28 December 2014

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (4):
‘Unto us is born a Son’ (No 184)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for this Christmas season, I am thinking about an appropriate carol or hymn each morning. Today, in the Calendar of the Church, this is the First Sunday of Christmas, but on 28 December we also remember the Holy Innocents. So, this morning [28 December 2014] I have chosen ‘Unto us is born a Son’, translated by George R Woodward (1848-1934), which is No 184 in the Irish Church Hymnal. Indeed a note in the New English Hymnal says: “Suitable also for Holy Innocent’s Day.”

This hymn, which is the Processional Hymn at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning [28 December 2014] and which Choir sang at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last Monday evening [22 December 2014], is based on Puer nobis nascitur, a mediaeval Christmas carol found in a number of manuscript sources, including the 14th century German Moosburg Gradual in the Augustinian College of Saint Castulus in Moosburg around 1360, and a 15th century manuscript in Trier.

The Moosburg Gradual contains a number of melodies derived from the 12th and 13th century organum repertories of Notre Dame de Paris and the Abbey of Saint Martial, Limoges, so the original hymn may be even older.

The song was first published in 1582 in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones, a volume of 74 mediaeval songs with Latin texts collected by Jaakko Suomalainen, a Finnish Lutheran priest.

The book became well known in England after a rare original copy of Piae Cantiones owned by Peter of Nyland was given as a gift to the British Ambassador in Stockholm. When he returned to England, he gave this book to the Revd John Mason Neale in 1852. It was from this copy that Neale, in collaboration with the Revd Thomas Helmore published songs in two collections in 1853 and 1854, although this carol was not included in either.

The carol became popular as a processional hymn following a translation by the Revd George Ratcliffe Woodward (1859-1934) first published in the Cowley Carol Book in 1902.

Canon Percy Dearmer (1867-1936) also translated the hymn for the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols as ‘Unto Us a Boy is Born.’ Both translations are commonly used.

Robert Cummings of the All Music Guide notes: “Its text speaks of the birth of Christ and of his mission on Earth. The melody is glorious in its triumphant character and ecstatic devotional sense ... a radiant hymn of strong appeal, brighter and more colourful than most of the chants emerging from and before the fourteenth century.”

Cummings goes on to suggest that the first phrase and indeed the whole melody resembles the much later hymn ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past.’

Unto us is born a son, translation by George Ratcliffe Woodward:

Unto us is born a son,
King of choirs supernal:
See on earth his life begun,
Of lords the Lord eternal.

Christ, from heav’n descending low,
Comes on earth a stranger;
Ox and ass their Owner know
Now cradled in a manger.

This did Herod sore affray,
And did him bewilder,
So he gave the word to slay,
And slew the little childer.

Of his love and mercy mild
Hear the Christmas story:
O that Mary’s gentle Child
Might lead us up to glory!

O and A and A and O,
Cantemus in choro,
Voice and organ, sing we so,
Benedicamus Domino.

Unto Us a Boy is Born, English translation by Percy Dearmer (New English Hymnal, No 39)

Unto us a boy is born!
King of all creation,
Came he to world forlorn,
The Lord of every nation.

Cradled in a stall was he
’Midst the cows and asses;
But the very beasts could see
That he all men surpasses.

‘A prince,’ he said, ‘in Jewry!’
All the little boys he killed
At Bethlem in his fury.

Now may Mary’s Son, who came
So long ago to love us,
Lead us all with hearts aflame
Unto the joys above us.

Omega and Alpha he!
Let the organ thunder,
While the choir with peals of glee
Rends the air asunder.

Unto us is born a Son (Irish Church Hymnal, No 184):

Unto us is born a Son,
King of quires supernal:
see on earth his life begun,
of lords the Lord eternal,
of lords the Lord eternal.

Christ, from heav’n descending low,
comes on earth a stranger;
ox and ass their owner know,
becradled in the manger,
becradled in the manger.

This did Herod sore affray,
and grievously bewilder;
so he gave the word to slay, and slew the little childer,
And slew the little childer.

Of his love and mercy mild,
this the Christmas story;
and that Mary’s gentle child
might lead us up to glory,
might lead us up to glory.

We adore him A and O
cum cantibus in choro;
let our merry organ go,
benedicamus Domino,
benedicamus Domino

Tomorrow: ‘http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2014/12/carols-and-hymns-for-christmas-5-jesus.html’

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