History of Hymns: "Creator of the Stars" deserves rediscovery
“Creator of the Stars of Night”
Anonymous Latin hymn
UM Hymnal, No. 692
Creator of the stars of night,
thy people’s everlasting light,
O Christ, thou Savior of us all,
we pray thee, hear us when we call.
Plainsong hymns represent some of the older selections in the United Methodist Hymnal. The texts often come from devotional as well as liturgical sources.
Historically, plainsong was the province of the choir only. This distinctive style was sung in monastic settings by monks who observed the offices of daily prayer. Originally the rhythm is free in style, unaccompanied, sung in Latin and performed with the melody only.
In comparison, popular medieval music was quite rhythmic. It was often used for dance—accompanied by a variety of percussion, string and wind instruments—and made use of vernacular languages as well as Latin, sung in parts. In addition, women could participate in medieval folk songs, while plainsong was historically sung by all-male choirs.
The liturgical renewal movement had its roots in the 19th century. This scholarly movement included the revival of medieval liturgical forms, especially plainsong. The movement was given an extra impetus in the early 20th century by Pope Pius X with his motu proprio on church music (1903).
A motu proprio is a letter from a pope to the entire church on a specific subject chosen by the pope. Pius X’s letter encouraged a return to the musical aesthetics of earlier centuries, especially plainsong-based music. A number of monasteries participated in the revival of plainsong, the most famous of which was the Benedictine Abbey of St. Solesmes in France.
This has led to the inclusion of plainsong hymns in more recent hymnals, though their performance is not only for choirs, but also now for congregations. The UM Hymnal contains several plainsong hymns, the most familiar being the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (No. 211) with the Latin tune name VENI EMMANUEL, the first two words of the original Latin text.
“Creator of the Stars of Night” was originally written as an evening hymn for Advent somewhere between the 7th and 9th centuries (sources vary). The original five stanzas plus a doxology have been reduced to two stanzas in the UM Hymnal, allowing it to be used as a more general evening hymn. The original version was modified by Pope Urban VIII to fit classical Latin meters in preparation for the Roman Breviary, 1632. As a result of this revision, only one line from the original Latin hymn was included in its revised form.
The text was originally translated in English by John Mason Neale, the prince of 19th-century translators, from the Latin Conditor alme siderum as found in the Sarum Breviary, an 11th-century rite from Salisbury. For our hymnal, a translation from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 was used.
The Rev. Carlton Young notes that “Creator of the Stars of Night” was almost omitted from the UM Hymnal, for which he served as editor: “When it became apparent to the hymns subcommittee that the hymn might not be included in the revised hymnal because of a record low usage, stanzas 3 and 4 were omitted, and it was proposed and accepted as an evening hymn.”
The translation captures the essence of the original Latin. Contrasting “everlasting light” with the “stars of night” in the first stanza is a common theological theme of Latin hymns. Stanza two refers to the great New Testament hymn found in Philippians 2:10-11:
At the great name of Jesus now
all knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
and things celestial thee shall own,
and things terrestrial, Lord alone.
The plainsong melody is singable and beautiful. Unlike many plainsong hymns, this one is syllabic—one syllable to one note of music, making it easy to learn. A connection to Advent is strongly implied in the text, and the hymn ties 21st-century Christians to believers over 1,000 years ago.
“Creator of the Stars of Night” deserves to be sung more and bring the witness of the saints to our generation.