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O Wondrous Type

Music Notes
26 February, 2017

“O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair” This hymn may not be the most familiar, but its rousing tune grows on one after a while. First, consider its text, based on the account of the Transfiguration which, among other places, we may read in today’s Gospel in Matthew 17. This faithful retelling of the Transfiguration narrative originates from the Sarum Breviary, a late fifteenth-century liturgical volume established from a particular liturgy developed in the 11th century in England, most notably in Salisbury. The Sarum Rite, even though originating several centuries before the Reformation, provided a liturgy unique to the English people, although of course still in Latin. (One can still find copies of the Sarum Missal upon visits to Salisbury Cathedral these days, and perhaps if the anonymous writer of music notes is astute enough when selecting his tie this morning he will be wearing his Sarum Missal Novelty Tie, a tie which sports a post-modern but pleasing conglomeration of images from various of the Sarum manuscripts.) This hymn text provides the first evidence that the Feast of the Transfiguration was being celebrated in England; although it was a common festival on the Continent, it had not yet become established in England. Even though we often think of Latin hymns as objective, perhaps even coldly doctrinaire, consider the warm subjectivity of the final two stanzas:

And faithful hearts are raised on high by this great vision’s mystery,
For which in joyful strains we raise the voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.

O Father, with the eternal Son and Holy Spirit ever one,
We pray Thee, bring us by Thy grace to see Thy glory face to face.

This text does not simply recount a biblical narrative but personalizes it whereby we pray to see “Thy glory face to face,” acknowledging that the fear, wonder, and awe experienced by the disciples was not simply a forgotten historical occurrence. It should be our response when we encounter Christ through Word and Sacrament. Christ is less tangible, that is true, but He is no less real.
A note should be mentioned of the tune, commonly called “Agincourt Hymn,” for it was composed for the pageantry-laden return of King Henry V to London after his defeat of the French king at Agincourt in 1415. Composed as a “Deo Gracias,” or “Thanks be to God,” the original text read as follows, which can pretty well be deciphered from its antiquated English:

Deo gracias Anglia, redde pro victoria.
Owre kynge went forth to normandy,
With grace and might of chivalry:
Ther god for him wrought mervelusly.
Wherfore englonde may calle and cry Deo gracias!

It is quite possible that the song existed in the folk tradition prior to the fifteenth century, but it certainly was not popularized until then. It was never considered as a church hymn until it was included in The English Hymnal of 1906. The tune is sturdy, rugged, and decidedly Renaissance, and a fine pairing with the contemporaneous text.

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with