The original carol “Come, Love We God” is delightful but obscure. Compiled around 1611, it is attributed to one “Sir Richard Shanne, priest” in a British manuscript. Some scholars observe that the text and tune seem earlier, from the 15th century. Evidently, it remains a mystery just when this author Richard lived. In any case, the song sounds old in its rhythm, melody, and concept. It mixes Latin theological exclamations with an unfolding narrative in English. So it offered rich material for a new Christmas / Epiphany composition, presenting inspiration and challenge.
My first hurdle was to update the archaic text to be accessible for today’s hearers. At the same time, I wanted to keep an antique sensibility, some indication that these ideas and words have traveled centuries to reach us. Music presented another challenge. In composing the tune and setting, could I retain the original rhythmic vigor? What intervals and modes would sound both fresh and medieval? What form would distinguish Latin phrases from English sections yet remain cohesive? As listeners judge my answers for themselves, the following guide may help.
This composition starts by describing the incarnation in a lively soprano and tenor gigue with simple harmony in alto and bass octaves. The Latin interjections expand to four-part voicing with greater color and slower tempo. So the opening verse contains the core musical ideas, in which Latin lines provide devotional contrast to excited English storytelling. The second verse comes down to earth; sopranos and altos take up the tale of the shepherds, as tenors and basses sing commentary. The melody is the same, but here the dialogue is quick. The third verse has tenors and basses tell of the kings. Sopranos and altos add the Latin phrases, with all joining to extol the birth (quam digna est infantia).
Next the pace relaxes, as six-eight time slows to three-four. Stately music describes the kings' journey, homeward and heavenward, before a prayer to redeem “old and young.” Meanwhile, Latin words come fast and ecstatic, lauding Divine miracles (O Dei mirabilia) and God the Father (Deo Patri sit gloria). The first verse returns right away with broader music to sum up Sir Richard’s artful sermon. Finally, the various parts echo “come, love we God” from the opening section before closing together on “O Dei mirabilia!”