Thursday, December 25, 2008

Our Father's love

In what is becoming an annual event, as with last year Pastor Todd Wilken did a one hour segment of Issues Etc. today on a single Christmas hymn, by interviewing Dr. Arthur Just, professor at the Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

For Christmas Day 2008, the second hour of the (pre-taped) show is about the hymn “Of the Father's Love Begotten.” Dr. Just summarized its importance as follows:
This is perhaps one of the most sublime christmas carols there is. It is an absolutely magnificent hymn and one of the oldest hymns in our canon.
The poem was written ca. 400 by the Spanish Christian poet, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-c. 413). The first verse of the Latin original is as follows:
Corde natus ex parentis
ante mundi exordium
Alpha et Omeega cognominatus,
ipse fons et clausula
Omnium quae sunt, fuerunt,
quaeque post futura sunt.
Modern hymnals owe their English version to a translation by John Mason Neale in 1854, among the many medieval texts he translated. However, we today use the modified version of the Neale translation, created by Henry Williams Baker, editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

In fact, Hymn #46 in Hymns A&M lists both the (Baker-modified) English text and the Latin original that they used for the translation. The first verse in A&M is:
Of the Father’s Love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!
To Dr. Just, this hymn of joy at the incarnation of the Christ is also a hymn of praise and mystery. To this, I would add that this hymn — reaching to us across the centuries, from a time closer to Jesus’ time on earth than to our own — speaks to the eternal nature of God and his love for us. Such transcendent timelessness is (at least to me) an essential element of any Christian liturgy.

Neale is also credited with selecting (or at least finding) the tune that we use today. The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion (1990) summarizes the tune as:
Divinium Mysterium is a plansong melody used by Neale for his translation of “Corde natus ex Parentis” in the collection The Hymnal Noted (1851). There it was captioned “Melody from a manuscript at Wolfenbutel of the XIIIth century.”
Wherever it was first printed, most hymnals refer to the tune as “Plainsong, Mode V, 11th cent.”

In addition to being among the most important (if not earliest) Christmas hymns, it is also among the most popular. YouTube lists 23 different videos, most (but not all) concert performances by school choirs.

Amazon lists 60 versions of “Of the Father’s love begotten.” Of these, after poking through them I bought the version performed by a choir from a special program at Rider University. It seemed like the most authentic, although it’s only verses 1, 6 and 9 of the nine listed in A&M.

I was disappointed and a little surprised not to find a recording of the Latin version anywhere, particularly since this would fit the recent interest in Gregorian chant. Sure, the words predate Pope Gregory by at least 200 years, but the tune is later than Gregory and is in the Gregorian style. I will keep searching, in hopes of finding a recording somewhere, hopefully by a church choir in a sanctuary with suitable medieval acoustics.


Jeff said...

You might look it up in the new Oxford Book of Carols... As I recall, the tune is from Piae Cantiones and not really a chant at all, but it was put into a chant style when it was joined with the words sometime in the 19th c.

stephen rouse said...

What does "A&M" mean in your post?


stephen rouse said...

What does "A&M" mean in your post?


9.West said...

Stephen, Sorry for not noticing your comment earlier.

Hymns Ancient & Modern (ca. 1865) was the first modern anglican hymnal, put together by John Mason Neale. So much of what we take for granted to the two major postwar hymnals -- The English Hymnal (1906) and Hymnal 1940 (the US hymnal) -- are derived from Hymns A&M.


stephen rouse said...

Did you ever find a recorded version with all the verses being sung? (either in English or Latin)