The blessed sonne of God onely

Christmastide 2013/14

A favorite Christmastide anthem of many choirs is ‘The blessed Son of God’ from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s cantata This Day (Hodie). The musical language of this beautiful setting somewhat disguises the provenance of the text, which is part of an interesting chapter, if something of a blind alley, in English-language and Anglican hymnody.

Characteristic of most Reformation efforts was the concern that the people might participate more fully and actively in the liturgy, by means of the use of the vernacular, the radical simplification of the rites, and congregational singing. The Lutheran tradition, in particular, encouraged music both elaborate and simple (Luther himself was an avid amateur musician and a great lover of, for example, Josquin’s music), gathering existing Latin hymns, vernacular religious song, and even secular tunes, editing, adding, and writing new texts and tunes. A good example of the kind of work being done is ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’ (‘Praised be thou, Jesus Christ’), a fourteenth-century song of one stanza (based on the Latin Sequence for the Midnight Mass of Christmas, Grates nunc omnes) to which Luther added six stanzas. The song, first printed in the Enchiridion Oder eyn Handbuchlein / eynem yetzlichen Christen fast nutzlich bey sich zuhaben / zur stettervbung vnnd trachtung geystlicher gesenge / vnd Psalme / Rechtschaffen vnnd kunstlich vertheutscht (‘Errfordt’ [Erfurt], 1524), was immensely popular, spawning innumerable organ settings including what we now call ‘chorale-fantasias’ by Weckman and Buxtehude.

The English reformer Myles Coverdale, translator of Scripture and sometime Bishop of Exeter, spent some years (roughly 1526–35, 1540–47, and 1553–59) in exile in Germany, where the Lutheran Reformation was in full swing. Impressed by the movement’s efforts to foster congregational song and compile a repertory to that end, he undertook to translate a selection of Lutheran hymns into English, which he published around 1535 as Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes (printed by Johan Gough) in the hopes that the reforming English Church might take up the practice of congregational hymn-singing.

However, despite the longstanding tradition and extant body of English translation of Psalms and Latin hymns, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, lamented to Henry VIII in a letter of 7 October 1544 that his (Cranmer’s) attempts at translating hymnody ‘lack the grace and facility that I wish they had’ and suggested that the king might ‘cause some other to make them again that can do the same in more pleasant English and phrase’. This never happened, and the hymns, along with essentially all the other variable material (antiphons, versicles, responsories) were omitted from the Prayer Book Office (1549), though the hymns remained in the Primers (Books of Hours, meant for private devotion) that continued to be issued into Elizabeth’s reign.

Provision was made in Queen Elizabeth’s Injunctions of 1559 that ‘an hymn or such like song’ might be sung before or after Morning or Evening Prayer, but in most cases, this meant (under heavy Calvinist influence) either congregational singing of metrical psalmody – often of poor quality – or choral anthems – in the best cases of the very highest quality. Congregational singing of hymnody within the Anglican liturgy had to wait until the nineteenth century to gain a solid foothold, at which time the English hymn tradition that had been growing outside of (e.g. Watts), or on the fringes of (e.g. Wesley), the Church of England was joined by new work by writers more firmly within the Anglican fold, as well as translations of older German (e.g. Winkworth) and Latin (e.g. Neale) hymns.

Below are Coverdale’s version (Vaughan Williams set vv. 2, 5, and 7) and Luther’s original of ‘Gelobet seist du’, as they first appeared in print, and with transcriptions.

Of the birth of Christ.

Now blessed be thou Christ Jesu
thou art man borne this is true
the Aungels made a mery noyse
yet haue we more cause to rejoyse

The blessed sonne of god onely
in a crybbe full poore dyd lye
with oure poore flesh and oure poore bloude
was clothed that euerlastynge good

He that made heauen and earth of nought
In oure flesh hath oure health brought
For oure sake made he hym selfe full small
That reigneth lorde and kynge over all

Eternall lyght doth now apeare
To the worlde both farre and neare
It shyneth full cleare euen at mydnyght
Makynge us chyldren of his lyght

The lorde Christ Jesu gods sonne deare
was a gest and a straunger here
Us for to brynge from mysery
That we might lyve eternally

Into this worlde ryght poore came he
To make vs ryche in mercye
Therefore wolde he oure synnes forgeue
That we with hym in heaven myght lyve

All this dyd he for us frely
For to declare his great mercy
All christendome be mery therfore
And geue hym thankes euermore

Eyn deutsch Hymnus oder Lobgsang.

Gelobett seystu Jhesu Christ
das du mensch geboren bist
von einer iunckfraw das ist war
des frewet sich der engel schar. Kyrioleys.

Des ewigen vatters eynig kyndt
yetz man in der kryppen findt
In vnser armes fleysch un[d] blut
verkleydet sich das ewyg gut. Kirioleys.

Den aller welt kreyß nye beschloß
der lygt in Maria schoß.
Er ist ein kindlein worden klein
der alle ding erhellt allein. Kirioleys.

Das ewig liecht gehet da hereynn
gybt der welt ein newenn scheinn.
Es leucht wol mitten inn der nacht
vnnd vnns des liechtes kinder macht. Kirioleys.

Der son des vatters got von ardt
ein gast in der welt wardt.
Unnd furt uns auß dem yamertall
er macht uns erben in seym saall. Kirioleys.

Er ist auff erden kommen arm
das er vnser sich erbarm.
Vnd in dem hymel machet reich
vnd seinen lieben Engeln gleich. Kirioleys.

Das hat er alles vnns gethan
sein groß lieb zy zeygn ann.
Des frew sich all Christenheit
vnd danck ym des in ewigkeit. Kirioleis.