Fairest Lord Jesus

“I do not think of Christ as God alone, or man alone, but both together. For I know He was hungry, and I know that with five loaves He fed five thousand. I know He was thirsty, and I know that He turned the water into wine. I know He was carried in a ship, and I know that He walked on the sea. I know that He died, and I know that He raised the dead. I know that He was set before Pilate, and I know that He sits with the Father on His throne. I know that He was worshiped by angels, and I know that He was stoned by the Jews. And truly some of these I ascribe to the human, and others to the divine nature. For by reason of this He is said to have been both God and man.”

-John Chrysostom, fourth-century preacher of Antioch

Fairest Lord Jesus, UMH #189, originated in the Roman Catholic Jesuit tradition in Germany, and the text first appeared in a Jesuit hymnbook Munster Gesangbuch in 1677. It emphasizes the beauty and wonder of Christ, and especially focuses on his dual nature of being both human and divine. We’ve looked at a few hymns that explain and teach theology; this is not one such hymn. This text begins by stating a difficult theological tenet: Christ is both Son of God and son of man. And from this point, rather than attempt to explain something unexplainable, the hymn just continues in praise, worship, and adoration of Christ. It’s refreshing, especially living in a time when it seems like absolutely everything has to be explainable, to go to church and sing a hymn that simply accepts that we don’t know everything, and in fact there are things about God that we will never be able to figure out or explain. Living with these difficult theological ideas and accepting that we may never be able to understand them is one of the most difficult parts of Christianity, but it’s when human understanding fails that faith picks up the baton.

While the text of this hymn is awesome, this is an example of a hymntune that eminently fits the text. The tune is called CRUSADERS’ HYMN, sometimes also known as ST. ELIZABETH, and has only ever been associated with this text. As far as can be discerned, the tune was originally an eighteenth-century folk song from the Glaz area of Silesia, but a legend persisted for some time that this text and tune dated back to the twelfth-century crusades, which is likely the reason for one of the tune names. Franz Liszt used the tune in his oratorio The Legend of St. Elizabeth (1862), after which the tune also became known as ST. ELIZABETH.

Let’s take a closer look at this melody. Its simplicity makes it easy to sing and easy to remember; more than that, though, it’s exceptionally fitting for the text. The text states this theological idea very simply, that Christ is both divine and human, and the tune reflects this simplicity. It isn’t overly ornate, it doesn’t use an excessive range or a lot of skips/jumps. Its basic melodic idea is stated in the first two measures, and the rest of the tune builds that simple melody into 2 balanced phrases.

fairest

This melody of the first two measures is:

Do – Do – Do – Re – Ti – Do

Measure 3-4 is the same melodic pattern, transposed up a third to begin on Mi:

Mi – Mi – Mi – Fa – Re – Mi

Measures 5-8 begins on the 5th scale degree, sol, and its overarching motion is sol, fa, mi, and then ending on re, the 2nd scale degree, which gives us a half-cadence at the midpoint of the melody.

In these four measures, mm. 5-8, there are remnants of the initial melodic pattern, though it’s not precisely transposed since this section is aiming us towards that half-cadence. Look specifically at the direction of the melody, and the slurs that tie over the skip in m. 5 and the step in m. 6. The melody is clearly the inspiration from which this section was derived.

The second phrase, beginning in m. 9-10, is the return of the initial melodic phrase. However, because we’re starting on the 5th scale degree and we’ve got to make our way back down to the first by the end, the melodic pattern has to be altered slightly. At the beginning, each 2-measure phrase began and ended on the same note; the slurred skip pattern (found in m. 2 on the word “Je-sus”) began with a step up, then a skip down, and a step back to the starting note. In this second phrase, that slurred skip pattern (found in m. 10 on the word “cher-ish”) doesn’t start with a step up– it stays on the same note, then has a skip down and a step up; by not starting with a step up, the melodic pattern ends on a note lower than where it started.

Mm. 9-10:

Sol – La – Sol – Sol – Mi – Fa

Mm. 11-12:

Fa – Sol – Fa – Fa – Re – Mi

The final 4 measures of the melody are one large movement of mi – re – do. The last two beats of m. 13, the jump up to sol – fa (on the word “glo-ry”) are essentially an extension of this 3 – 2 – 1 movement; the harmony serves to extend this cadential movement as well, with a V7 of IV resolving to a IV, then the standard I6/4 — V7 — I cadence in the final two measures.

Analyzing the tune of the hymn just makes it clearer that it can simply be taken at face value. There are no hidden intricacies in the melody. There’s nothing unexpected in the harmonic progression. It’s easy to sing and fits well in the voice without pretension or undue effort, and its simplicity and unaffectedness gives it beauty.

And this is just further proof of the tune’s appropriateness for this text; the text presents the duality of Christ in the same matter-of-fact way that the tune presents its melody. The pairing of this simple message and simple melody enhances the impact of both.

The initial quote comes from Then Sings My Soul, Robert J Morgan.

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