Home History of Hymns: "When Morning Gilds the Skies"

History of Hymns: "When Morning Gilds the Skies"

"When Morning Gilds the Skies"
from the Katholisches Gesangbuch; trans. Edward Caswall
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 185

Edward Caswall

When morning gilds the skies
my heart awakening cries:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Alike at work and prayer,
to Jesus I repair:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

As has often been noted in this column, we would not have many of our favorite hymns without the work of skillful translators. When it comes to preparing a poetic translation that will be sung (rather than a literal prose translation), the result is actually a new poetic creation rooted in the meaning of another language.

This is the case with Edward Caswall’s translation of the well-known hymn, “When morning gilds the skies.”

One must start with the powerful interrelationship between the text and the music in this hymn. Usually thought of as a morning hymn of praise, the rising melodic motif complements the rising sun that “gilds the skies” of the early morning. Within two phrases we soar an octave above our starting pitch—indeed our voices ascend with the rising sun about which we are singing.

The melody ends on an unusually high note for hymns, proclaiming the text, “May Jesus Christ be praised!” These five words form a brief refrain that encapsulates the intent of the entire hymn. Furthermore, the singer must summon extra effort to sing these words, unabashedly broadcasting Christ as the center of our praise. Even the tune name, LAUDES DOMINI (Praise to the Lord), captures this idea.

“Beim frühen Morgenlicht” (With the early morning light) is the opening line of the original German hymn. While we are uncertain of the exact origins of the text, it first appeared in Katholiches Gesangbuch für den öffentlich Gottesdienst im Biszthume (Catholic Songbook for Public Worship in the [locale of] Biszthume Würzburg ). It appears in an altered version in am 1855 Franconian collection of folksongs, Frankische Völkslieder.

Caswall himself made two translations into English, in 1854 and 1858. An altered form of the 1858 version has become standard for most hymnals. UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young points out that a stanza that departed from the original German, while revealing something of the style of the time, was better left omitted:

My tongue shall never tire
Of chanting in the choir;
May Jesus Christ be praised:
This song of sacred joy
It never seems to cloy;
May Jesus Christ be praised.

Distinguished English poet and translator Robert Bridges (1844-1930) tried his hand at improving the text, noting in 1899 that, “It is of great merit, and I have tried to give a better version of it than the current one, keeping the original metre, preserving the first lines of the old translation, since it is by them that the hymn is known.”

So the hymn we sing today has 19th-century German roots, with a translation by Caswall (1814-1878), a Roman Catholic converted under the influence of Cardinal Newman and one of the foremost translators of hymns of his era, adapted by Robert Bridges, and set to music by English choirmaster Joseph Barnby (1938-1896).

The images of the rising sun carry over to the second stanza as the “night becomes as day” and the “powers of darkness fear.” However, stanzas three and four switch from visual images of light to aural images “joyous with the sound” of praising Christ.

We may have been stirred initially by the sight of the rising sun in the first stanza of the hymn, but we conclude in stanza four by singing our “canticle divine”—which becomes our “eternal song though all the ages long” that amplifies our praise to Christ.

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

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