HYMN 302 Christ whose Glory Fills the Skies
Text: Charles Wesley (1707-1787) Tune: John Gottlob Werner (1777-1822)
1. Christ, whose glory fills the skies, Christ, the true and only light, Sun of righteousness, arise, Triumph o'er the shades of night; Day-spring from on high, be near; Day-star, in my heart appear. 2. Dark and cheerless is the morn Unaccompanied by thee; Joyless is the day's return, Till thy mercy's beams I see, Till they inward light impart, Glad my eyes, and warm my heart. 3. Visit then this soul of mine, Pierce the gloom of sin and grief; Fill me, radiancy divine, Scatter all my unbelief; More and more thyself display, Shining to the perfect day.
Alternate contemporary version
Text: George Elderkin (1845-1928) Tune:. Evelyn Simpson Curenton (1953-)
1. See whose glory fills the skies: Jesus, the light of the world! Sun of righteousness, arise: Jesus, the light of the world! R/We'll walk in the light! Beautiful light! Shine where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright. Oh, shine all around us by day and by night, Jesus, the light of the world.
2. Pierce the gloom of sin and grief, Jesus, the light of the world! Scatter all my unbelief, Jesus, the light of the world! R/
3. More and more thyself display, Jesus, the light of the world! Shining to the perfect day, Jesus, the light of the world! R/
4. Visit, then, this soul of mine, Jesus, light of the world! Fill me, Radiancy divine! Jesus, the light of the world! R/
Many consider this to be Wesley’s most beautiful hymn. It certainly is among the briefest. What a wonderful way to begin the day! Scholars note that it is one of the few morning or evening hymns that contains no references to the position of the sun, but simply rejoices in Jesus as the light—the glory that fills the skies. It is a ravishing picture of Jesus as the sun who rises to give our souls light, as the sun does. We can also rejoice that the darkness of our souls each morning can receive the glory of Christ’s light. Certainly appropriate for Epiphany.
What interests me about this hymn is the second version, using Wesley's language, but mixing it up and adding a refrain. This is common in the black tradition—to take a sturdy old hymn and make it into a gospel hymn. It was done with the hymns of Watts, whom the black church revered, calling him Dr. Watts..
It is still being done. Evelyn Simpson Curenton is a distinguished composer, pianist, organist and vocalist in the African American tradition. She has used the Wesley hymn to make a new song, deeply connected with the original. This version reminds me of the revision that André Crouch did of Fanny Crosby’s "To God Be the Glory."
The more I do these blogs, over 300 now! the more I understand the genius of John Ylvisaker’s meme that melodies are universal, harmonies chronological, rhythms geographical. We can tell from the harmony about when it was harmonized. And the rhythms tell us where it was used.
When the worship wars broke out in the 1970s, it would have been helpful to have had this meme before us. The young thought the 16th or 19th century harmonies and rhythms of the hymnal were sacrosanct and had to stay that way. Many traditionalists agreed. To the young that made the hymnal seem like a mausoleum. They wanted their own music— their own harmonies, always with a beat. This meant that their children did not learn the much beloved hymns of their grandparents, a loss which grieved the older generation.
From that came an explosion of new songs, some great, some not so, which we are sorting through now. We have gotten past the division finally. When today's musicians accompany traditional hymns now they are free to use bluesy harmonies, and add a drum, to the old chestnuts. That is a healing that bodes well for us.
There are great gems among the texts and tunes of the tradition and well loved by many just the way they are. It would be a shame, however, to keep them like treasured exhibits in museums in what were perceived as square settings. They can be brought forward by creative composers like Simpson Curenton and refreshed.
It is always surprising to see how the tradition, if it is living, takes the past and reworks it, like Luther did with the ancient Latin chants, so they spoke in the vernacular of the people of his day. The church holds the tradition sacred and conserves what it deems best, but if it will not allow the treasury to be worked with by the next generation and simply hoards it in the old treasure chests, it will die.
I don’t think Charles Wesley, a relentless evangelist and obsessive writer of hymn texts, would mind a bit to see his lovely text refashioned and riffed on by Simpson Curenton. I think it would make “glad his eyes and warm his heart.”
Wesley composed this before 1740 when it appeared in a collection of Hymns and Sacred Songs. Werner was a composer and organist in Saxony. We are not sure he wrote the tune, but it appeared in a book of hymns he compiled in 1815, Werners Choralbuch.
The additional words are by George D. Elderkin, someone about whom we know almost nothing, other than he owned a music publishing company in Chicago. Simpson Curenton, a child prodigy, played the piano from the age of two. A member of the Singing Simpsons of Philadelphia she accompanied the group from the age of nine. She has had a distinguished career as composer, writing music for Duke Ellington, arranging music for Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman as well as being a very prolific composer of anthems and hymn settings for GIA. Lately she is Music Director of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Men and Women of the Gospel. She is also an associate of the Smithsonian Institute.
Washington’s Choral Society/Wesley’s best https://youtu.be/ZMoIgEKVTOI
Choral setting by Keith Bissel
Menno Media—Curenton version https://youtu.be/Lpz6gxqT_YY
WSL Virtual Choir https://youtu.be/u3hCQlUKXI0
New Choral setting by Hal Leonard https://youtu.be/S3VdK6KL8YM