For all the saints

In Mexican tradition, November 1st is the central point in the Days of the Dead (October 31st through November 2nd), while in older Christian tradition it’s All Saints’ (or, as many would have it, Saints) Day. For some of us, there is specific music for the day: the magnificent processional hymn “For All the Saints”, sung to the Ralph Vaughan Williams tune Sine Nomine.


(#1) Fra Angelico, The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (from the 1420s, tempera on poplar wood) (from Wikipedia)

From Wikipedia:

All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, the Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian festival celebrated in honour of all the saints, known and unknown. In Western Christianity, it is celebrated on November the 1st by the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church, and other Protestant churches, November 1st is also the day before All Souls’ Day [celebrating the souls of all human beings who have died].

… The Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day stems from a belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the “Church triumphant”), and the living (the “Church militant”).

[A personal note. Among the Protestant denominations listed above are the two that provided my experience with organized religion: the mainstream American Lutheran denomination that is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (through Advent Lutheran Church in West Lawn PA in my youth) and then the socially progressive wing of the mainstream American denomination the Episcopal Church in the United States (at Christ Church in Reading PA, Trinity Church in Princeton NJ, Christ Church in Cambridge MA, and St.  Stephen’s Church in Columbus OH). This latter Anglican denomination is the one that, as a non-believer, I am not a member of; in particular, I am fondly attuned to many of its practices, especially the music.]

About “For All the Saints”, from Wikipedia:

“For All the Saints” was written as a processional hymn by the Anglican Bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How. The hymn was first printed in Hymns for Saints’ Days, and Other Hymns, by Earl Nelson, 1864.

The hymn was sung to the melody Sarum, by the Victorian composer Joseph Barnby, until the publication of the English Hymnal in 1906. This hymnal used a new setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams which he called Sine Nomine (literally, “without name”) in reference to its use on the Feast of All Saints, 1 November (or the first Sunday in November, All Saints Sunday in the Lutheran Church). It has been described as “one of the finest hymn tunes of [the 20th] century.”

Although most English hymn tunes of its era are written for singing in SATB four-part harmony, Sine Nomine is primarily unison (verses 1,2,3,7 and 8) with organ accompaniment; three verses (4, 5 and 6) are set in sung harmony.

Warning: many people find the melody to be incredibly sticky — a fiercely persistent earworm. I myself find it gorgeous and deeply moving, but it will now be with me relentlessly for several days.

If you wish, you can listen here (#2) to a performance of the hymn by the St. Edmundsbury Cathedral Choir (of Suffolk, UK). Recordings (this one included) generally don’t capture the feeling that a processional hymn carries with it: as a member of the congregation, you are in fact surrounded and enveloped by the sound of the choir (and, in this case, by the powerful organ tune).

The hymn from the Lutheran Service Book 1958, as the music appointed for All Saints’ Day (1 November):


(#3) The hymn is #287 in the Episcopal Hymnbook 1982; I give this image because the Lutherans managed to print the thing on two facing pages, while the Episcopalians spread it over three pages

Meanwhile, back in Mexico, in a very different spirit, some figures from Day of the Dead celebrations:


(#4) Cat(a)rinas from my 10/17/15 posting “Autumn, Halloween, and Death”

3 Responses to “For all the saints”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Facebook comments from two of my organ-enthusiast friends:

    Ned Deily: That brilliant bass G downbeat at the start of each verse: wait for it, singers, as the organ pedal note rolls across the nave – but don’t wait long

    Dennis Lewis: I enjoyed hearing it twice last Sunday, thanking God I wasn’t the person playing it. I consider it the most difficult hymn to play, probably because the bass clef is going up the keyboard while the treble clef is going down the keyboard.

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    Got to sing it twice last Sunday, once at my Episcopal church, and then at the Sunday evening “vespers” in my retirement community in east Tennessee. Great old hymn!

  3. [BLOG] Some Wednesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks at All Saints […]

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