The Unsung Canticle

For months a tune has been running through my head.  I wake up hearing it and end up singing the song throughout the day. It is the First Song of Isaiah  – the tune is by Jack Nobel White – and I learned it from the Bishops Choir CD, Trouble at the River.  At any point or place in the day I might burst out with “Surely it is God who saves me!” or “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy!”  Of course, at Morning Prayer we don’t sing Canticle Nine we speak it, but after listening and singing along with the bishops, the First Song of Isaiah is the one canticle I know by heart.

As children we learned many things and committed many more to memory by learning songs and rhymes.  “Thirty days hath September . . .” “Wednesday’s child is full of woe . . .”  “Ada, Adams, Bannock, Bear Lake . . .”  Today I can still name the 44 counties in Idaho because I learned them to the tune of Ten Little Indians.  I probably know the words to the Gloria better than I do the Nicene Creed because, instead of speaking it, we often sing it to the tune of S-280.

How much better would we know the words to all of the Canticles and how much more often could we burst out with “Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers!” or “Let the people of God glorify the Lord!” or “The white-robed army of martyrs praise you!” (Okay, maybe not that one) if we could sing them?

The word “canticle” means “little song” and doesn’t it just sound like it?  Say “canticle” and you can just feel the tiny notes trip off your tongue.  A canticle is similar to a psalm, but not part of the book of Psalms and canticles have been included in worship from the earliest days of the church.  The three canticles from Luke – The Song of Mary (BCP – p. 91), The Song of Zechariah (p. 92), and The Song of Simeon (p.93) – are called the Greater Canticles.  The others are considered the Lesser Canticles.  The Gloria and the Te Deum are the only ones that do not come to us from scripture.

The Rev. Dr. Hatchett helps us understand (p. 110-121) that each of these songs has its own history and conveys its own significance to our worship.  What can we do to learn and appreciate what these special poems contribute to our sense of spirit especially if we are in small churches with limited music support?

My go-to answer for all things “music” is YouTube.  Many of our canticles have been put to music, albeit several hundred years ago, and you can hear them – and some newer versions – on YouTube.  A few of the canticles can be found in the Service Music section of the 1982 Hymnal.

Deacon Tammy Jones, our guest blogger from last week recommends that we consider using the Table of Suggested Canticles on page 144 in the Prayerbook to mix it up a little.  Expanding on Tammy’s idea of reading the Psalms in different voices, we might try making up our own tunes or setting the canticles to familiar music.  After all, if Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to The Yellow Rose of Texas, surely we can find  existing melodies for our favorite canticles.

If you meet with success from any of these ideas, be sure to comment.  We would love to hear from you.

YouTube links:

8 – The Song of Moses                                                   

13 – A Song of Praise                                                

15 – The Song of Mary                                                      

17 – Song of Simeon                                                       

21 – You are God                                                        

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