How Christians Time Travel: Method 1: Songwriting Collaboration

Being a worshipper of the God of Abraham has always involved elements of what one might call time travel, were one being playful and inaccurate and if one had recently been rereading Connie Willis’ Blackout, for which one blames Leah Libresco’s recent tweeting.


The Four Sons, only one of whom fails to time travel.  From a haggadah pub. in Amsterdam in 1695.

You can see that pretty clearly every year at Passover, when we were supposed to remember God bringing us out of slavery in Egypt. 


Nota Koslowsky’s 1944 version of the Four Sons.

This was remembering– but it was more than remembering; it was reenacting, it was reliving, it was knowing ourselves joined organically and covenantally to the generation that did get freed from slavery to Pharaoh.


Nubian & Asiatic slaves making bricks. From the tomb of Rekhmire, Vizier in the courts of Thutmoses III and Amenhotep II (15thcentury BC)

And Christianity, as an outgrowth of Judaism, sees this more-than-remembering quality of worship and raises it, in several of the ways that it has historically understood what it means to participate in the Lord’s Supper, in the Eucharist.  That’s its own kind of time travel, which can be obscured by using the word “memorial” to describe it.

But that’s not what I’m talking about now.  What I’m talking about now is songwriting.

This carol, which Kate Bluett reminded me of this morning, is a translation of a poem written by the Christian poet Aurelus Prudentius Clemens, born in 348 in the Roman Province of Hispania Tarraconensis, in what’s now Northern Spain.  Originally published as hymn #9 in his Liber Cathemerinon, should you be interested.


The tune is a Medieval plainchant, dating back to at least the 10th century, taking its final form in the 13th c., but it wasn’t linked up with Prudentius’ hymn until the middle of the 19th century.  That was the idea of a music editor called Thomas Helmore, and here’s how that happened.

An Anglican priest called John Mason Neale had done a translation of Prudentius’ hymn in 1851.  A couple of years later, in 1853, the British ambassador to Sweden, G.J.R. Gordon, brought him a copy of a 16th c. songbook that was based on a collection that had been assembled by the masters of the cathedral school in Turku, Finland.

[Excursus: Day before yesterday, as has been the case nearly every year since the 1320s, except for 1712-1721, 1917, and 1939, and possibly during  1800-1815, the Christmas Peace was proclaimed in the Old Great Square in Turku.  The ceremony has changed over the years somewhat.  For example, it did not originally include a singalong of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God 😉 .  But the legislation that established the proclamation hasn’t. Excursus and Lutheran h/t ended.]


The book was Piae Cantiones, and Neale brought it and his translation of Prudentius to Helmore, and Helmore monkeyed with the setting such that Prudentius’ text as translated by Neale could be sung to the tune that our anonymous plainchant composer had composed.   


John Mason Neale

The last bits were added ten years later, in 1861, by Henry W. Baker.

Let’s just notice this publication history: three lyricists, one composer (or did you think that anonymous plainchant melodies wrote themselves?), one mid-Victorian music publisher, separated by nearly 1600 years, collaborating on a songwriting project. 

THAT is the Church, people.  You know those little attributions in your hymnals, the ones that look like Text: Miscellaneous Latin Name, 5th c; tr. Other Name (Year-Year), Tune: Some thing you don’t know what it is, 11th c.?  That’s the kind of thing that those attributions mean. It’s not time travel– it’s not; not even the sacramental kind that we do when we take communion.  But it’s something strange and strong.

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Text: Marcus Aurelius C. Prudentius, 4th c.; tr. John M. Neale (1818-1866) Tune: Plainsong, 13th c.

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!

At His Word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him,
and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert sing,
Evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!

Righteous Judge of souls departed,
Righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted
None in might with Thee may strive;
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive,
Evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving,
And unwearied praises be:
Honour, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!



One response to “How Christians Time Travel: Method 1: Songwriting Collaboration

  1. This is fabulous. Thanks for writing this. It made my morning better as I recover from Bronchitis up here in the People’s Republic of Canada, where Euthanasia has recently become a new national sacrament. Let’s publish a hymn book that is entirely made up of hymns that can be sung to the tune of Lasst uns Erfreuen (hymn 1 can be All Creatures of Our God and King).


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