Twentieth-Century Music, Fifth-Century Hymn

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When the text source of one of the selected Communion hymns for yesterday (Sunday, Nov. 16) is “Syriac Liturgy of Malabar,” I think any Episcopalian should want to dig deeper. The Syro-Malabar Christian Church, one of the 21 Eastern Catholic Churches, dates back to the third century in Edessa, Mesopotamia (modern-day Turkey). The term Syro-Malabar refers to the Syriac language (an Aramaic dialect, the language that Jesus spoke) and the Malabar region, now known as Kerala, on the southwest coast of India. In the fifth century, South Indian Christian followers of Nestorious, Patriarch of Constantinople (386-450) wrote a Communion hymn using a hymn of Saint Ephrem of Syria (c.306-373) as their model. The great Anglican priest, scholar and hymnist John Mason Neale (1818-1866) translated this hymn as “Strengthen, O Lord, the hands which are stretched out to receive the Holy Things.” Charles William Humphries (1840-1921) returned to the original source and retranslated Neale’s hymn, which was then slightly altered by priest/liturgist Percy Dearmer (1867-1936) for inclusion in The English Hymnal (1906), for which Dearmer and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams served as editors.

The hymntune Malabar was composed and aptly named by David McK. Williams (1887-1978), editor of The Hymnal 1940 and organist/choirmaster of St. Bartholomew’s, NYC. Moreover, today’s opening voluntary is Leo Sowerby’s (1895-1968) organ setting of Malabar. Called “the dean of American church music,” Sowerby was longtime organist/choirmaster of St. James Cathedral, Chicago. This important text and tune were first published in The Hymnal 1940.

Photo credit:

“Icône Ephrem le Syrien” by Original uploader was Troubageoff at fr.wikipedia – Transferred from fr.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Bloody-libu using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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