Archive for category Phos Hilaron

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.

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Phos Hilaron – Part One

Seattle's Byrd Ensemble

Seattle's Byrd Ensemble, who launch a weekly videocast of Compline on September 11.

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.

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