T THE CLOSE of Vespers on the first night of the 2019 Sacred Music Symposium, hosted in Los Angeles by Corpus Christi Watershed and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), we learned what has quickly become one of my favorite hymn tunes, GONFALON ROYAL. Vigorous and tremendously fulfilling to sing, GONFALON ROYAL first appeared in a 1913 collection entitled Fourteen Hymn Tunes by British composer and organist Sir Percy Carter Buck (1871-1947). In addition to his work as a church musician, Buck was the director of music at London’s Harrow School for boys, as well as a professor of music at various universities, including the University of Oxford, the University of London, Trinity College Dublin, and the Royal College of Music. His scholarship includes books on organ technique, harmony, and acoustics, as well contributions to Oxford University Press’ Tudor Church Music and the Oxford History of Music. Buck’s tune serves as an excellent example of the concept of “melodic compensation,” a principle of 18th-century counterpoint which states that a large melodic skip in one direction should be counterbalanced by an immediate step or skip in the opposite direction.
The word “gonfalon” (from the early Italian confalone) means “flag,” “banner,” or “standard,” and indeed the tune was given the name GONFALON ROYAL because of its association with Venantius Fortunatus’ (c. 540-c. 600) famous Latin hymn text Vexilla regis, known in its English translation as “The Royal Banners Forward Go.” Such banners, especially popular in medieval Italy, were often carried in ceremonial processions marking major liturgical feasts or the feasts of local saints. These cloths, usually made of canvas and decorated with oil or tempura paint, featured depictions of Jesus Christ, the Holy Cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary, local patron saints of villages and confraternities, or other religious imagery. Nowadays, Vexilla regis is prescribed for feasts of the Cross such as the Exultation of the Holy Cross (on September 14), and for Holy Week.
Here’s the Vexilla regis pairing from the Brébeuf hymnal, #528:
But “The Royal Banners Forward Go” is not the only text for which GONFALON ROYAL can be suitably employed. It is known under other hymn titles, such as “Sing to the Lord a Joyful Song” and “O Lord Most High, Eternal King.” Of course, because the tune fits any hymn text in “long meter” (88 88 LM), it is tremendously flexible. In fact, GONFALON ROYAL is matched to more than a dozen different texts in the St. Jean de Brébeuf hymnal, including texts for: Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and All Saints Day; for feasts of the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Cross, and the Holy Name of Jesus; and to texts appropriate for general use. It is a tune which your choirs and congregations will be happy to know and happy to sing as it reoccurs throughout the liturgical year.
Here’s a GONFALON ROYAL pairing with Rex sempiterne, a “general use” hymn which can also be used during Eastertide:
To my fellow church musicians: may we all carry our banners bravely forward, continuing our work faithfully—in ways small as well as large—for the glorification of God and the edification and sanctification of the faithful.