I’m devoting the next couple of posts to the Phos Hilaron, which is translated as “gladsome light” or “gladdening light”. It has been called the earliest hymn of the Christian church not taken from the Bible; it is mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions, an early Christian document from the end of the fourth century.
This hymn was perhaps composed by St. Athenogenes, who scholars think was martyred in Armenia about 305 C.E. It was already considered old by the time of St. Basil (d. 379), and was later modified several centuries later by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (560-638). It was used as part of the lamplighting ceremony called Lucernarium at the beginning of evening prayer (Vespers); in fourth-century Jerusalem, candles were lit at evening prayer from a lamp perpetually burning in the empty tomb of Jesus. The candle-lighting ceremony still forms part of the office of Vespers in the Eastern Orthodox rite, and is now an optional canticle in Evening Prayer in the 1979 Episcopal Prayer Book, where it is translated as follows:
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 thy 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.
Kevin Siegfried, a member of the Compline Choir in Seattle from about 1996-2000, composed for us a setting of the Phos Hilaron. He set the first and third stanzas to a chantlike melody, but the section “Now as we come to the setting of the sun” is set to slow-moving block chords; and this section is heard again after the second chant section. For me, the slow chordal section seems to exist in a different world, where time seems to stand still. See what you think by listening to the podcast from the last time we sang Phos Hilaron earlier this summer (click the “Play” button — Kevin’s composition is right after the spoken words at the beginning of Compline).
John Keble (1792 – 1866), one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, translated the text of Phos Hilaron into “Hail Gladdening Light”, and was set to music for double chorus in 1912 by Charles Wood (1866-1926), music professor at Cambridge University. There are many recordings of this anthem, but I’d like you to listen to it sung by Seattle’s Byrd Ensemble (formerly the Renaissance Singers): they do it with just one to a part, and I really enjoy the crystal clarity of the sound:
Hail, gladdening Light, of His pure glory poured
Who is th’immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
Holiest of Holies–Jesus Christ our Lord!
Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest;
The lights of evening round us shine;
We hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine!
Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
With undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life, alone:
Therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.
I’ve got great news to report: The Byrd Ensemble will be singing Compline EVERY SUNDAY starting this coming Sunday, September 11, at 7:30 p.m. PST, from St. Clement of Rome Episcopal Church in Seattle. They will still be doing a live videocast, and promise to archive their webcasts at their Compline site. This is really a first, as far as Compline choirs are concerned!
Next blog will revisit Siegfried’s Phos Hilaron, and talk about a setting in Contemporary Christian style inspired by it.