Wednesday, December 4, 2013

From the archives: Quelle est cette odeur agréable? (December 20, 2010)

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?” (rhymeswithplague handy pronunciation guide: Kell eh set oh-dur ah-gray-ah-bluh?) 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 comment:

Katherine said...

That barnyardiness was probably exactly what was the important bit about the story. That was what made all the difference - it brought Him down to Earth, so He could walk among us ordinary less-than-lovely folk...
N'est-ce pas?

I love sings of praise. Like many, I have simple tastes (although I love Handel). My favourite has long been 'O Little Town of Bethlehem.'