Alternative Scriptures: Gustav Holst’s Hymn of Jesus

Alternative Scriptures: Gustav Holst’s Hymn of Jesus June 16, 2017

I have been posting about the quite widespread knowledge of alternative and apocryphal scriptural texts in the early twentieth century, long before most non-specialists would assume that this would have been possible. Today’s post concerns an extraordinary example of this phenomenon.

The First World War years witnessed a wonderful flowering of music in Great Britain, much of which had a religious content. (Think Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams …). It was in 1916 that Sir Hubert Parry set Blake’s Jerusalem to music, giving the country in effect a second National Anthem. One of the greatest composers of the time was Gustav Holst, who between 1914 and 1916 composed The Planets. In 1917, he followed that with a splendid piece for choir and orchestra, the Hymn of Jesus, which was publicly performed in 1920, after the war’s end. The Hymn was widely heard and praised in Britain and North America. (You can even find online a nice text of the performance by the University of Michigan Musical Society at the Ann Arbor May Festival, 1920).

But anyone at the 1920 premiere expecting standard Christian piety would have been taken aback by the scriptural texts that Holst had set. The choir sings:

Glory to thee, Father!
Glory to thee, Word!
Glory to thee, O Grace!
Glory to thee, Holy Spirit!
Glory to thy Glory!
We praise thee, O Father;
We give thanks to thee, O shadowless light!

This is not exactly Trinitarian, but it is acceptable to orthodox ears. But then things become much stranger. Antiphonally, two semi-choruses sing the “Hymn” of Jesus, and that is a curious idea in its own right. Mark and Matthew report that Jesus and his followers did sing a hymn (or hymns) on the night of his arrest and trial (hymnesantes), but no canonical gospel tells us what it might actually have been. In Holst’s piece, though, we hear the words attributed to Jesus himself:

Fain would I be saved: And fain would I save.
Fain would I be released: And fain would I release.
Fain would I be pierced: And fain would I pierce.
Fain would I be borne: Fain would I bear.
Fain would I eat: Fain would I be eaten.
Fain would I hearken: Fain would I be heard.
Fain would I be cleansed. Fain would I cleanse.
I am Mind of all. Fain would I be known. Amen.

Divine Grace is dancing.
Fain would I pipe for you: Dance ye all!
Fain would I lament: Mourn ye all!
The Heav’nly Spheres make music for us;
The Holy Twelve dance with us;
All things join in the dance!
Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing.

Fain would I flee: And fain would I remain.
Fain would I be ordered: And fain would I set in order.
Fain would I be infolded: Fain would I infold.
I have no home: In all I am dwelling.
I have no resting place: I have the earth.
I have no temple: And I have Heav’n.
To you who gaze, a lamp am I:
To you that know, a mirror.
To you who knock, a door am I:
To you who fare, the way.

Holst himself cooperated in translating this text from the apocryphal Acts of John. The composer was an erudite man, who had earlier set to music his own translations from Sanskrit, and the version of the Greek here is very faithful.

The Acts of John were composed in the late second century AD, and in the section used by Holst (94-96), John gives a surprising account of the Last Supper that features a kind of liturgical ring-dance. (“He bade us therefore make as it were a ring, holding one another’s hands, and himself standing in the midst he said: Answer Amen unto me.” That element has long entranced modern readers. When Elaine Pagels published her Gnostic Gospels in 1979, this was one of the passages most quoted in reviews.

Church authorities became increasingly suspicious of the Acts because of its possible linkage with Gnostic and Valentinian ideas. Also, the book was very popular with multiple heretical groups, especially those that preached Dualism and rejected sexuality. In 787, the Second Council of Nicea ordered all copies burned, but that order was only partially successful. Many copies of the Acts were lost, but the work existed in so many manuscripts, spread so widely, that much of it continued to be read and copied.

In modern times, new manuscript finds permitted a larger reconstruction, and the Acts acquired a new following. A leading scholar of the work was G. R. S. Mead, a Theosophist deeply sympathetic to Gnostic thought, and who thought the Hymn “marvelous and beautiful.” Mead’s influence contributed to Holst’s use of the work. The text was also suggested by Conrad Noel, a legendary (and ultra-Left-wing) Anglican cleric.

The result was that almost a century ago, a strictly mainstream, celebrated, English composer produced and staged a work containing evocative Gnostic hymns, and liturgical dance. And all derived from a long-lost alternative scripture – a Gnostic gospel.






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