I hope you have had a wonderful New Years. No doubt by now we have all been exposed to a number of thoughts, reflections, Youtube videos, instagram posts and fridge magnets reflecting on new beginnings in times of adversity; with this in mind, I will gladly spare you mine. Instead of this, as I sometimes do, I'd like to simply share a piece of music that speaks to it.
As usual, a little bit of context may not be out of place. Owain Park, the composer of this piece, is 27 years old. I find it encouraging that we are seeing progressively more Classical composers in this age group in the 21st century. He studied with John Rutter at Cambridge University, and served as an organ scholar at Trinity College. He is also a prolific singer and choral director. His own vocal ensemble, the Gesualdo Six, performs the piece you are about to hear.
The piece is called "Phos Hilaron", translated from Greek as "Gladsome light". It is the oldest Christian hymn recorded outside the Bible that is still in use today. The hymn was first recorded in the 4th century by an unknown author in the Apostolic Constitutions, an eight-volume collection which belongs to the Church Orders, a genre of early Christian literature that offered authoritative prescriptions on moral conduct, liturgy and church organization. It remains in daily use in many of the Orthodox traditions, and is sung in the evening as part of the Vespers service. The translation that Park uses is as follows: Hail, gladdening Light, of His pure glory poured
Who is th'immortal Father, heavenly blessed;
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.
The hymn speaks of the light of God's glory, which is, implicitly, only visible at the hour of rest, when the Sun had already set and darkness descended. Comment on this metaphor would be superfluous. Indeed, the proverbial "Light of God" would be less visible during midday, and would stand out in sharpest relief during the darkest of times. This had been pointed out many times. What may be surprising is that, by this logic, the increasing proximity to God must be accompanied by increasingly dark and terrifying circumstances. To me, this hymn is not only a praise to the comforting presence of God, but an illustration of what one must confront to see it.
This idea, as well as the imagery of light and darkness, will be the overarching device that will unite many of our musical choices over Lent and Easter seasons.
The setting is heavily influenced by the Greek plainchant tradition and Renaissance harmony, but recast in a contemporary musical idiom. I hope you enjoy it! And, as always, hope you are well these days! Vlad S.