The baptism of Christ

"The Baptism of Christ"

Piero della Francesca: The Baptism of Christ

We’ve now moved into the liturgical season of Epiphany, which began on January 6 with the traditional celebration of the visit of the Magi, and lasts until Ash Wednesday.  Epiphany will be long this year, since Easter won’t be until April 24.

We celebrate throughout Epiphany the manifestation of God in Jesus, and last Sunday’s gospel was about one such event: the Baptism of Christ.  Jesus seeks to be baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John. At Compline for many years we have sung Peter Hallock’s “The Baptism of Christ” as an anthem.  From what I’ve seen doing a little web-surfing, many church choirs sang this piece last Sunday as well.  The text is from a medieval carol, “Jesus autem hodie”, and it’s macaronic, i.e., it is in different languages — English and Latin.  Here it is, with translations in parentheses:

Jesus autem hodie regressus est a Jordanae (Jesus now returns today to the Jordan.)  When Jesus Christ baptised was, the Holy Ghost descended with grace; the Father voice was heard in the place: Hic est filius meus, ipsum intende (This is my beloved Son).

There were Three Persons and one Lord, the Son baptised with one accord, the Father said this blessed word: Hic est filius meus, ipsum intende.

Now, Jesu, as thou art both God and man, and were baptised in from Jordan, at our last end, we pray thee, say then: Hic est filius meus, ipsum intende.

In 1961 the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies wrote a setting of Jesus autem hodie, and I remember the Cathedral Choir at St. Mark’s, Seattle, singing this composition back in the late 1960s. Davies sets the first Latin text as a recurring refrain of high voices, while the narrative English sections and “Hic est filius meus” are sung by the full choir.  The setting is very dense, dissonant, and difficult to sing — it takes an especially fine choir to bring it off, and you can hear such a performance (by the choir of the Church of the Advent, Boston) by clicking here.

About twenty years after Davies, Peter Hallock wrote his setting of “The Baptism of Christ” (1980).  He departs from the medieval form by having the first Latin phrase sung by the whole choir, but only once as a kind of introduction.  Then the narrative English passages are sung by an alto voice, preferably a countertenor (male alto).  Peter sang this himself for many years (his contribution toward the Early Music movement in America, and especially toward the acceptance of the solo countertenor sound, will have to wait for another blog entry!).  The whole choir sings the “Hic est filius meus” section each time, holding the last syllable while the alto soloist echoes the words above – same with “ipsum intende”.  Listen to it now from our podcast from January 9, 2011 (click on the “Play” button —  “The Baptism of Christ” begins at about 21:40).

I am always immensely moved by the simplicity of the writing, and the starkness of timbre of the countertenor, and also when the words of God are set to many voices instead of one.  This representation of God by many voices makes it much more anonymous and mystical; many composers have used this technique, such as Benjamin Britten in his “Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac”, and Arnold Schoenberg in his opera Moses and Aaron.  The effect in “The Baptism of Christ” is feeling of the words of God coming from the depths, underscored by the lower voicing, and then the alto voice sort of like a “hovering angel” above.  Or is it the dove of the Holy Spirit?  I am reminded of one of my favorite artists, Piero della Francesca, and his depiction of “The Baptism of Christ”. Here indeed, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, hovers over Jesus.

The Baptism of Christ is indeed so rich in symbols, that many visual artists have been inspired to capture this event (see an excellent blog series by Fred Sanders beginning here in The Scriptorium).  The water of the Jordan, for instance, reminds us of the Israelites crossing over into the Promised Land, as waters are parted a second time (the Red Sea being the first) preceeded by the Ark of the Covenant (Joshua 3:14-17).  Christ is baptized in the Jordan as a symbol of the New Covenant, and Christians are reminded that by baptism, or death in Christ, comes the resurrection from the dead; no wonder that scenes of the baptism of Christ abound in early catacombs and sarcophagi.  And as one of the themes of Compline is thinking about our own death, introduced by the response “The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end”, I look forward to the text at this time of year: “at our last end, we pray thee, say then: This is my beloved one.”

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  1. #1 by Bonnie Westmark on January 17, 2011 - 9:48 pm

    Thank you!

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  3. Information about the Hallock “Baptism of Jesus” – Sacred Music Matters

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