Dr. Anthony Esolen is a profound writer and wordsmith who is a must read even when you might disagree with him. Dr. Esolen received an honorary doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary in 2017 when I was also graciously honored as alumus of the year. That is the most visible way our paths have crossed but he is a weekly part of my reading of people whose words are worth my time. I post here in full his little piece on his subscriber blog Word & Song by Anthony Esolen and he writes for Touchstone and a host of other venues. Again, read it and enjoy as I take a day off from my pastoral ruminating.
"The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came"
Basque Folk Carol; translated by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould
The man who translated our Hymn of the Week could only have lived in the nineteenth century. Certainly we don’t produce anybody like Sabine Baring-Gould anymore. You must imagine an Anglican priest, happily married, with 15 children. Already I doubt if there’s anybody in the world who qualifies. Then he must be a prolific novelist and writer of short stories; he must be an archaeologist and antiquarian of international repute; he must be a tireless collector of folklore and a publisher and arranger of folk music; he must be a biographer (of Napoleon, of all people, but also of many saints), a writer and publisher of sermons, an amateur painter and ironworker, and an aficionado of many languages, ancient and medieval and modern. Whew! Then imagine the following conversation:
“They say there’s an excellent hymn on the Annunciation that we ought to be singing in English, but nobody’s translated it.”
“Nobody? Why not?”
“It’s in Basque.”
“Oh dear. Basque.” (For Basque, as you may know, isn’t an Indo-European language. The hymn might as well be written in Vietnamese or Algonquin.)
“I guess we’ll have to do without it, then.”
“Or — we could have Sabine do it!”
“Sabine? Sabine can read Basque?”
“Well, if he can’t do it now, he’ll do it for the hymn.”
Since I don’t read Basque myself, I can’t give you any special insights into the original here, Birjina gaztettobat zegoen. The hymn does have eight stanzas, not our four, and it appears to tell the story with admirable swiftness and, if we can trust the good Reverend Baring-Gould, those touches of glory that the folk ever admire. My eyes and my mind’s ear tell me he has preserved the first two lines, a rhyming couplet, as making up ten syllables each, and has cleverly rendered the last three lines, one longer and two shorter, by an eleven or twelve syllable line, followed by a fourth line that divides neatly into two and might be printed as such, “Most highly favored lady,” and “Gloria!”
If ever there was a hymn whose text and whose music fit so perfectly that you can’t imagine the one without the other, this is it. The verses are powerful, no doubt, and there’s no fuss about them, but when you sing them to the Basque melody, that third line stands out with all its urgency, rising high and holding there, and then comes the fourth line, with an interior five-note drop that echoes the end of the first line, right before a most unusual Gloria. It’s the only hymn I know were you’ll hold a note for a count of five — the third-last note of lines two and four — and it works, because the meter of the melody prepares you for it. One two three, one two three go all the pairs of notes, and you pick it up as soon as you’re singing the first words, “The angel Gabriel,” so when you hold a note and continue it into the next, you can actually pull it off: “one two three one two — three,” and there it is, five beats on the first and one on the second. And all in a minor key, too, and I’ve always found it really powerful when a minor key is used for joy, as in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” because then the joy seems to shine out from amidst the darkness, and that makes it so much the brighter and gladsome, like the flame of Gabriel’s eyes from the drifted snow of his wings; like the birth of the Christ Child in the night of sin and folly, like every beam of grace into the human heart.
The angel Gabriel from heaven came, His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame. "All hail," said he, "thou lowly maiden Mary! Most highly favored Lady," Gloria! "For know a blessed mother thou shalt be, All generations laud and honor thee; Thy son shall be Emmanuel by seers foretold, Most highly favored Lady," Gloria! Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head, "To me be as it pleaseth God," she said. "My soul shall laud and magnify his holy Name." Most highly favored Lady, Gloria! Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn, and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say, Most highly favored Lady, Gloria!
We wonder how a man could accomplish so many things so well? No TV,FB, Pinterest.Twitter….
One of my favorite hymns, and thank you for the comment on minor keyed songs relating joy. Something I’ve always loved, and now I understand why.
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