Brightest and Best
DESCRIPTION: "Hail the blest morn when the great Mediator down from the regions of glory descends." The song describes the baby Jesus's humble birth and the feeble gifts they offer him. "Brightest and best of the sons of the morning, Dawn on our darkness...."
AUTHOR: Words widely credited to Reginald Heber (1783-1826)
EARLIEST DATE: 1811 (Christian Observer, according to Marilyn Kay Stulken, _Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship_, Fortress Press, 1981, p. 185)
KEYWORDS: religious Jesus Christmas gift
FOUND IN: US(Ap)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Ritchie-SingFam, pp. 150-151, "[Brightest and Best]" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ritchie-Southern, p. 55, "Brightest and Best" (1 text, 1 tune)
BrownSchinhanV 763, "Star in the East" (1 short text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #13, "Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning" (1 text)
Ritchie Family, "Brightest and Best" (on Ritchie03)
NOTES [668 words]: Earlier editions of this index credited this piece to Reginald Heber (1783-1826), on the basis of Irwin Silber's The Season of the Year. McKim, p. 65, unequivocally credits it to Heber and says it was published in the November 1811 edition of The Christian Observer. Ian Bradley's The Penguin Book of Carols also attributes the song to Heber, and says it was the first hymn he wrote. The New Oxford Book of Carols , however, credits the arrangement to William Walker, while submitting that the "refrain and vv. 2-4 [are] after Reginald Heber." But Spaeth places the whole thing in the hands of Walker.
George Pullen Jackson does not mention either Walker or Heber; he finds it first in William Caldwell's 1837 Union Harmony (but it's not clear whether this is text or tune or both).
Julian, p. 182, has quite a bit to say of the song:
"Brightest and best of the sons of the morning. [By] B[isho]p R[eginald] Heber. [Epiphany.] 1st pub[lished] in the Christian Observer, Nov. 1811, p. 697, in 5 st[anzas] of 4 l[ines] (the last being the first repeated); and again in his posthumous Hymns &c., 1827, p. 25. Few hymns of merit have troubled compilers more than this. Some have held that its use involved the worshipping of a star, whilst others have been offended with its metre as being too suggestive of a solemn dance."
Julian, although accepting without hesitation the attribution to Heber, notes a Presbyterian hymnal which attributes it to Tate and Brady. He also mentions a Latin translation, "Stella, micans coelo nitido magia omnibus una," by Reverend R. Bingham.
Julian, pp. 503-504, offers a brief biography of Heber, beginning "Born at Malpas, Apil 21, 1783, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford; Vicar of Hodnet, 1807; B[isho]p of Calcutta, 1823; d[ied] at Trichinopoly, Indian, April 3, 1826." He showed his skills as a poet from a young age, and was a friend of Southey among others; he wrote most of his works during his years at Hodnet, during which time he also engaged in literary scholarship; he gave up literature when he took up his episcopate. Julian lists more than two dozen hymns from his pen, but apart from "Brightest and Best," the only two I've ever encountered are "From Greenland's icy mountains" (which, Julian notes, has mentions of India but was written before Heber transferred there) and "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty." "God, That Madest Earth and Heaven" is also still found in a few hymnals.
Bradley cites Routley to the effect that 19 different tunes have been used for this set of lyrics. I don't have a full list, but I find in my library that the Lutheran book The Parish School Hymnal of 1926 lists the tune as by J. P. Harding (1861-?). This is also the tune used in the modern Presbyterian edition. McKim, p. 68, says James Proctor Harding wrote it in 1892; it was set to these words in 1894. However, McKim gives Harding's dates as 1850-1911, which disagrees with the Lutheran dates. Harding, according to McKim, was born in London and spent 35 years as organist and choirmaster for St. Andrew's Church, Thornhill Square, Islington.
The phrase "sons of the morning" is thought to have been inspired by Isaiah 14:12, which the King James Bible renders "How art though fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" This connection has sparked some controversy, because "Lucifer" is widely equated with Satan. But this is one of those over-reactions to the King James rendering. The translators used "Lucifer" in its Latin sense of "Light-bringer," which is a fair rendering of the Hebrew word which means something like "one who brightens." Modern versions render the Hebrew word something like "Day Star"; it's thought by some to be a reference to the pretensions of the Kings of Babylon.
I'm a bit leery of this whole interpretation anyway. The idea of "Children of Light" or "Children of the Morning" is a common one in mythology, and might just have occurred to the author (whether Heber or someone else) because it sounds good. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- McKim: LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993
- Spaeth: Sigmund Spaeth, A History of Popular Music in America, Random House, 1948
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