Bathed in tears

Posted on: 28 March 2021, by :

On Palm Sunday, the Church remembers Christ’s entry into Jerusalem to loud cheers of ‘Hosanna to the son of David!’ as the start of the rapidly unfolding sequence of events leading to his crucifixion and burial within a week. But there was another event that also prefigured the Passion, one that occurred just the day before the entry into Jerusalem according to chapter 12 in the Gospel of John (or a few days later according to Matthew 26). Before dinner in the nearby village of Bethany, Lazarus’s sister Mary honoured Jesus by pouring an expensive perfume over his feet and wiping his feet with her hair. Jesus recognized this as an anointing in preparation for his impending sacrificial death: ‘It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial,’ he said (John 12:7). Mary’s loving act anticipated how Jesus would himself wash his disciples’ feet before the Passover meal, the Last Supper. It also recalls the earlier occasion, recounted in Luke 7, when Jesus, at the house of Simon the Pharisee, had his feet washed by a local woman despised as sinful: As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:38) Jesus explained to Simon: ‘her many sins have been forgiven, as her great love has shown’ (verse 47).

This theme—overwhelming tears of contrition that honour Jesus, and the love that they show—is the basis for Drop, drop, slow tears by the poet Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650), which became a favourite Passiontide hymn when set to music with exquisite harmony by Orlando Gibbons. It was first published in The Hymnes and Songs of the Church (London: George Wither, 1623).

Drop, drop, slow tears,
      and bathe those beauteous feet:
 Which brought from heaven
      the news and Prince of Peace.
Cease not, wet eyes,
      His mercies to entreat:
 To cry for vengeance
      sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
      drown all my faults and fears:
 Nor let His eye see sin
      but through my tears.

Fletcher’s text was also fitted to the superb music of The Silver Swanne from Gibbons’s First set of Madrigals and Mottets, apt for Viols and Voyces (London, 1612). Any connection in meaning between the hymn and the madrigal is tenuous at best—Is the swan’s awareness of impending death a parallel to that Jesus?—and it is not certain that this arrangement was made by Gibbons himself. The rationale for the contrafactum (creating a piece by retexting some existing music) was probably only that the music of The Silver Swanne, being already popular, was well worth recycling.

The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
“Farewell, all joys, 
   O death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, 
   more fools than wise.”

For more music for Holy Week, see the series from 2020.

* *  This post, for Palm Sunday, is in a series for Lent and Holy Week, 2021 * *

Above: Phineas Fletcher’s hymn Drop, drop, slow tears, music by Orlando Gibbons (1623), sung by Cambridge Chorale in 2018.

Below: Drop, drop, slow tears, adapted to the music of Gibbons’s madrigal The Silver Swanne. Sung in October 2009 by the Cape Town Youth Choir.

Below: Gibbons’s The Silver Swanne (published 1612), sung by the Gesualdo Six (2019?).