Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oldest Christian B-side

Back when I was growing up, teenagers still bought their new music on 45 rpm disks. The artist (or record company) would pull some sort of hot song from the new album and put it on the front of the 45, and then fill the back (the “B-side”) with something else that was unlikely to be a hit. (Occasionally, they underestimated the potential of the B-side and the buyer got two good songs for the price of one.)

Normally when Christian musicians think of the Christian poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-c. 413), we think of his incomparable Christmas song, Corde natus, or, as translated by J.M. Neale:
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!
But during Epiphany, we get a second Prudentius hymn:
O sola magnarum urbium
Maoior Bethlem, cui contigit
Ducem salutis caelitus
Incorporatum gignere
Today, we don’t sing it in the Latin, but as “Earth has many a noble city,” hymn #48 in Hymnal 1940 (or #127 for those who use Hymnal 1982). [Conjubilant with Song also blogs on this hymn during this Epiphany season.]

The text was translated by Edward Caswall. As with “Of the father’s love,” both Hymnals use the version from Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861). Somehow the 1982 crew resisted the temptation to bowdlerize the text (perhaps because the M-word was absent.)

Of course, this is not really a B-side. Ignoring the lack of 120V AC and phonographs in the 5th century, the tune for both hymns is an anachronism — in this case, the ever-popular Stuttgart (1715) attributed to C.F. Witt. (Although Stuttgart is better known for the Advent favorite “Come thou long expected Jesus,” it was actually introduced to Anglicans with this hymn in Hymns Ancient & Modern.)

Still, it’s a fun mental exercise to think of how Prudentius gave us the words to these two timeless hymns, and how a 5th century entrepreneur might have packaged them for the faithful to enjoy together.

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