Notes on the texts for the NCS concert in November 2007

Like my last set of notes, this is an idiosyncratic ramble through the texts, with a view to clarifying meanings and allusions and (occasionally) places where the correct phrasing might be unclear if you happen not to be familiar with Latin and German.

I've translated a little less literally this time, since my deliberately overliteral translations found their way (thankfully without my name attached) into last term's programme notes.

Everything in here is fully authoritative, being derived from such infallible sources as Something I Found On The Web and My Hazy Memories of Secondary-School Latin. In the event of discrepancies between these notes and reality, reality is at fault.

Brown: Laus Creatorum

Text is by St Francis of Assisi. Also called “Canticle of the Sun” or “Laudes Creaturarum” or “Cantico delle creature”, etc., etc., etc. Originally written in a dialect of Italian; possibly the first literary work ever composed in Italian. Circa 1224. Supposedly the final verse about Sister Death (omitted in this setting; presumably the composer felt that they didn't fit the prevailing mood) was added when Francis was on his deathbed. The idea of regarding all created things as brothers and sisters is characteristically Franciscan.

Most High, Omnipotent, good Lord.
Thine be the praise, the glory, the honour, and all benediction.
To thee alone, Most High, they are due, and no man is worthy to mention thee.
Be thou praised, my Lord, with all thy creatures,
above all Brother Sun, who gives the day and lightens us therewith.
And he is beautiful, and he is radiant, with great splendour,
of thee, Most High, he bears similitude.
Be thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Moon, and the Stars,
in the heaven hast thou formed them, clear and precious and comely.
Be thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Wind,
and of the air, of the cloud, and of fair, and all weather,
by the which thou givest to thy creatures sustenance.
Be thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Water,
which is much useful and humble and precious and pure.
Be thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Fire,
by which thou hast lightened the night,
and he is beautiful and joyful and robust and strong.
Be thou praised, my Lord, of our Sister Mother Earth,
which sustains and hath us in rule,
and produces divers fruit with coloured flowers, and herbs.
[Be thou praised, my Lord, of those who forgive for thy love's sake,
who endure through sickness and misfortune.
Blessed are they who endure those things in peace,
for by thee, Most High, will they be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, of our sister Bodily Death,
from whom can no man living escape.
But woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Blessed are those whom she finds doing thy most holy will,
for the second death will not harm them.]
Praise ye, and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,
and serve him with great humility.

The creatures named alternate between “Brother” and “Sister”. (Apart from Death at the end.) It's not perfectly clear whether in the original God is being praised for his creatures, or by them, or with them, or through them; our translation's rather vague “of” nicely preserves this ambiguity.

In the original text the sun isn't said to “bear similitude” of God, exactly, but the original is almost untranslatable; perhaps “signifies” or “represents” comes close. The original text is (if my grasp of 13th-century Umbrian is sufficient, which it isn't) distinctly more informal, even childlike, in tone than our translation.

“of fair, and all weather”: that is, of fair weather and also of all weather whether fair or not.

Byrd and Stanford: Justorum Animae

Text is from the deuterocanonical book called “Wisdom” or, more fully, “The Wisdom of Solomon”, not to be confused with the “Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach”. Two half-verses have been omitted by both composers. The translation appears to be the Vulgate.

Justorum animae in manu Dei suntThe souls of the just are in the hand of God
et non tanget illos tormentum mortisand the torments of death shall not touch them.
Visi sunt oculis insipientium mori,In the eyes of the foolish they appeared to die,
[et aestimata est adflictio exitus illorum,[and their departure was regarded as an affliction,
et quod a nobis est iter exterminii]and their going from us as destruction,]
illi autem sunt in pace.but they are in peace.

Stanford and Byrd have set slightly different versions of the text; Stanford has tormentum malitiae (the torment of evildoers) and Byrd tormentum mortis (the torment of death). The latter appears to be the version in the Vulgate; the former is found in various Roman Catholic liturgies. It's curious to find the Anglican Stanford setting the more specifically RC version of the text while the Catholic Byrd doesn't; perhaps Byrd was being cautious, though he seems to have got away with a great deal of Catholicism without getting into trouble.

Luther's German translation of the first verse was set by Brahms in his Deutsches Requiem: “Der gerechten Seelen sint in Gottes Hand, und keine Qual rühret sie an.”

The text is pretty straightforward, but note that it's visi sunt / oculis insipientium / mori, not visi / sunt oculis / insipientium mori.

Greene: Lord, let me know mine end

See the notes from our previous concert. (Another text set in the Deutsches Requiem!)

Parry: My soul, there is a country

The text is Henry Vaughan's poem “Peace”. Vaughan (1621-1695) was a Welsh poet of the so-called metaphysical school, acquainted with (and possibly converted by) George Herbert. His best known poem is probably “The World”, which begins “I saw eternity the other night / Like a great ring of pure and endless light”.

There's a minor textual deviation, presumably for the sake of easier word-setting: Vaughan actually wrote “Afar beyond the stars” rather than “Far beyond the stars”.

The constant juxtaposition of martial and pacific themes is presumably deliberate.

“a winged sentry / All skilful in the wars”: the archangel Michael, perhaps? The “beauteous files” are surely the angelic armies of heaven.

“ranges”: wanderings, of the metaphorical sort (away from God, among worldly pleasures, etc.).

Brahms: How lovely are thy dwellings

Text is from Psalm 84. Brahms actually set the German translation of this psalm found in Luther's Bible; for reasons I cannot imagine, we are singing instead an English version, and therefore a translation of a translation.

The “dwellings fair” are the Temple at Jerusalem, which sometimes (as here) God is thought of as actually inhabiting. (The word “fair” corresponds to nothing in either the original Hebrew or the German, and is included only for the sake of the syllable count.) The psalmist is longing to go to Jerusalem and worship at the temple (not, e.g., to go to heaven and dwell eternally with God there).

“Lord of Hosts”: “hosts”, of course, in the sense of “multitudes” or “armies”, probably those of heaven (= the “beauteous files” of “My soul, there is a country”).

“My heart and flesh do cry to God”, etc.: the German is “Mein Leib und Seele freuen sich”: “my flesh and soul *rejoice in* the living God”. Everything else is about longing and thirsting and crying, but not this. (But the KJV, interestingly, has “crieth out for the living God”; perhaps there's a textual variation underlying the difference.)

The word underlay often differs substantially from the German; so, e.g., on page 4 “My soul longeth, / my soul ever longeth and fainteth” = “Meine Seele / verlanget und sehnet, verlanget”. I haven't noticed any places where the emphases and phrasings familiar from singing the German original would be disastrous in the English, though.

Stanford: Coelos ascendit hodie

For Ascension Day, obviously, which makes it a bit odd to be singing it now. No matter.

Coelos ascendit hodie Jesum Christum rex gloriaeJesus Christ, king of glory, has today ascended into the heavens
Sedet ad Patris dexteramHe sits at the right hand of the Father
Gubernat caelum et terramHe governs heaven and earth
Jam finem habent omnia patris Davidis carminaNow all our father David's songs are fulfilled
Jam Dominus cum DominoNow [our] Lord is with [the] Lord
Sedet in Dei solioHe sits on God's throne
In hoc triumpho maximoIn this greatest of triumphs
Benedicamus DominoLet us bless the Lord
Laudatur sancta TrinitasLet the holy Trinity be blessed
Deo dicamus gratiasLet us give (lit. say) thanks to God

I haven't been able to find out who wrote this text; apparently it's in the “Cowley Carol Book”, of which I know nothing.

“Jam finem habent omnia patris Davidis carmina”: the sense continues across the verse division and the “Alleluia” interjection here (it isn't “Now all things come to an end” or “Now all things find their purpose”; it's “omnia patris Davidis carmina” that do that); choir 2 take note! “Finem” means “end” in pretty much all that word's senses; “purpose” and “fulfilment” are the idea here rather than mere stopping. “Carmina” = “songs”; David's songs are of course the Psalms.

“Jam Dominus cum Domino”: this, and much else in the text, is a reference to psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”, which the Letter to the Hebrews takes to mean “God (*the* Lord) said to Jesus (*my* Lord), ...”. The psalms are traditionally ascribed to David, whence “patris Davidis carmina” in the previous line.

“in Dei solio”: “on God's throne”, not “in God alone” or anything of the sort.

“In hoc triumpho maximo”: for the Ascension as triumph, compare Psalm 47 (“O clap your hands ... for God is gone up with a shout”), as used e.g. by Gibbons (“O clap your hands together” and Finzi (“God is gone up with a triumphant shout”). Although this, like Psalm 84 (see above under “How lovely are thy dwellings”), would originally have been a reference to goings-on in the Temple rather than anything to do with Jesus or heaven.

Bainton: And I saw a new heaven

Text from Revelation 21:1-4 (KJV). “I” is, of course, the prophet John in one of his less magic-mushroom moments. In the book of Revelation this passage marks the transition from blood and death and doom and fire and brimstone to peace and salvation; the devil and his minions have been done away with, and now we get John's vision of how things are to be for the blessed.

“and there was no more sea”: the Jews were not in general a seafaring people, and in the Bible the sea is frequently a symbol of danger and fear. (Consider the Flood, the Red Sea that the Israelites had to cross to escape Egypt, and the chaotic waters that prevailed before the creation of the earth.)

“tabernacle”: literally just means “tent”, but in a Biblical context commonly means “dwelling place of God”. (In the KJV, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” is “How amiable are thy tabernacles”. That would be rather difficult to fit to Brahms's music.)

Bach: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied

The first section's text is taken from psalm 149; the last, from psalm 150; the central section is composed of an aria of unknown origin (sung by choir 1) and a chorale whose words are taken from the hymn “Nun lob, mein Seel', den Herren” by Johann Gramann (sung by choir 2).

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,Sing to the Lord a new song,
Die Gemeine der Heiligen sollen ihn loben.let the company of the saints praise him.
Israel freuet sich des, der ihn gemacht hat.Let Israel rejoice in him who made them.
Die Kinder Zion sei'n fröhlich über ihrem Könige,Let the children of Zion rejoice in their King,
Sie sollen loben seinen Namen im Reihen;let them praise his name with dancing,
mit Pauken und Harfen sollen sie ihm spielen.let them play to him with drum and harp.
Aria (choir 1):
Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an,God, continue to take care of us,
Denn ohne dich ist nichts getanfor without you is nothing done
Mit allen unsern all our affairs.
Drum sei du unser Schirm und Licht,Be our shelter and light,
Und trügt uns unsre Hoffnung nicht,and if our hope does not deceive us,
So wirst du's ferner will continue to be so.
Wohl dem, der sich nur steif und festHappy is he who firmly and strongly
Auf dich und deine Huld verlä himself over to you and your grace.
Chorale (choir 2):
Wie sich ein Vater erbarmetAs a father takes pity
Über seine junge Kinderlein,on his little children,
So tut der Herr uns allen,So does the Lord to us all,
So wir ihn kindlich fürchten rein.who fear him, childlike and pure.
Er kennt das arm Gemächte,He knows how weak are our powers,
Gott weiß, wir sind nur Staub,God knows that we are but dust,
Gleichwie das Gras vom Rechen,like grass that is swept away,
Ein Blum und fallend flowers and falling leaves.
Der Wind nur drüber wehet,The wind has only to pass over them,
So ist es nicht mehr da,and they are gone;
Also der Mensch vergehet,even so man is passing away,
Sein End, das ist ihm nah.and his end is near.
Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten,Praise the Lord for his deeds,
lobet ihn in seiner großen Herrlichkeit!praise him for his great majesty!
Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn.Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Haydn: The heavens are telling

Text is from Psalm 19, more or less, but it's been translated into German and back again. (An unknown librettist – possibly Charles Jennens, librettist of Handel's “Messiah” – put together a text taken mostly from Genesis, Milton and the Psalms, entitled "The creation of the world"; Baron Gottfried von Swieten translated it into German for Haydn's use, and then (once Haydn had composed the music) produced an adaptation of the English text to fit Haydn's music. Neither Haydn nor von Swieten was a fluent English speaker, as anyone familiar with the English libretto must be painfully aware.

Here is the “English” text, with a translation of the underlying German into actual English. (If you want a translation of the under-underlying Hebrew, look in a bible.)

The heavens are telling the glory of God;The heavens declare the glory of God;
the wonder of his work displays the firmament.the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.
To day that is coming speaks it the day,Each day tells it to the following day,
The night that is gone to following night.Each fleeting night to the following night.
In all the lands resounds the word,The word goes out into every land,
Never unperceived, ever understood.Sounding in every ear, no stranger to any language.

There's not much more to be said, really. The “word” is just the heavens' declaration of the glory of God; nothing to do with the “Word” of John 1.

Monteverdi: Ave maris stella

The text is a Latin hymn to the Virgin Mary, of unknown origin but no later than the 9th century.

Ave maris stella,Hail, star of the sea,
Dei Mater alma,Bountiful Mother of God,
Atque semper virgo,And [yet] for ever a virgin,
Felix coeli porta.Blessed gate of heaven.
Sumens illud AveReceiving that “Hail!”
Gabrielis ore,From the mouth of Gabriel,
Funda nos in pace,Establish us in peace,
Mutans Evae nomen.Changing the name of Eve.
Solve vincla reis,Loose the bonds of the guilty,
Profer lumen caecis,Bring forth light to the blind,
Mala nostra pelle,Dispel our evils,
Bona cuncta posce.Ask [for us] all good things.
Monstra te esse matrem,Show yourself to be [his] mother:
Sumat per te preces,May he receive [our] prayers through you
Qui pro nobis natus,Who, born for us,
Tulit esse tuus.Took it upon himself to be your [son].
Virgo singularis,Matchless virgin,
Inter omnes mitis,Meek above all others,
Nos culpis solutos,Having freed us from our faults,
Mites fac et castos.Make us meek and chaste.
Vitam praesta puram,Keep our live pure,
Iter para tutum:And make our way safe,
Ut videntes Jesum,That seeing Jesus
Semper collaetemur.We may for ever rejoice together.
Sit laus Deo Patri,Praise be to God the Father,
Summo Christo decus,Honour to Christ the Most High,
Spiritui Sancto,[And] to the Holy Spirit,
Trinus honor unus.One threefold honour.

“illud Ave ... mutans Evae nomen”: this is actually rather clever; the idea is (1) that the Virgin Mary, being sinless, has undone the sin of Eve, and (2) that “Ave”, Gabriel's greeting at the Annunciation, is an anagram (yea, the reverse) of “Eva”, the Latin form of “Eve”!

“Sumat” in verse 4 has somehow become “Summat” in our music; that's a mistake.

“Singularis”: I think this has both the sense of “unaccompanied” and that of “unparalleled”. The same ambiguity is (again, I think) found in the carol “I sing of a maid that is makeless”.

Bedford: The soft stars that shine at night

The composer has kindly provided his own notes on the texts, so further comment would be superfluous. I'll just note that the title for the whole piece is taken from the final poem beginning “Do not stand at my grave and weep”; this may be “a journey through life”, but death is in view throughout. In my bigoted and curmudgeonly opinion, the only poetry worthy of the name in the whole text is Tony Harrison's, but I hope you don't agree because it's easier to sing something convincingly when you really believe in its quality. I suppose the third Patchen poem has some merit.