Phos Hilaron – Part Two

Kevin Siegfried

Kevin Siegfried

After a hiatus filled with many things — the death and memorial service of a good friend and mentor, a trip to the mountains to enjoy the fall color, much activity in both my day job and getting a book proposal ready — I’m back to add the promised second part to my blog on Phos Hilaron.

In my previous posting I talked about the history of this evening hymn from the fourth century, one of the oldest musical texts that we have that are not in the bible, and posted a link to the Compline Choir singing Kevin Siegfried’s setting of Phos Hilaron.  Kevin, who sang with the Compline Choir while he was in Seattle in the late 1990s, wrote us quite a few compositions, including the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum (Before the ending of the day), and a setting of the Nunc dimittis (Lord, now let your servant depart in peace).  In his setting of Phos Hilaron he re-used some of the words to form a fourth stanza, then alternated a chantlike setting of stanzas one and three with a slow-moving setting with block-chordal, minimal harmonies for stanzas two and four.  If you missed hearing it from the previous post, or want to hear it again, click here and press the “Play” button (>):

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.

O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
O gracious Light!

Juli Morgan

Juli Morgan

Juli Morgan is a guitarist and composer of sacred song whose home base is Tacoma; once when she was attending the Compline Service in Seattle she heard Kevin’s setting of Phos Hilaron, and felt like she “was floating.”  [I too feel like I’m in a special meditative state when I’m singing it.]  Juli went on to record Phos using her own voice for all the parts, laying down 37 tracks — listen to her story about the process and play her recording here.  And see how she combined it with her own song, Salvation is Yours.

Juli stopped by after a Compline service in September to give me a copy of her new CD, My Universe.  In her song Center of my Universe, she refers to another ancient chant that has been part of Compline for over a thousand years, known in Latin as the “In manus tuas”:

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

In the Office of Compline that we sing, this is a response after the short bible reading.  The next line of the response is “For you have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth.”  These are several verses from Psalm 31, which was one of the four psalms designated for Compline in the Middle Ages.  There it is, in one short verse — it really speaks to many things: about Compline, and our response to our own life and death; about who Jesus was, and our response to his saving act (is not what Jesus said on the cross accompanied by the verse about what he did on the cross?); and about our response to being in the universe.

As I listened to Center of my Universe, I kept thinking of something I had heard before, some Déjà vu moment.  Was it a Hildegard of Bingen chant?  No, it was something purely instrumental.  And then it came to me — a recording called A Meeting by the River, by Ry Cooder on bottleneck guitar and V. M. Bhatt, on his own instrument, the mohan vina.  Both Juli’s song and the improvisation in Indian style by Cooder/Bhatt were in the key of D – I had made some connection similar to “perfect pitch” between the two; and also a connection in feeling — meditative, joyful, prayerful, expansive…

My thoughts went back to Kevin Siegfried also, because he spent some time in India.  It’s all about bliss.

  1. #1 by Wendy on October 28, 2011 - 3:30 pm

    I’ve just listened to Juli’s recording of Salvation is Yours and it’s brilliant! Thank you for sharing her light with us!

  2. #2 by jefe on October 29, 2011 - 4:31 pm

    Your studied analysis of Phos Hilaron is right on. It’s actually meant for Vespers, and recently Evensong, but we’ve craftily coped it over to Compline, which is also a good fit. When I contacted Kevin a couple years ago, pleading with him to send me his music for our group, he willingly obliged and said, “So, you’re part of the Compline Underground now.” So it is, and your blog subsequently came to pass with the same moniker.
    When I listened to Juli’s recording, I was taken by the way she translated Siegfried’s mystical harmonic language into her own personal language. She now owns completely her distinctive style that is not like any one else’s (that I know of). She pushed on her great talent and just, “let it go” to new heights.
    The more I study the cloud of witnesses surrounding Compline, the more I understand that we’re standing on a lot of people’s shoulders. You can examine any one of the aspects of Compline (in our case, orison or processional, petitions, confession, deliverance, psalms, an office hymn, lessons, responsory: In manus tuas, the Apostles Creed, a litany, The Lord’s Prayer, Collects, Gospel Canticle (Nunc dimittis), anthem, final preces, dismissal, and amen) and dig deep down into the fabric of what makes it so appealing and what makes it work.
    This Compline thing is bigger than we think. However, it still has a regional status, where there are clumps of compline around, mostly near centers of higher learning. The other areas not around Universities may have a champion or two that support Compline.
    The TrinityComplineChoir chanted at Stanford University’s Memorlal Church last Sunday, and I’m still trying to find out what the other groups that do Compline there, do. I now know this about the venue for Compline: it’s like a great sandwich; it’s all about the bread. A mystical Compline is all about the hall. The nave. The church. The stone. The reverb. The other worldliness of the sound in that space.
    Some of your readers may want to visit our website and hear the recording (one of four) made in MemChu, in which we chant Siegfried’s ever inspiring, “Te lucis ante terminum.”
    regards, as always, jefe

  3. #3 by Charles H. Giffen on October 29, 2011 - 9:57 pm

    Thanks for you enlightening words on Phos hilaron … most familiar to me from the Byzantine/Slavic Vespers traditions. There was a topic at the CMAA MusicaSacra forums recently (, and since it was recent enough, I’ll post there a link to your articles here. Thanks also for letting us know about Juli Morgan – a real find! Of course, In manus tuas, Domine is very close to my heart – I composed a setting earlier this year (see my webpage at CPDL).
    Pax Christi. Chuck Giffen

  4. #4 by Ken Peterson on November 1, 2011 - 10:27 am

    Thank you, Jeff and Charles, for your comments. Jeff, your words are always wonderful to receive, and Charles, thank you for your link and your debut comment! Kevin wrote me that he as done a setting of “In manus tuas” as well – I feel a future posting coming on with links to many different versions.

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