O Father Nicholas

This article will be a bit longer than the previous ones, since I plan to use it to talk about a number of issues regarding our spiritual songs, and work on the forthcoming hymnal.

Spiritual songs in multiple languages

If you look at the MCI pages on spiritual songs (see Songs in the left-hand navigation on every page), you will find that when a hymn exists in several languages, there is one article for each language - for example, one article for O Father Nicholas and one for Otce Nikolaje. There are three reasons for this:

But this means that it is sometimes difficult to put the different versions side by side and discuss them. So for these articles, I will be treating all versions of a hymn together, and giving each article a title in English - even if we end up using a different title when the dust settles.

(This is related to, but separate from, the question of whether to put English and non-English versions together under the same musical notation, or list them separately. We will talk about that when we get to formatting the hymnal).

So, onward to O Father Nicholas!

The Current Version

This is one of two popular hymns in honor of Saint Nicholas ("our holy father Nicholas the wonder-worked, archbishop of Myra in Lyria"), whose feast is celebrated on December 6; the other hymn, perhaps even more popular, is O who loves Nicholas the saintly.

Here is the current version in the 2007 Byzantine Catholic Hymnal, prepared by the MCI:

O Father Nicholas

This translation was originally published along with the liturgical hymns for the feast of Saint Nicholas in Monsignor Levkulic's The Divine Liturgy, a Book of Prayer (1978), page 104. Here are the three verses in English:

O Father Nicholas
renowned through every land,
wonder-worker and helper to all in need,
anointed by God's own hand.

O Shepherd of your flock,
disciple of the Lord,
Pray to God for all who are enslaved by sin
that we may seek His reward.

Look down, O Holy One,
from heaven's calm embrace,
see your children who honor and praise your name,
and help us when we need grace.

Every stanza consists of four lines, with lines 2 and 4 rhyming in this translation; the third line is long and the fourth is short.

The Slavonic text

Monsignor Levkulic also provided three verses in Slavonic (these hymns are usually somewhere between vernacular Rusyn and actual Church Slavonic, with the balance changing from one hymn to another):

Otče Nikolaje,
Svjatitelem slavo,
Divnyj čudotvorče
Svjasčennaja hlavo.

Pastyr'u izbrannyj,
Christov nasl'idniče,
Za nas hri'išnych moli Boha,
Božij uhodniče.

Prizri o Svjatitel'
Iz vysoka neba,
Kol' nas uhnetajut
Nuždy i potreba.

These match up generally but not exactly with the English. For example, the second verse runs something like, "Chosen shepherd / follower of Christ / Pray to God for us sinners, / O Saint." Very often Slavic languages use more syllables than would be required to say the same thing in English, so the translator has "padded" a bit, and sometimes introduced new thoughts. For example, the third verse in Slavonic asked the bishop (Svjatitel') to look from heaven and see the oppression, poverty and need of those who are singing. It would be very helpful to have literal translations of the original texts, not just ones meant for singing! That having been said, I am very reluctant to change lyrics that congregations are used to singing.

This same hymn was included in the Užhorod Pisennik (1913) as hymn number 28, with six verses, without music, and in Father Stefan Papp's Duchovni Pisni, also without music. The reason that music could be omitted from Father Papp's hymnal is that the hymn is explicitly meant to be sung to the melody of the hymn to the Mother of God, Radujsja Carice.

The Marian hymn

Radujsja Carice was omitted from the 2007 Byzantine Catholic Hymnal, because it was not in the 1978 Levkulic Divine Liturgies book (which the MCI was directed to use as the basis for that hymnal). Monsignor William Levkulic and cantor Jerry Jumba included Slavonic and English versions in their 1984 Marian Hymnal. Here is the English version:

Two things to notice here:

For a comparison, here is how the same hymn is given in Father Stefan Papp's 1970 collection, Duchovni Pisni:

This has its own issues. AS WRITTEN, it is in a triple meter, like waltz, and a few apparent bad accents in Slavonic. As with some other entries in this collection, it's not clear how exact the musical notation is supposed to be.

And here is a recording of the same Marian hymn by the Uzhorod Seminary Choir. It goes, more or less, like this, in broad half notes:

This aligns closely with the Cherubic Hymn setting in the Bokshai Prostopinije (1906) and the Papp Irmologion (1970) which uses the same melody:

Several things to note:

Now let's look at how this same melody is ALSO used for the "E" setting of the Cherubic Hymn in our Divine Liturgy book (DL 46):

In this setting:

This is not a bad setting of the Cherubic Hymn, but it is sometimes criticized by cantors for being too short. If sung quickly, it has to be repeated many times; if sung slowly, it can become ponderous. We will come back to this setting later.

What to do?

I would start with trying to come up with a setting of "Rejoice, O Purest Queen" that could serve as a model for this melody in English; it should be flowing, easy to sing, and capture (wherever possible) the spirit of the various existing versions. It will end up differing from the Slavonic, and we should probably just accept that fact.

The first two phrases in the Marian Hymnal version are quite well known, and match our existing uses in the hymn to Saint Nicholas, and the Cherubic Hymn. Nothing to do here!

For the third phrase, I would keep the scale-wise opening from the Cherubic Hymn versions in English and Slavonic, combine it with the three note pattern G - Bb - A from the Papp (1970) setting, and the falling conclusion from the old version of "O Father Nicholas", to end up with something like the following:

This is far simpler than the version in the Marian Hymnal, but I think anyone who knows that version of the melody can move to this one fairly readily. (The real proof will be if it works for "O Father Nicholas" as well.)

For the last phrase, keep the version in the Marian Hymnal, but split the first half note (only when needed!) to put the accent in the right place:

Now, if we're willing to tweak the text just a little: the word "divine", when applied to the Mother of God, throws many visitors and even some of our own faithful for a loop. Mary is the Mother of God; her intercession is divine in the sense that it is directed to God, but she is not divine. Furthermore, the Slavonic just says "our intercessor." So we could keep thes secondary sense of "divine" here, avoid potential heresy, AND restore the initial half note, but doing this:

From now on, we will consider the four-quarter-note pattern, and the two ending half notes, to be regular parts of the melody. Here is the entire hymn, with all three verses from the Marian Hymnal:

It seems to work; there are no obviously bad accents. So now let's see what happens with "O Father Nicholas":

This is certainly a more interesting version than we started with. I hear one bad accent, at the end of the second verse: "that we may seek his REward", where reward was chosen to rhyme with Lord. We have a couple of options:

Please submit any suggestions you might have on the blog. (We will return to "Rejoice, O Purest Queen" in May, when we start working in earnest on Marian hymns.)

There is one more hymn in the 1978 Levkulic Divine Liturgies book that is to be sung to "Radujsja Carice": namely, the Theophany hymn "Anhely Sohlasno" (along with an English translation, "The choirs of angels sing") on page 169. Here is what happens if we set this text to the (revised, reorganized) "Radujsja Carice" melody:

These two verses end up JUST differently enough that it might be worth writing them out separately.

The Cherubic Hymn, revisited

Of course, once we are singing the family of Radujsja Carice hymns in a consistent fashion, the E setting of the Cherubic Hymn melody really starts to stand out. Let's see what we could do with it to more closely match the common melody above, and slow it down a little.

Note than I am NOT proposing replacing the Cherubikon E with this version! But I do want to show the potential benefits of stepping back and looking at what we are singing, and how we are perhaps in a position now to draw some of these strands together.


This certainly went far afield, didn't it? We started with ONE hymn for Saint Nicholas, explored a related Marian hymn, looked at some Slavonic sources (even from the Divine Liturgy) before ending up with that I think are singable versions of THREE hymns, all of which should be in our final hymnal.

Please submit any comments or thoughts on the blog.

By the way, I suspect most of our proposed hymns will require nearly this much work. "Radujsja Carice" was sort of a triple threat:

And I certainly don't have the final answer on any of these. But I do think it's important to talk about these things, rather than simply publishing yet another version of one hymn or another, with no explanation.