Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Light in the Darkness: The Story of a Song


There is a song that has been sung since 200 CE, perhaps 150 CE.  For a song, that is a nearly unfathomable extent of time.  And precisely what makes it fascinating to me.

The song, written in Greek, is Phos Hilaron (Φως Ίλαρον), most commonly known in English as O Gladsome Light.  It has been called the first Christian hymn, because it is the first Christian music that does not contain verses from the Bible.  It was sung when lamps were lit at twilight.


Its great antiquity is documented by Basil of Caesarea (329-379 CE) who uses the very word “antiquity,” as well as “ancient form” when discussing the hymn (De Spiritu Sancto, 29:73).

And that’s only some 150 years into its history.

Sadly, we do not know what music was used at that time, only the words survive.  Neumes for music notation would not be invented for another 600 years.

The words however, were translated, spread widely, and found new music.  The song found expression in Byzantine chants, ancient Armenian liturgy, and Russian Orthodox Znamenny chant.

In the West, its history is temporarily obscured by the Dark Ages, but it survived.

Since then, the song has been adopted and adapted by a wide variety of Christian denominations.

In the 1500s, John Calvin expressed the opinion that psalms should be sung by the entire congregation, not just a small group of performers.  He supervised the creation of the Genevan Psalter, a collection of psalms to be sung by everyone.  The book contains music for a text called the Song of Simeon, also known as Nunc dimittis.  The music was written by Louis Bourgeois in 1549.  Here it is in the 1565 edition of Les Pseaumes de David.

Nunc Dimittis_Les Pseaumes de David Clemen Marot THeodorus Beze 1565

When Robert Bridges (1844-1830) translated the Greek text of Phos hilaron into English, he found the Bourgeois version of Nunc dimittis to be a perfect fit, and this version, now called O Gladsome Light, may be found in a number of hymnals.  Here it is sung by the incomparable Cambridge Singers under John Rutter.

The text was also used by Tchaikovsky, Gretchaninoff, and Rachmaninoff in their Vespers (All-Night Vigil) and is called Gentle light, or Svyetye tikhiy.

Here is Gretchaninoff’s, a gem.

In the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote music for a group of four hymns, the last being O Gladsome Light, here called Evening Hymn.

From 200 to 2015 and beyond, these ancient words will continue to be a source of inspiration to composers.  Here is Gladsome Light in the original Greek, as set in Vespers by Stelio Scordilis.



Phos Hilaron, Wikipedia article,

Basil of Caesarea, Wikipedia article,

The Sacred Writings of Saint Basil, published by Jazzybee Verlag, 2012.

Genevan Psalter, Wikipedia article,

O Gladsome Light, for information on Robert Bridges,


Image attribution

Icon of St. Basil the Great from the
St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev, 11th Century, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Genevan Psalter.  Whole book may be found at

Displayed page may be found at


6 thoughts on “Light in the Darkness: The Story of a Song

  1. The Gretchaninoff is a revelation. Beautiful. The Vaughan Williams has the melody hinted at in the violin, interesting choice. Carl Schalk’s humble setting stands up to the others quite nicely, and is accessible to small choirs. Too bad someone hasn’t posted a performance of that setting. Hmm. . . . .


  2. Nicely done! Let’s say, “story of a text,” since as you say we haven’t the faintest idea of the original music. Yet another classic case of (in this case) “keep the words, change the tune.”



  3. Magnificent! I did not know of it…the tracing of a text, to it’s parallel tune from later, traced down through time, BRAVO! Congratulations! My humble knowledge of Greek barely surfaces PHOS HILARON–what richness has been presented in such a short space! Thank you!


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