Home History of Hymns: "Hail Thee, Festival Day"

History of Hymns: "Hail Thee, Festival Day"

"Hail Thee, Festival Day"
Venantius Fortunatus
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 324

Hail thee, festival day!
Blest day to be hallowed forever;
Day when our lord was raised,
Breaking the kingdom of earth.

All the fair beauty of earth,
From the death of the winter arising!
Every good gift of the year
Now with its Master returns.

Processional hymns have a long tradition in the church, especially during the Middle Ages. Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus (c. 530-609) provides us with a Latin hymn for the Easter season that connects our celebration with those of Christians 1500 years ago.

The refrain of this great hymn, "Hail thee, festival day!" comes from the 20th couplet of Fortunatus' long Latin poem (110 lines!) celebrating the conversion of the Saxons by Felix, Bishop of Nantes (c. 582):

Salve feste dies toto venerabilis aevo
Qua Deus infernum vicit et astra tenet.

There are several versions of this hymn, which begins with the Latin phrase, "Salve feste dies toto venerabilis aevo" (Hail, festival day, worthy to be venerated in all ages). For example, the English Hymnal (1906) includes stanzas by three different translators: Maurice Bell for Easter Day, Percy Dearmer for Ascension Sunday, and Gabriel Gillett for Whit Sunday (Pentecost).

English hymnology scholar J.R. Watson notes that, "Thomas Cranmer translated one version, writing to Henry VIII in 1544: 'I have travailed to make the verses in English... only for proof to see how English [language] would do in song,' which suggests that he was thinking of them as useful for worship, for the people to sing in the vernacular." This was apparently the first translation into English. Many others have followed.

Fortunatus, author of more than 250 poems, was born in Italy and died in France. Tradition has it that his sight was restored after his eyes were anointed with oil from a lamp from the altar of St. Martin of Tours in Ravenna. While Fortunatus was on a pilgrimage to St. Martin's tomb, he was influenced by Queen Rhadegonda, a mystic, to travel to Poiters not far from a convent she had founded. It was there that he later became bishop.

The translation in The UM Hymnal is taken, with adaptation, from the English Hymnal. The original Latin stanzas are quite florid, the English version only giving us a hint of the original. For example, the 11 Latin centos of the Easter section are reduced to only two stanzas in English.

This is an unusual hymn in that it can (and should) be sung throughout the season of Eastertide (Easter Day and Ascension) and on Pentecost Sunday. Two additional stanzas are offered for more general occasions. Each stanza is divided into two parts with two different melodies.

What makes this hymn work is the masterful music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Vaughan Williams, one of England's best known 20th-century composers, served as the musical editor for the English Hymnal. Originally attributed only to "Anonymous," his tune, SALVE FESTE DIES, has the feel and pacing of a fine processional hymn. The moving organ-pedal part and the stirring melody of the refrain are perfect for a cathedral setting with a fine organ (and organist).

This is a favorite hymn in the Anglican tradition. For those congregations who do not know it, it may be best to have the congregation sing only the refrain and let various choirs in procession sing the stanzas as this music may prove a bit daunting for some in the pews.

Sung as intended on Easter Sunday, the Sunday closest to Ascension Day, and on Pentecost Sunday, the hymn has the potential to tie the entire season together. By Pentecost the entire congregation should be joining in vigorously on the refrain.

Dr. Hawn is director of the sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology.

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