The descant is a high line for the trebles of the choir that soars above the melody of a hymn – a melody that everyone has already sung three, four, five, or even seven times in a row already.
In writing a descant, sometimes you need to leave a word or two out for the music to flow. The work of the descant is done by the notes, and the words can be an unnecessary encumbrance. If you do use words, you might not necessarily use all of them. Or you might use just "alleluia", or even "ah".
So it is no surprise that the great composer Herbert Howells takes some liberties with texting his own descant to his glorious hymn tune MICHAEL.
Here is a spectacular recording of this hymn sung by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. It's an arrangement brass, percussion, and organ by Christopher Palmer, but the harmonization and descant are Howells's own. Hear the whole thing below, or just go straight to the final stanza to hear Howells's descant.
It's really lovely, I think. And not every church musician seems to be aware that this is out there!
A couple points: the descant seems especially strong because it begins as a modified canon at the fourth. It's a highly effective way to draw the ear, and it staggers the descant away from the beginning of the melody. It's almost a surprise when it comes in. As in, "Oh, a descant too!". This technique is probably not used often enough in our hymn singing.
Furthermore, Howells does something rather interesting with the words. The descant is initially texted with the first stanza of Robert Bridges poem:
All my hope on God is founded; he doth still my trust renew, me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true. God unknown, he alone calls my heart to be his own.
While the choir and congregation have progressed to the final stanza:
Still from man to God eternal sacrifice of praise be done, high above all praises praising for the gift of Christ, his Son. Christ doth call one and all: ye who follow shall not fall.
But it should be said that the descanters sing only an abbreviated version of the first stanza. After the first two verses they skip to the fifth and then to the first part of the seventh for the peculiar turn of phrase: "God unknown calls my heart."
This really jumped out at me this last time I read it. I suppose it's not all that strange given that the only missing phrase here is "he alone". But it got me thinking about our unknown God.
What is it to say that God is "unknown"? We know him to a degree in the person of Jesus Christ. And so isn't it fascinating that these words about "God unknown" are paired with praise "for the gift of Christ his son"?
And the arrival of the descanters to the words of the final stanza pack a particular punch as they pivot on the word "call".
In the first stanza God "calls my heart to be his own". In the final, "Christ doth call" – and it should be noted that it is the same Christ for whom we praise the unknown God.
The cascading spirals of ascending praise are already rapturous at this point, and Howells's text setting makes them even more so.
But does it help us know God any better? Are we supposed to? Or is the person of God to be mysterious, and known, as his Christ, by his "call"?
We also often sing of "love unknown", as it is in the beginning of the anonymous 18th century hymn "Come, thou almighty king":
Come, thou almighty King, help us thy Name to sing, help us to praise. Father whose love unknown all things created own, build in our hearts thy throne, Ancient of Days.
And in the famous Samuel Crossman hymn that bears the phrase in the first line:
My song is love unknown, my Savior's love to me, love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
"Pop" Music Tangent: See also: Coldplay: "A Message" - relation to "My Song is Love Unknown"
And again in Charlotte Elliott's beautiful hymn "Just as I am, without one plea"
Just as I am, thy love unknown has broken every barrier down; now to be thine, yea, thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come.
But one of the most fascinating "unknowns" in Christian hymnody is that of the unknown Traveler. Charles Wesley's hymn picks up on the anonymity of Jacob's wrestling partner in the hymn he called "Wrestling Jacob".
Come, O thou Traveler unknown, whom still I hold, but cannot see; my company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee. With thee all night I mean to stay, and wrestle till the break of day.
And so it is that Jacob does engage in a prolonged stalemate with the Traveler, despite injury, and then the sun rises on the scene. It is the Traveler who asks to be let go in the story from Genesis, "for day is breaking". (I suppose that the rising sun would "shine too much light" on this conflict!)
And then there is the great ordeal of naming and identity. Jacob demands a blessing. The Traveler asks his name. Jacob gives it. The Traveler says, "now you shall be called Israel".
Then, in the Genesis story, remarkably, Jacob asks the Traveler's name. He seems to have forgotten for a moment that he really just wanted a blessing. Or, maybe he thinks knowing God in this way would be a greater blessing?
The Traveler responds, "why is it that you ask my name"?
In the story, we never get a name for the Traveler, but in Charles Wesley's hymn, there is a profound poetic resolution to all this wrestling.
... Speak, or thou never hence shalt move, and tell me if thy name is Love. 'Tis Love, 'tis Love! Thou diedst for me! I hear thy whisper in my heart: the morning breaks, the shadows flee. Pure Universal Love thou art; thy mercies never shall remove, thy nature and thy name is Love.
God may be "unknown", but we know enough.
"God is love", or even better, "Pure Universal Love".
And what about us, called by God? How are we known?
If the spiritual has it right, and we do too, "they'll know we are Christians by our love".
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