“O Thou the Central Orb”

For today’s post, I turn from our usual concentration on the 195 year history of St. Paul’s Church or Congregation in the City of Albany to a more current topic. Last Sunday, St. Paul’s choir sang one of our favorite anthems, Charles Wood’s “O Thou the Central Orb.” Singing this widely-loved anthem again revived my curiosity about the origin of its vivid but somewhat ambiguous text.

Wood took the words for his anthem from those written as an alternative to the original text of an Orlando Gibbons work.

[verse] O Thou, the central orb of righteous love,
Pure beam of the most High, eternal Light
Of this our wintry world, Thy radiance bright
Awakes new joy in faith, hope soars above.

[full choir] Come, quickly come, and let thy glory shine,
Gilding our darksome heaven with rays Divine.

[verse] Thy saints with holy lustre round Thee move,
As stars about thy throne, set in the height
Of God’s ordaining counsel, as Thy sight
Gives measured grace to each, Thy power to prove.

[full choir] Come, quickly come, and let thy glory shine,
Gilding our darksome heaven with rays Divine.

[verse] Let Thy bright beams disperse the gloom of sin,
Our nature all shall feel eternal day
In fellowship with thee, transforming day
To souls erewhile unclean, now pure within.

[full choir] Come, quickly come, and let thy glory shine,
Gilding our darksome heaven with rays Divine. Amen.

Published in Ouseley’s edition of Gibbons’ works, “O Thou the Central Orb” is subtitled “An Advent Anthem. The words adapted by the Revd. H.R. Bramley.”[i] But what was Henry Ramsden Bramley adapting? Most sources assume that it was one of his own compositions, but no one has identified such a source in his other published works.

It is only thanks to Google Books that I happened upon what I believe is Bramley’s source, in a little-known book, Lyra Mystica, by 19th century divine Orby Shipley.[ii] “O Oriens” is the fifth of seven sonnets paraphrasing the antiphons for the last week of Advent, also known as the O Antiphons. The sonnets are tied together by the structure of the concluding six lines (the sestet of the sonnet form): the first and fourth lines of all seven sestets start with “Come quickly! Come!” representing the Latin veni beginning the last line of each of the O Antiphons.

“O Oriens” by Orby Shipley

Bramley has skillfully incorporated the repeated pleading “Come!” from the antiphons into a chorus repeated by the full choir after each solo verse. The overall effect is quite effective, replicating the sense of Advent expectation.

Seeing Shipley’s original may provide a solution to one oddity about Bramley’s adaptation. The sense of the last quatrain is not at all clear, and it seems very odd to have rhymed the word “day” with itself.[iii] Could “transforming day” have been a printer’s error for “transforming ray”? This would correct the rhyming problem and would seem to be more in line with the work’s theme.

[i] Frederick A. Gore Ouseley, A Collection of the Sacred Compositions of Orlando Gibbons (London: Nevello, Ewer and Co., 1873), 136-141. The original text was “O all true faithful hearts,” described as “A thanksgiving for the king’s rapid recovery from a great dangerous sickness.” https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_Collection_of_the_Sacred_Compositions/jyZJAQAAMAAJ

[ii] Orby Shipley, Lyra Mystica: Hymns and Verses on Sacred Subjects, Ancient and Modern (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), 176. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Lyra_Mystica/XLFcAAAAcAAJ?gbpv=1

[iii] For a discussion of some other solutions to these problems, see the discussion in ChoralWiki: “Talk:O Thou, the central orb (Charles Wood)” https://www.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Talk:O_Thou,_the_central_orb_(Charles_Wood) Last accessed 16 Feb 2022.

1 thought on ““O Thou the Central Orb”

  1. Pingback: What’s Up in the Neighborhood, March 5 2022 – Chuck The Writer

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