e-Literature

The Strife is O’er

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Sometimes a popular song (e.g., “Old Rugged Cross”) is born in a single flash of creativity by one inspired mind. But the Easter classic, “The Strife Is O’er,” developed in bits and pieces over three centuries, in three different countries, from the genius of at least four different men.
The story begins in the 1530’s, in the rural Italian village of Palestrina, where a little farm boy named Giovanni Pierluigi was peddling his produce in the streets, singing as he walked. The clear voice of the lad caught the attention of a choirmaster from Rome, who took him under his wing and mentored him.
By 1551, Pierluigi was directing the papal choir in Rome and distinguished himself by a prodigious output of new polyphonic sacred music. He added “da Palestrina” to his title, and today the world remembers him for his peerless choral compositions. A few years before his death in 1594, he wrote a Magnificat in the Third Mode, which contained two phrases of music we shall meet later.
Around the same time (no one really knows) an obscure monk in a German cloister labored over five Latin verses, a new Easter hymn which began, Finita iam sunt proelia [Now the battles are finished]. The anonymous poem was published in a 1695 hymn collection in Cologne, Germany.
In 1859, a scholarly English clergyman named Francis Pott was digging through medieval Latin texts looking for fresh material to translate for Anglican worship. Struck by the rugged exuberance of Finita iam sunt proelia, he created a strikingly memorable set of English verses from it. Pott published “The Strife Is O’er” in Hymns Fitted to the Order of Common Prayer in 1861.
Now it happened that Francis Pott also served on a landmark hymnological project: The preparation of the first Anglican hymnal, Hymns Ancient & Modern. William Henry Monk, the esteemed music editor of the hymnal (known today as the composer of “Abide With Me”), was fascinated by Pott’s translation and cobbled together a tune for it. First, he composed a prelude for the triple “Alleluia,” then inserted two fine phrases from Palestrina’s Magnificat, then repeated the first Palestrina phrase, and finally—closed by repeating the third “Alleluia” from the prelude.
The resulting hymn was published in Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1861, and to this day remains an Easter favorite across the English-speaking world. No doubt the tightly constructed triple phrases, close rhyme (air), and vivid echoes of the KJV (“death’s dread sting”) all helped to fix its place in the canon of great hymns. The dramatic imagery of the fourth stanza, (“closed the yawning gates of hell”) was omitted in the Mennonite Hymnal, perhaps for its questionable theology.
Above all, this song turns the ancient Christus Victor view of atonement into a triumphant shout of resurrection joy. Even as non-violent Christians, the battle language resonates with us. It is both Scriptural and deeply familiar to our daily journey. Oh grave, where is thy victory? Alleluia!