Ask people to name a Christmas carol, and you can expect to be bombarded with answers – even those who have rarely stepped in a church tend to be able come up with a few. But then ask the same question about Easter, and the room goes silent. Despite the day’s importance in the Christian calendar, Easter hymns are comparatively both few in number and in familiarity. Here, then, are five that are well worth getting to know…
Best Easter hymns
Christ the Lord is risen today
'Christ the Lord is risen today' is possibly the best known and best loved Easter hymn, not least because of its exuberant ‘Alleluya!’ at the end of each line. The words are the handiwork of the 18th-century Methodist leader Charles Wesley, though he did not, in fact include those ‘Alleluyas’ – these were added anonymously at the beginning of the 19th century. Wesley’s hymn, which is traditionally sung in procession, was strongly influenced by the very similar ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’, which was first published in the Lyra Davidica in 1708, along with the tune that both hymns are sung to today. It is thought that the addition of the ‘Alleluyas’ to Wesley’s words was to make them fit said tune.
Thine be the Glory, Risen Conquering Son
Intriguingly, a hymnbook published in 1754 sets Wesley’s ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today’ (above) to the tune of ‘See, the Conquering Hero comes’ from Handel’s 1746 oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Today, that very same tune is still regularly sung at Easter, but instead to the words ‘Thine be the Glory, Risen Conquering Son’. These were written in 1884 by the Swiss minister Edmond Louis Budry and translated into English by Richard Birch Hoyle in 1923. Handel’s melody, incidentally, is not entirely without controversy, as it was written to celebrate the victory of the Duke of Cumberland’s Government forces over the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden – an event of notorious butchery and infamy.
Now the green blade riseth
Not all Easter hymns are in an upbeat major key. ‘Now the green blade riseth’, in contrast, is sung to the to tune to the old French Christmas hymn ‘Noël Nouvelet’, which is not just in a minor key but sounds distinctly gloomy too. ‘Noël Nouvelet’ was adapted for Easter purposes in the early 20th century by the English deacon and theologian John Macleod Campbell Crum, whose new words focus on the comparison between the Easter story and the growth of nature in spring.
The day of resurrection
You won’t find many hymns older than this – the original words are by the Greek poet St John of Damascus, who lived from c675-c750. The familiar English translation, meanwhile, is by the theologian John M Neale, who plied his trade in the mid-19th century. Neale’s text can be set to a number of melodies, but the most popular – and by far the jolliest – is a hymn tune called ‘Ellacombe’. Despite its English name (possibly from the village in Devon) ‘Ellacombe’ was first found in a hymnal published for the Duke of Würtemburg in 1784. Piling in together in unison for the first line is one of the great joys of Easter singing.
Awake, arise! Lift up your voice
The author of the words to this simple but spirit-lifting hymn may well be familiar to some. Christopher Smart (1722-1771) was an eminent poet and journalist whose ‘religious mania’ led to him being incarcerated in an asylum for a number of years, during which time he wrote his quirky poem Jubilate Agno, famously set to music by Benjamin Britten in his anthem Rejoice in the Lamb a couple of centuries later. As with so many hymns, ‘Awake arise! Lift up your voice’ can be sung to various different tunes. Perhaps the best known of these is ‘St Fulbert’, which also often accompanies the words of ‘Ye choirs of New Jerusalem’ and is the work of HJ Gauntlett, more famous for writing the melody of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.