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Eastertide: 7 ancient choral works for modern-day choirs

Updated: Apr 2

Easter is more than a day; it is a whole season. The music of Eastertide, however, gets far less attention than its bookends: the Triduum, the Ascension and Pentecost (not to mention first communions, graduations, and ordinations!). In honor of the season of Eastertide, and due to the popularity of our recent blog article, Adventide: 6 ancient choral works for modern-day choirs, we decided to release a new installment: Seven ancient choral works for Eastertide.


Excerpt of "Alleluia Dominus regnavit" from the Sherbrooke Missal

Image: Excerpt of "Alleluia Dominus regnavit" from the Sherbrooke Missal


Researching ancient choral works for Eastertide turned out to be a more difficult task than the previous installment for Adventide.


To start off, the (self-imposed) conditions for inclusion in this blog article are numerous:

  • Features the word “alleluia” prominently

  • Suitable to the liturgical setting

  • Suitable to the entire Easter season (not just Easter Sunday)

  • Written prior to 1750 A.D., or has strong ties to the era of Early Music

  • Simple enough for a volunteer choir to learn and sing

  • Sheet music and recording freely accessible


Nonetheless, I think (or at least hope) that you will be pleased with the results.


1. Cherubic Hymn (6th century)


The Cherubic Hymn is a processional chant which was introduced to the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Church in the 6th century. Written first in Greek, and later translated into other languages, it is regularly sung as a part of Eastern liturgies, drawing those present at the church into the company of angels gathered around God's throne.

mosaic featuring the cherubim

We who mystically represent the Cherubim,

and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity

the thrice-holy hymn,

let us now lay aside all earthly cares

that we may receive the King of all,

escorted invisibly by the angelic orders.

Alleluia


Due to the destruction of Byzantine manuscripts by Western crusaders, the oldest extant sources for the Cherubikon are found in the Gregorian repertory and utilize the Latin text. You can hear a reconstruction here, with its strong tonal center of "mi", the third degree of the major scale. The Gregorian modes attached to the finalis (home pitch) of "mi" convey a sense of humble dignity and timelessness which is eminently appropriate for such a text.


Today, there are more melodies for the Cherubic Hymn than any other chant in the repertory of prostopinije (i.e. simple Slavic chants). They are"often taken from the folk-song or spiritual song tradition, so that (for example) a song for the Mother of God may have its melody used for the Cherubic Hymn on one of her feast days." (source: Metropolitan Cantor Institute of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Pittsburgh)


Stunning choral settings abound by Chesnokov, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky (who wrote multiple settings), and many other composers. More accessible to the average church choir, Paul Jernberg has two newly composed settings with practice recordings in English available in the Parish Book of Motets, thanks to the CMAA.


2. Alle psallite cum luya - anonymous (13th century)


Image from the Montpellier Codex

"Alle psallite cum luya" sheet music as found in the Montpellier Codex

The title of this piece results from the insertion of the word psallite ("sing with praise") into the middle of the word Alleluia. Recordings abound for this spirited piece, which is frequently woven into medieval movie soundtracks and accompanied by instruments, including drums. The top two voice parts utilize much of the same melodic material, reminiscent of a canon.


The Chorale Franco-Allemande de Paris performs it a cappella, alternating men, women, and then all together in this rousing rendition. A slower, more restrained approach can be heard here by the Benedictines of Mary. It is a 3-part song in its simplest form. The CPDL parent page is here.



 

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3. Surrexit Dominus vere - anonymous (16th century?)


Images: scans from the GuatC 1 Choirbook, each SABB voice part written independently


Six large polyphonic choirbooks were in use in Guatemala City’s Cathedral between c. 1600 and c. 1800, and contain mostly sixteenth-century polyphonic music. A large percentage of the composers represented are of Spanish origin, including Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales, Hernando Franco, and Pedro Bermúdez.

Surrexit Dominus vere is the invitatory (first chant of the Divine Office) for Easter Sunday. The words translate: "The Lord is truly risen. Alleluia." The invitatory would be sung through, and then interjected (in whole or in part) after each verse of Psalm 95 (Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord...), the latter of which may be sung to a simple psalm tone of choice.


The source required significant editing to create a performable score, but thanks to Jonathan Goodliffe, there is a usable reconstruction (along with many other works from the Guatemala Choirbooks) available on CPDL. It does not appear to have been recorded yet, but a midi file can be heard on MuseScore. (Hint: if you do not have a MuseScore account, you can still click on the keyboard icon to hear the entire midi.)


4. Surrexit Christus Dominus - Michael Praetorius (1571 - 1621)


Images: original printing of Surrexit Christus Dominus, as found in the Musae Sionae


1. Christ, the Lord, has risen, the only Redeemer of the world;

we know, since the angels announced it to the pious women.

Alleluia, alleluia!

2. He rose with victory, defeating death;

show the cave of the sepulcher, admire the linen left alone!

Alleluia, alleluia!

3. He continues to reign for us, He is the eternal judge of life;

He gives light and justice, salvation and purity.

Alleluia, alleluia!


A rousing virtual ensemble recording with cornetto and a light drum is here, and sheet music on CPDL. If your choir requires assistance with Latin, there is a handy pronunciation guide starting on page 314 in the Parish Book of Chant.


5. Regina Caeli, Jubila - Michael Praetorius


Image: 12th century Saint Gallen manuscript notating the Regina caeli melody by means of adiestematic neumes

Regina caeli in adiestematic neumes, St. Gallen manuscript

A second Eastertide recommendation from the prolific Lutheran composer, Michael Praetorius. Unfortunately, this author was unable to locate the original source for the work online, as it does not appear to be a part of his Musae Sion. Regina Caeli, Jubila is very easy to learn and sing, however, and exudes a festive, lilting sound, so it certainly deserves mention here. The lyrics seem to have been written in the 17th century, and are based on the much older prayer, Regina caeli. (The Regina caeli was probably written in the 12th century, and is traditionally sung at the end of Compline — or night prayer — during the Easter season.)


Sheet music is here, and a sampling of two very different recordings, one a cappella and the other with strings. Oh - and if Latin is a challenge for your choir, once they have learned their voice parts (which shouldn't take long) you may give them your choice of not just one, but three alternate sets of lyrics in English!


6. Alleluia canon - Boyce (1711 - 1779)


Image: one of Boyce's compositions, "Lord, Teach Us to Number Our Days", in his own penmanship

"Lord, Teach Us to Number Our Days" as penned by William Boyce

William Boyce lived at the end of what most people consider to be the age of Early Music. His Alleluia canon is actually found sandwiched between two lesser known homophonic sections, as we can see in this edition (a recording of the full piece is here).


Editions of the canon have multiplied like Easter bunnies across the internet: a cappella, with accompaniment, for children, for adults, for all voice parts, or interspersed with instrumental solos. In fact, some composers have reworked the canon into entirely new pieces.


There shouldn't be any trouble finding sheet music to suit your fancy (but here's the CPDL page anyhow), nor YouTube videos to help you learn your part. Just for fun, here's the full piece played by a tuba quartet.


7. Exultation - arr. Humphries (1820)


Exultation sheet music - arr. Humphries

Exultation is representative of the American shape note tradition, which took shape (pardon the pun) in New England in the late 18th century, becoming quite popular in the South. Unlike the refined singing of Renaissance polyphony by trained singers, shape note singing is for the common people, and is used at social gatherings as well as religious services.

The four-shape system used in Exultation actually has its origins in the solfège and hexachord of Guido d’Arezzo in the 10th century.


The lyrics of "Come away to the skies" were written by Charles Wesley as a birthday present for his wife in 1767, and are paired frequently with the tune MIDDLEBURY.


When this author was introduced to the Humphries setting in college, we sang each verse with a different combination of voices and parts. The melody in this piece is found in the tenor line. Listen to the Waldorf Student Choir in Budapest sing a couple verses starting at the 2:30 mark. Sheet music (with shape notes!) and midi files (complete with characteristic voice scoops) for voice parts are on the Shenandoah Harmony website, along with a plethora of other shape note hymns.


All seven verses of Wesley's "Come away to the skies" may be found on hymnary dot org. The last verse is remarkably suitable for the Easter season:


Hallelujah we sing, To our Father and King,

And His rapturous praises repeat,

To the Lamb that was slain, Hallelujah again,

Sing all heaven, and fall at his feet!


 

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