|Charles Wesley wrote this hymn in 1739, less than a year after his Aldersgate conversion. It was first sung in the Foundry Meeting House, an old iron foundry in London that Wesley converted to religious purposes.
Wesley’s original version had eleven stanzas, but did not have the Alleluias that distinguish it today. Some modern hymnals include this hymn without the Alleluias (and sometimes without the verse that starts “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”). There are at least three different hymn tunes associated with that version: “Orientis Partibus,” Savannah,” and “Resurrexit.”
It is possible to confuse this hymn with “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” The two hymns are different, but the first lines are similar. No serious musician will be confused by the similarity, but most people in the pews are not serious musicians.
I have not been able to determine which tune Wesley used with this hymn, but it was not the “Easter Hymn” tune that we associate with it today. “Easter Hymn” comes from the book, Lyra Davidica, published in 1708. In that book, “Easter Hymn” is paired with “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” rather than this hymn (see, I told you it was confusing).
Some hymnals include this hymn with the tune “Llanfair,” a tune written by Robert Williams (1781-1821), a blind basket weaver from the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. Williams composed tunes and dictated them to a scribe. “Llanfair” is an abbreviated form for the name of a Welsh village with a very long Welch name, which means “Church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel near the rapid whirlpool of the Church of St. Tysillio by the red cave.”
On a modern map, I found a village named Llanfair on the mainland in Wales 25 miles (40 km) south of the Isle of Anglesey. I also found a village named Llanfairfechan on the island itself. I have not been able to determine which of those villages is the one associated with this hymn tune.
Some hymns perfectly capture the spirit of their season, and that is true of this hymn. Both hymn tunes associated with this hymn (“Easter Hymn” and “Llanfair”) have strong, driving rhythms that make us want to “raise the rafters” with joyful singing. The first line, “Christ the Lord is risen today,” sets the tone and tells us what we are celebrating. “Raise your joys and triumphs high,” suggests how to celebrate. The Alleluias soar.
The hymn portrays not only the resurrection, but also the crucifixion. It tells us that “Love’s redeeming work is done, Fought the fight, the battle won.” It says, “Death in vain forbids him rise.” But the resurrection is the dominant theme, as we would expect in an Easter hymn. (NOTE: The words vary from hymnal to hymnal, so check your hymnal.)
But the hymn that we have today is quite different from the one that Charles Wesley wrote. The original hymn had no Alleluias. It seems as if the hand of God directed what came next. Someone whose name has been lost in time decided to set the words to the tune that we now use––a tune by a composer whose name has also been lost in time. But the words didn’t fit the tune, so he added the Alleluias to make it fit. The perfect Easter hymn, then, came into being through the work of three different people who probably never met. It is unlikely that any of the three had any idea how much their hymn would add to our celebration of Easter.
P.S. Diana Robinson, who lives in that area, says that the Llanfair in question is the one on the island. The one on the mainland is Llanfairfechan.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan