One of the particulars of childhood is that one can experience extraordinary things as usual. In the years of my childhood, protestant Christian church services always included the singing of several hymns by the congregation at large. I suspect this may be less common today. I believe larger churches now often feature talented musicians and singers performing more of the musical parts of the service, which makes the worship more like conventional entertainment. In many of the rural churches of my youth, even organizing a church choir for a single number might strain the resources of the smaller congregations. So instead, we held the hymns in our own breaths and wavering pitches.
The singing of such hymns, many from the 19th century, was part of my musical initiation. The melodies were various, some taken from traditional airs, others adapted from famous classical composers. The words? There was that ordinary/strange part. Hymn writers were often the philosophical sort, and their lyrics would drop esoteric theological terms and judgements as austere as their hopes were sure. It wasn’t just the children that would be asked to fill their lungs and sing these arcane terms, they were also not the common language of the farmers and tradesmen who filled the pews.
Often the minister leading the congregation would skip the more difficult verses, but I, enamored of words, would read them anyway and wonder at their celestial descriptions. This experience may have primed me for a later-life appreciation for Emily Dickinson, who sometimes used the common hymn meter for her own original and less than orthodox hymnal.
Well, that’s a long digression before bringing forth the author of the text I use today: Christina Rossetti. Rosetti often wrote short devotional poems, and while I don’t know if she intended them from the start as hymn lyrics, some were straightaway used for same. Her poem “Love Came Down at Christmas” is one example. It’s sung to several melodies, one of which is a traditional Irish tune which I used as a basis for my setting.
Rossetti as a poet is not often drawn to extravagant verse (unlike many of her Victorian contemporaries), and the text of her poem is quite short: 12 lines, 63 words. While not in an exact form like a triolet, rondel or the like, it makes significant use of repetition: 11 of those words are uses of the word “love,” and its relative “lovely” could make that count 12. The poem has only one rhyme, which sometimes just repeats its word rather than true rhyme: divine, sign, mine.
So, a simple structure, the kind of thing that is ideal for singing. None the less, it’s been altered in most performances I’ve sampled. The line “Love to God and all men” has sometimes been changed to inclusive language (“all of us”). The other common alteration is to drop the second verse. That’s odd, it’s not like this is a 48-verse ballad or something. I suspect that dropped verse is excluded because it uses those dodgey theological words.
Here’s Rossetti’s original second verse:
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Many would be in the philosophic weeds there. The belief that sweet baby Jesus is an incarnation of the divine Godhead is orthodox Christianity, but it comes off kind of Hindu expressed so. And the last line is a bit awkward in sing-ability and sense.
The gifts are nice, but the Airbnb review Joseph’s writing will still be scathing.
Still, dropping it obscures the point Rossetti chose to make: that the incarnate Godhead is not something that we can invariably grasp. Use of three-kings astrology and wandering stars is not reliable after all. As the second verse makes way for the third, she chooses and old standby from folk-ballads for her compressed song: the love-token. In songs like “John Riley” long-separated lovers know each other by some special device they have exchanged, and in this case, love itself is the token. We will know the Godhead, and not some counterfeit, is present by love’s presence.
I took the liberty of revising Rossetti’s second verse rather than dropping it. Here’s how I rendered it:
If we seek the Godhead
Love incarnate, love divine;
Where to find our Jesus,
What would be his sacred sign?
I also took liberties with the music. All the repetition with the words often resolving down to the same made me think of musics based on similar relationships to departing and returning rather than a harmonic progression that goes onward. That and the second verse called for me to pull out the tambura and sitar,* and to play guitar and organ in a manner that would match them. The piece would benefit if a better singer in that tradition sang it than myself—but then, there may be a benefit to singing the hymns even if one isn’t the best singer in the congregation.
Choices like this as I pursue this project to introduce different words and music to each other is my adult way to make the extraordinary usual. The player to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s poem is below.
*Though I once played a copy of the Coral “Electric Sitar,” I no longer use that approximation of the real sitar. Instead I use my MIDI guitar to play sitar and tambura “virtual instruments” where the guitar (or keyboard) can trigger the sound of each note in the instrument’s range as one plays, using a variety of realistic timbres from the real thing.