Saturday, February 2, 2013

Phos hilaron

The lecture title was provocative: "Phos hilaron From early church to Christian rock: A cultural history of the oldest hymn in Christendom." That's a mouthful, and clearly describes the excellent lecture by Mark Thorne, Assistant Professor of Classical Languages at Wheaton College. One thing I am really digging in this stage is the freedom to take advantage of a vibrant offering of public campus lectures.

Dr. Thorne's was vibrant, interesting, and fun. He delivered what the title promised, and along the way I learned a lot about a hymn I thought I knew. It's place in the Anglican Evening Prayer is responsible for the version I know as an evening hymn, "O gracious light." I mentioned this prayer in an earlier post. What I didn't know comprised most of the lecture, which was full of visual and audio illustrations. Just the way to finish a week of classes, late on a winter afternoon.

But the lecture did press some of my buttons, stirred some of my hornets' nests. The lecturer became curious about Phos hilaron when he heard it on the 2009 David Crowder Band Album, "Church Music." That set off his inquiry, and so that was also the final musical example of the lecture. The questions that follow do not in any way reflect Dr. Thorne's content or purpose for the lecture. They are simply the way my mind worked as he concluded. Here goes:

* Not all Christian music is church music. This is an issue confused by - oh, let's say the David Crowder Band album title, "Church Music." By "church music" most people probably think "the music I will be expected to sing in church." And others - fewer perhaps - will mean "the music that I will listen to others perform in church." I might be able to make the argument that the DCB album is filled with music that could be performed in church; on the same principles that I could justify a choral anthem. Fair enough. But as for singing . . .

* Related to the above, who (that is, what congregations) actually sing along to the tunes on the DCB "Church Music"? I am not asking who enjoys this music (many do, and with good enough reason) but who actually sings along. I hear this in settings where it is reasonable to expect the audience/congregation to get it and get with it. But I have yet to hear this sort of thing thoroughly engaged vocally even my a significant minority. Listen along? Sure. Mumble along? Well, OK.. All I'm saying here is: assign some music a proper role of performance, if it should be used but can't really be sung by the untrained or those unfamiliar with a particular CD or radio station.

* One of the points made in the course of the lecture is that Phos hilaron took on musical characteristics of the various eras in which it was introduced. [Notably exceptional of course is in the Greek church, where this hymn has been sung daily for something like 1700 years, and where relatively few chant variants continue to do good service for it.] Which raises a question: Should "music of the era" serve as a justification for "any music?" Yes, "Hail gladdening light" (another translation of Phos hilaron) technically can be rapped or set to Euro techno electronica tribal Celtic funk, but should it?

* Which raises the last question I walked away with: Should a liturgical hymn be used outside the liturgy? This is a tough one for me, as a worship planner and song chooser. Do I really have the right to borrow someone else's liturgy for my free church worship? (Much less for a concert designed primarily for entertainment?) There are few hymns that would conclude the Lord's Day in an evening service better than one of the settings of Phos hilaron. But . . . should it? Or should we be writing our own?

Dr. George Kalantzis, head of the Early Christian Studies program at Wheaton College, made this concluding comment at Thursday's lecture: "We look back, not with nostalgia but so that we may know who we are." And then he dismissed us into the early evening with Phos hilaron:
O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven;
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, 
O Son of God, O giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds.

And I drove home singing:
O gracious Light, Lord Jesus Christ, 
in you the Father's glory shone.
Immortal, holy, blest is he, 
and blest are you, his holy Son.
   Now sunset comes, but light shines forth,
   the lamps are lit to pierce the night.
   Praise Father, Son, and Spirit, God
   who dwells in the eternal light.
Worthy are you of endless praise,
O Son of God, life-giving Lord;
wherefore you are through all the earth
and in the highest heaven adored. 
Phos hilaron, trans. 20th century, F. Bland Tucker
Long Meter tune: try the Tallis Canon!

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