Home History of Hymns: 15th-century carol tells post-resurrection story

History of Hymns: 15th-century carol tells post-resurrection story

The author of the Latin poem “O filii et filiae, Rex coelestis, Rex gloriae,” Jean Tisserand (d. 1494, Paris), is little known to us. He was a Franciscan monk who founded a penitent order for women.

C. Michael Hawn

Tisserand’s Latin poem was translated into English by the famous 19th-century hymnologist, John Mason Neale (1818-1866). Neale was the guiding light of the Oxford Movement, devoted to the recovery of ancient practices in hymns, liturgy and architecture.

Rather than a restoration of antiquity, however, the Oxford Movement’s “recovery” of earlier practices was quite romanticized and fit perfectly into a general interest in history common to the period. Nevertheless, Neale has left us with many splendid hymns based on Greek and Latin devotional writings and plainsongs.

Translations of hymns from another language into English are really works of poetic art in themselves since musical and textual accent must coincide, and some poetic skill must be evidenced so that the work when sung will not become too stilted or pedantic. The United Methodist Hymnal contains nine of Neale’s translations, including the famous “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” and “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice.”

This particular song falls under the category of an Easter Carol with a dance-like feel (in three beats or even one beat to a measure) and its storytelling quality. Probably, this was a tune that could have been accompanied with medieval wind instruments and percussion, most likely outside of the church’s liturgy. In its original form, the carol begins with a triple alleluia that sets the tone for the narrative to follow. In many ways, this carol is the Eastertide equivalent of “The First Noel” (UM Hymnal, No. 245).

“O Sons and Daughters” is particularly attractive for its simple narrative quality. The nine stanzas found in many hymnals are part of an original 12-stanza hymn that was included in Neale’s Medieval Hymns and Sequences (1851). It tells not only the story of the resurrection, but continues with the risen Christ’s appearance to the apostles who “met in fear” following the death of Christ.

Drawing from hymnologist Albert Bailey and the accounts of the resurrected Christ found in Matthew and John, the nine stanzas might be outlined as follows:

John Mason Neale

1. Introduction: invitation to praise;

2. The visit of the faithful women, Matthew 28:1;

3. The angel and his message, Matthew 28:2-7;

4. The appearance to the 10 disciples, John 20:19-20;

5. We respond in praise to the appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples;

6. Doubting Thomas, John 20:24-25;

7-8. The revelation to Thomas, John 20:26-28;

9. Christ’s blessing to all those of faith, John 20:29.

Of particular note are the three stanzas (6-8) devoted to Christ’s appearance to Thomas. This makes this hymn a favorite in many churches on the Second Sunday of Easter when the lectionary texts focus on this passage.

We love to sing the story of Christmas, but often fall short when it comes to singing the story of Easter, especially the events that took place while the resurrected Christ was on the earth. This carol rectifies this omission in our sung experience.

The double “alleluia” refrain is particularly effective for those congregations that have omitted alleluias from their services all throughout the season of Lent. The story-like quality may be brought to life in worship by assigning some stanzas to the choir or soloists as characters in the unfolding drama.

The congregation should always sing the alleluia refrain as the voice of the church throughout the ages. The church, like the women at the tomb and the disciples, bears witness to the resurrection—the central event of our faith.

“O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing”
Jean Tisserand, trans. John Mason Neale
UM Hymnal, No. 317

O sons and daughters, let us sing!
The King of heaven, the glorious King,
O’er death and hell rose triumphing.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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