One dark night transcendent light

*** As a kind of rhapsody for the Christmas (or any other) season the hymn extemporises on verse 12 of Jeremiah’s great 31st chapter: They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord… their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more.

One-dark-night-transcendent-light

COMMENTARY

A roll call of all-time great texts from the Bible could include the thirty-first chapter of the book of the prophet Jeremiah. This hymn is sourced in that chapter, in verse 12:rse They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, and the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd: their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. To me, the promise that their life shall become like a watered garden leaps out, just asking to be sung.

Hymns are a peculiar hybrid of poetry and melody, neither one nor the other; and a typical Christian hymn embodies some theological insight or doctrine. So on its own an attractive phrase provides a flimsy basis on which to build a hymn, and what first emerged here was an expressive poem of just two verses; not enough for what was needed. The theological lyric was therefore extended to make a unit that could be transformed by music into a hymn

The first decision was to change Jeremiah’s personal pronouns from they and theirs to we and our, thus contemporising the prophet’s text; and, in the Christmas season, enabling singers to consider the impact of the birth of Christ upon them personally.

The opening line describes an overwhelming mystical experience. The line, designed to provide a rhyme that would point towards “watered garden”, evokes an image from St John of the Cross (1542-91): that dark night, he wrote, in which a person is nearer to God than anyone else alive, is “more lovely than the dawn”. What is being alluded to in this poem is, of course, the appearance of angels to the certain poor shepherds of Luke’s Gospel.

In the role of the shepherds, the singers receive the angels’ coming as an irresistible infusion of grace: they are flooded with ‘peace and pardon’. For them, night has been turned to day. They may beforehand have felt poor and gloomy, but now they have come into daylight, and they are flourishing. As a result, praises soar from them as uncontrollably as the weather.

The fourth line of lyric is intended as controlled jubilation. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote of workers “…celebrating in their happiness with the words of familiar songs. But they end up turning away from words and syllables, as if they were filled with so much happiness that they couldn’t put it into words. And off they go into the noise of ‘jubilation’. This kind of singing is a sound which means that the heart is giving birth to something it cannot speak of…”

The hymn is constructed using a pattern of call and response. Each verse is taught by a soloist becoming a duo becoming a trio; the verse is then copied by the congregation. The melody is harmonised, first in the trio, then by a four-part choir.

Perhaps the briefest definition of a hymn is ‘a congregational song’. The musical construction of this piece strains that definition to the limit, for most congregations would be unable to sing it without considerable rehearsal. Perhaps it should therefore also be better described as a hymn-anthem.

 

 

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