Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Some background on my latest organ work, The Light of Light Descending, a theme and variations composition, based on the French carol, Picardy.
I have been a church musician most of my life; I started by singing in a youth choir at the age of seven. This ensemble of about a dozen young singers prepared anthems every Sunday during the school year. The experience also introduced me to Lutheran hymnody and liturgy at an early age.
At this time, it was the tradition for the choir and congregation to sing a stanza of a hymn while one communion table of worshipers was leaving the l area, followed by the arrival of the next table. One of the hymns that was used quite often on these occasions was Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, sung to the Picardy hymn tune. Something about this particular melody haunted me as a child; it had a mysterious other-worldly quality that was quite unlike any other hymn or song that I had encountered. Years later, when I started writing hymn-based organ works for my wife Joan, I knew that I would have to produce my own setting of this famous hymn.
Picardy, the hymn tune that is the basis for this theme and variations set, is a French folk melody dating back to the seventeenth century. Twentieth-century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams combined this tune with a Greek hymn text from the Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem. This pairing of melody and text still exists today in many modern hymnals under the title of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.
The Light of Light Descending is divided into the following sections, which are performed without pause:
Introduction: A short opening established the D Aeolian mode that is so prominent throughout the composition. The texture is contrapuntal and rather thick at times; two of the voices appear in the pedals. Brief appearances of motives from the tune are discreetly employed.
1. Let all mortal flesh keep silence: a straightforward presentation of the Picardy tune, shared by the manuals and the pedals. This movement is an outgrowth of the material presented in the Introduction.
2. Lord of all, in human vesture: a lighter, more dance-like variation. The Great manual presents a freely composed countermelody that runs throughout the movement. After a few measures, the borrowed tune makes its appearance in the pedals.
3. The Host of Angels spreads its vanguard on the way: a more dramatic presentation of Picardy eventually gives way to a quieter reflection, based on the second half of this melody.
4. Christ our God to earth descending: a toccata-like setting of the Picardy tune with a repeating ostinato figure in the upper voice. The hymn tune appears in the pedals once again, with imitative responses from one of the manuals. This movement flows directly into the Finale…
Finale: Alleluia, God most High! The final movement feeds on the energy provided by the fourth variation to present one last triumphant presentation of the tune. The manuals present a lush harmonization of Picardy while the pedals echo the tune in imitation. After progressing to a loud, climactic chord, the piece returns to its quiet beginnings, bringing closure (if not quite harmonic resolution) to the music.