slightly simplified version of the tune that had been associated with the hymn since at least 1120 and probably much longer. (English translations of these two versions, with their corresponding tunes, are found at Hymns 54 and 55; the translation provided here gives a fuller text and sense than either of those).

Nicolaus Bruhns, a pupil of Buxtehude in Lübeck, was a virtuoso performer on the organ and violin, and his few extant works show a brilliant musical imagination. His setting of ‘Nun komm’ is a late flowering of the seventeenth-century North German genre we now call a ‘chorale fantasia’. Each of the tune’s four phrases is elaborated in turn using a variety of musical-rhetorical techniques and exploring the tonal resources of the instrument. It was probably first played – and likely improvised for the most part – at an Advent Vespers.

Verbum supernum prodiens

O heav’nly Word, the Son sublime –
the Father’s heart and mind unfurled –
who in the fleeting course of time
wast born to save a stumbling world:

Our hearts enlighten from on high
and kindle with thy love this day:
that hearkening to the herald’s cry
our sins we then may cast away,

that when as judge thou comest hence
the secrets of our hearts to sound,
for sins thy justice to dispense,
and bid the just as kings be crown’d,

we be not bound, for our sins’ sake,
with wicked souls in fetters sore,
but with the blessed may partake
of heaven’s freedom evermore.

Praise, honor, might, and glory meet
to God the Father and the Son,
and to the Holy Paraclete,
to endless ages scarce begun.

5th or 6th century
tr. Eric Mellenbruch

Veni redemptor gentium

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth:
let every age adoring fall;
such birth befits the God of all.

Begotten of no manly seed,
but by a hidden breath indeed,
the Word of God hath taken flesh,
the blest womb’s fruit hath blossomed fresh.

The belly of the Virgin swells:
God in this modest temple dwells,
whose courts stand fast, held by the beam
from which those noble colours stream.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
that royal home of purity,
a giant in twofold substance one,
rejoicing now his course to run.

From God the Father he proceeds,
to God the Father back he speeds;
his course he runs to death and hell,
returning on God’s throne to dwell.

O equal to the Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
the weakness of our mortal state
with deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light,
where endless faith shall shine serene,
and twilight never intervene.

St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, late 4th century
tr. John Mason Neale; st. 2,3 tr. Eric Mellenbruch