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History of Hymns: "Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle"

"Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle"
Venantius Honorious Fortunatus; trans. by Percy Dearmer
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 296

Venantius Honorius Fortunatus Clementianus

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
Sing the ending of the fray;
Now above the cross, the trophy,
sound the loud triumphant lay:
tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer,
as a victim won the day.

What hymn was written originally in Latin by a 6th-century bishop, framed as a poem in the 12th century by a famous church father, translated into English by a 19th-century Anglican churchman and retranslated by a 20th-century English church musician, while set to a 19th-century French folksong?

The story begins with the author of the original Latin hymn text, Venantius Honorius Fortunatus Clementianus (c.530-609). Fortunatus was converted to Christianity at an early age.

History recalls that he was almost blind as a student and believes that he regained his sight after anointing his eyes with oil from the lamp burning at the altar of St. Martin of Tours. He was ordained and later became bishop until his death.

The hymn originally had 10 stanzas, and most scholars believe that it is divided into two five-stanza portions. Originally the first five stanzas of this Latin sequence hymn were done at Matins during the Passiontide. The remaining stanzas were done at Lauds during the Good Friday celebration.

According to the Companion for the Lutheran Book of Worship, the first use of this hymn took place in 561 with Eufronius, who was bishop of Tours, and his clergy bringing the relic to the monastery for the Queen of Rhadegunda at Roiters. The earliest liturgical use in the Roman Sacramentary speaks to the veneration of the cross. Thus clergy would be the ones who sang this in its original context.

The text may be summarized as follows: In stanza one, the faithful rejoice because Christ has won the victory over death and the cross. In stanza two, God through the incarnation came to set an example for us and to give us hope.

Stanza three expresses that Jesus humbled himself and was obedient, fulfilling the task set before him. Stanza four extols the cross of Jesus is a sign of victory not defeat. In the final stanza, a doxological affirmation sums up the reality that God deserves all the praise.

PICARDY is a tune in a minor key, based on a French carol. The tune, which is folk in origin, goes as back as far as the 17th century for the song Jesus Christ s’habille en pauvre, (clothed in poverty). The original text of the folksong employs hypotyposis: painting a vivid picture of Jesus dressed in rags, looking for food, feeding from the crumbs of the table. This is analogous to Lazarus and the rich man.

The use of this tune with the text heightens the juxtaposition of Christ bringing redemption and victory through his death on the cross. The first publication of it was in Chasons popularies des provences de France (1848).

Hymn translator Percy Dearmer (1867-1936) selected stanzas from the groundbreaking book, The English Hymnal (1906) and provided a cohesive text for the first edition of Songs of Praise (1925). Dearmer adapted some portions from an earlier translation by the famous translator of Greek and Latin hymns, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), found in his monumental Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851).

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was so intrigued with the theological content of this hymn that he wrote “Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium.” UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young suggests that “the objective and universal qualities of this hymn are distinct from, yet compliment, the evangelical subjectivity of Isaac Watts’s ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ or Charles Wesley’s ‘O love divine, what hast thou done,’ these hymns in continuity with the seventeenth-century German pietistic hymn, such as ‘O sacred head now wounded.’”

I found this quotation particularly meaningful because of the powerful thematic continuity between hymns of different eras. The correlation between all of these hymns can be seen clearly.

Mr. Smith is a student of Dr. Michael Hawn’s in the master of sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.