Monday, December 20, 2010

Quelle est cette odeur agréable?

Here is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City performing “Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing?” (4:47)

That archaic, somewhat stilted-sounding English title is a translation of the words of the traditional 17th-century French carol “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?” that John Gay incorporated into his Beggar’s Opera in 1728.

Some might think that banks of violins and cellos are the very definition of schmaltz -- can anyone say Mantovani? -- but I think this is one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I have ever heard. Mrs. RWP, though, says it is not her cup of tea.

Here are the English lyrics as translated by A. B. Ramsay:

1. Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing,
Stealing our senses all away?
Never the like did come a-blowing,
Shepherds, in flow’ry fields of May!
Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing,
Stealing our senses all away?

2. What is that light so brilliant, breaking
Here in the night across our eyes?
Never so bright, the day-star waking,
Started to climb the morning skies!
What is that light so brilliant, breaking,
Here in the night across our eyes?

3. Bethlehem! there in manger lying,
Find your Redeemer haste away,
Run ye with eager footsteps vying!
Worship the Saviour born today.
Bethlehem! there in manger lying,
Find your Redeemer haste away.

If you simply must have the original French lyrics, click here. You may note that several English translations are available; the one I have shared with you is the one sung by the choir in the video clip.

As usual, I am one of the last to get the word. One list I saw shows that this song is available on more than 50 classical recordings. But even though it has been around for several centuries, I had never heard it until last Thursday evening when Dawna T. sang it accompanied at the piano by her sister, Lisa K., during their Family Christmas Concert at a church in Marietta. (I was part of the concert too. I accompanied Dawna on “The Perfect Rose,” her son Michael on a cello solo of “What Child Is This?” and Lisa on “O Holy Night.” Lisa wore an emerald velvet gown; Dawna wore a purple one. I was resplendent in a black tuxedo.)

The lyrics, of course, refer to the infant Christ, the baby Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. What struck me as ironic (nay, downright humorous!) is that the odeur agréable that so mystified the songwriter was a barnyard stable filled with cows, sheep, donkeys, and (let’s face it) manure. So the actual odeur must have been anything but agréable at the time. Comparing Christ’s presence to the fragrance of a rose has been quite common through the centuries, though, and has resulted in such songs as “The Perfect Rose,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and, of course, from now on in my own mind, “Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing?”

I think I will go back and listen to it again.

No Rosicrucians were harmed in the creation of this blogpost.


  1. First I thought that Mrs. RWP had been baking one of her famous cakes again, but it turns out to be a stable and a full diaper that created the smell.

    However, I've listened to and enjoyed the song. It is beautiful.

  2. first you give rave reviews of the mormon tabernackle group qand then come over to my blog and call me a BIG MOUTH><<><>WELL, I DECLAIR<><>I have heard them sing that in person

  3. Well hay smells nice and it might not have been that bad with the myrrh and frankincense. lol
    People usually had oils they made at home from flowers and such and carried them with them.I don;t think they had much water to wash in. Did they?
    Come to think of it the French and English Kings and Queens must have also smelt bad. lol

  4. Ah, you SAY that no Rosicrucians were harmed, yet your statement lacked the stamp of approval of the SPCR.

    Did you ever see a black person in the MTC? I spotted a couple of Asian looking people, and one dark-skinned guy from south of the border, perhaps, but maybe black people just aren't convinced that the Mormons really are over their institutionalized racism. It's like when Brigham Young got word from god that the multiple wives thingie was wrong just as the army was approaching, and then a similar thing happened in regard to racial discrimination. Oh, well, I'm just being old cynically me, I suppose.

    As for the music, it was relaxing for sure, and I also enjoyed watching all those freshly scrubbed faces singing their hearts out. When you don't drink, and you don't smoke, it does help you keep your looks. That's your secret, I suppose, and the reverse is also my excuse, at least in regard to the drinking.

  5. Speaking of Mormons, there's a film that I suppose Putz must have surely seen, but one that you might enjoy too Rhymes. It's called God's Army, and here's the Wikipedia article on it:'s_Army_(film)

    IMDb gave it a 6.8 out of 10, which I thought was fair enough.

  6. I never know which posts will generate comments and which ones won't. This one did. Thanks to all of you for stopping by.

  7. Thank you for sending this; it's a beautiful song. And the "irony" of a sweet fragrance where one ought to smell ~ well, something else ~ is one of the things I love about the beauty of the presence of Christ!

  8. I think this is the shepherds talking, surprised by the gorgeous scent of the angels on their way to share the good news of the birth of Jesus.