The Season of Epiphany
The liturgical season of Epiphany extends from the Feast of Epiphany (January 6) until Ash Wednesday. The Feast of the Epiphany marks the twelfth and final day of Christmas and commemorates the visit of the Wise Men, or Magi, to the infant Jesus. The Magi are led by a star to Bethlehem and to an encounter with Jesus, an appropriate thematic introduction to a season characterized by light and the ongoing revelation of Christ to his followers.
The Gospel readings for the season of Epiphany recount stories of Jesus’ early ministry as an adult, beginning with the story of Jesus’ baptism on the First Sunday after the Epiphany. In all three accounts of the baptism of Christ, God’s voice is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” Thus Jesus’ public ministry is set in motion.
The Gospel reading for the last Sunday after Epiphany always tells of the “Transfiguration of Christ,” another pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry, again invoking the themes of light and revelation. Jesus is seen by the apostles Peter, James, and John, in the presence of Elijah and Moses, and his face gleams “brighter than the sun.” Again, God’s voice is heard, saying, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.” The Transfiguration fittingly culminates the Epiphany season as Jesus is more fully revealed to his disciples, takes his place of authority among the great prophets, and presages his journey towards Jerusalem, crucifixion, and resurrection.
H.U. von Balthasar defines an epiphany as “the radiance and splendor which breaks forth in expressive form from a veiled and yet mighty depth of being.” The encounters with Christ that come via the musical stories contained on this CD are in themselves such epiphanies, offering more opportunities for the ongoing revelation of Christ’s presence in our lives.
Although there are hundreds of Christmas music recordings, there are very few dedicated to the vibrant corpus of music for the season of Epiphany. The program here includes a wide variety of Epiphany music—some ancient, some modern, some familiar, some unfamiliar. The choir sings favorite hymns (“Songs of thankfulness and praise,” “We three kings,” “As with gladness men of old,” and “O wondrous type! O vision fair”) as well as less-familiar hymns (“When Jesus went to Jordan’s stream,” an early German chorale with text by Martin Luther; “Lord God, you now have set your servant free,” a metrical setting of the Song of Simeon by the English Renaissance composer Orlando Gibbons; “Alleluia, song of gladness,” based on a Gregorian chant but sung in a modern setting by the American composer Richard Proulx; and “O Light of Light, Love given birth,” by American composer Cary Ratcliff).
The German chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (“How brightly shines the morning star”) serves as a musical “theme” throughout the recording. This tune, attributed to the German composer Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), has inspired composers throughout the ages and appears on this recording as the final section of Mendelssohn’s great anthem “Behold a star from Jacob shining” as well as in two settings found in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982.
The four organ solos are also based on this chorale. Dieterich Buxtehude, one of J. S. Bach’s mentors, contributes a delightful “chorale fantasy” exploiting the organ’s various colors and concluding with a lively jig. The chorale prelude by Dutch composer Jan Zwart treats the tune as a meditation, while German composer Helmut Walcha’s setting reveals a cheerful trio with the melody in the pedals. The final organ setting by American composer Ludwig Lenel (a godson of Albert Schweitzer) is a brilliant toccata, full of swirling keyboard passages surrounding the hymn tune, which also appears in the pedals here.
Other works on the program include seven motets and anthems—for which the texts are provided, below—spanning four centuries. Our selections from the twentieth century testify to the still-current appeal of the Epiphany theme. American composer Leo Sowerby proclaims the “holy daybreak” of Jesus’ “incarnation” in his splendid anthem “Now there lightens upon us,” for which we have substituted a viola for some of the solo organ passages. Sowerby was for many years organist of St. James Cathedral in Chicago, and also founded the College of Church Musicians at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Healey Willan, organist at the University of Toronto from 1932 to 1964, is often considered the “dean” of Canadian church musicians. The haunting anthem “The Three Kings” is one of his most beloved compositions. Performances of Peter Hallock’s anthem, “Baptism of Christ,” have become an annual tradition at Saint Mark’s Cathedral; for many years, Seattle’s own Dr. Hallock himself sang the countertenor solos in this anthem.
A sampling of works from centuries past round out our selection of anthems and motets. Sixteenth-century Italian composer Luca Marenzio is best known for his secular madrigals, though he also wrote many sacred compositions. His motet, Tribus miraculis, commemorates three events in Christ’s life: the journey of the magi, Christ’s baptism, and the wedding feast at Cana—events which are all celebrated within the first two weeks of January. (Indeed, in some traditions these three feasts are celebrated within one liturgy on the same day.) Felix Mendelssohn’s popular anthem “Behold a star,” a chorus from his unfinished oratorio Christus, incorporates soaring musical lines and grand climaxes, magnificently expressing the glory of the Epiphany season. Renaissance composer Peter Philips, although born and trained in England, spent most of his career in Belgium. His colorful motet, In splendenti nube, which describes the wonders of the Transfiguration, is set for six-part chorus. The serene and luminous sections representing the “shining cloud” contrast with the words of God, which are set in more complex, dance-like passages.
—J. Melvin Butler