04 January 2015

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (11):
‘As with gladness men of old’ (No 189)

‘Star of Bethlehem’ by Edward Burn-Jones

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Second Sunday After Christmas, and this morning I am celebrating the Eucharist and preaching in Zion Church, Rathgar, where my friend, the Revd Stephen Farrell, is the Rector.

Although it is another two days to the Feast of Epiphany [6 January], many parishes are likely to opt for the Epiphany readings this morning. However, the Christmas season continues. Each morning during this Season of Christmas, I am reflecting on an appropriate hymn or carol. This morning [4 January 2015], I have chosen ‘As with gladness men of old.’

The words and lyrics of this Christmas Carol were written by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 1858, when he was only 20 and while he was sick in bed. Dix is also the author of another popular Christmas hymn, ‘What Child Is This,’ which provided my reflection for Friday morning [2 January 2015].

Dix was born in Bristol, the son of a local medical doctor. His spent most of his working life in maritime insurance, but he had a life-long passion for writing lyrics for hymns and carols. He died in Cheddar, Somerset, in 1898.

This morning’s hymn was first published in AH Ward’s Hymns for Public Worship and Private Devotion (1860). The following year it was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, for Use in the Services of the Church (1861), and Dix included it in his own book, Hymns of Love and Joy (1867).

This morning’s hymn was brought to prominence by Sir Roundell Palmer (Lord Selborne) in his paper on ‘English Church Hymnody,’ at the Church Congress at York in 1866. Since then, it has been included in numerous hymnals throughout the English-speaking world. It is included in both the Irish Church Hymnal (No 189), and the New English Hymnal (No 45).

The carol is inspired by the Epiphany gospel, Matthew 1: 1-11. Taking Matthew 1: 1-11 as his theme for stanzas 1-3, Dix likens the journey of the wise men who came to worship the Christ Child to our own Christian pilgrimage. The pattern of these stanzas is “as they … so may we.”

Stanzas 4 and 5 are a prayer that our journey on the “narrow way” may bring us finally to glory where Christ is the light (see Revelation 21: 23) and where we may perfectly sing his praise (see Revelation 22: 5).

Further examination of the carol also reveals built-in references to Psalm 43: 3, Isaiah 60: 6, II Samuel 24: 24, and Matthew 7: 14.

The tune is known as “Dix,” and was adapted by William Henry Monk from the original Treuer Heiland, Wir Sind Heir by theGerman composer Conrad Kocher (1786-1872), in Stimmen aus dem Reiche Gottes (1838).

Kocher was born in Ditzingen, Wurttemberg, in 1786, and was trained as a teacher. He moved to St Petersburg, Russia, to work as a tutor at the age of 17, but his love for the music of Haydn and Mozart impelled him to a career in music. The prestigious Cotta music firm published some of his early compositions and sent him to study music in Italy, where he came under the influence of Palestrina's music.

He returned to Germany in 1811, and settled in Stuttgart. There in 1821 he established the School of Sacred Music, which popularised four-part singing in the churches of that region.

Kocher was organist and choir director at the Striftsckirche in Stuttgart from 1827 to 1865. He wrote a treatise on church music, Die Tonkunst in der Kirche (1823), collected a large number of chorales in Zions Harfe (1855), and composed an oratorio, two operas, and some sonatas. He died in Stuttgart in 1872.

William H. Monk created the current form of ‘Dix’ by revising and shortening Kocher’s chorale melody. Monk’s tune was published with Dix’s text in the 1861 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, of which Monk was the music editor. Dix regretted the use of this tune for his text, but the combination has proven a good match.

Stanza 5 adds a descant by Sir Sydney H. Nicholson (1875-1947). He studied at New College, Oxford, the Royal College of Music in London, and in Frankfurt, before going on to become the organist at several famous prominent churches and cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey (1919-1928). In 1927, Nicholson founded the School of English Church Music at Chislehurst, which became the Royal School of Church Music in 1945.

As with gladness, men of old, by William Chatterton Dix

As with gladness, men of old
did the guiding star behold;
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onward, beaming bright;
so, most glorious Lord, may we
evermore be led to thee.

As with joyful steps they sped,
Saviour, to thy lowly bed;
there to bend the knee before
thee whom heaven and earth adore;
so may we with willing feet
ever seek thy mercy-seat.

As they offered gifts most rare
at that cradle rude and bare;
so may we with holy joy,
pure and free from sin’s alloy,
all our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to thee, our heavenly King.

Holy Jesus, every day
keep us in the narrow way;
and, when earthly things are past,
bring our ransomed souls at last
where they need no star to guide,
where no clouds thy glory hide.

In the heavenly country bright,
need they no created light;
thou its light, its joy, its crown,
thou its sun, which goes not down:
there for ever may we sing
alleluias to our King.

Tomorrow:O come, all ye faithful.’

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