O, friends of wisdom,
Let us gather together
And name those things that
We all hold so dear:
Beauty with simplicity,
And without softness.
Our talent is used
To accomplish deeds: this, our
Our noble venture;
And proper is our pride in
What we have achieved.
And our hope is great,
The achievement is worthy,
Yea, our hope is great.
The words above are a translation from ancient Greek of a song called “Sophias.” It is one of the traditional songs of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. And its origins span the globe.
As a preface, let me tell you a little about a college tradition. On a dark night each October, the Bryn Mawr freshman class, wearing black academic robes, gathers in the courtyard of a building that looks like it could be found on the set of a Harry Potter movie.
Sophomores file in, singing a hymn to Athena, goddess of wisdom, in Greek, as a candle-lit lantern is placed behind each freshman (see a little here). When all the lanterns have been bestowed, the freshman take up their lanterns and all the students (and alumnae observing in the background) sing “Sophias”. It is haunting, mysterious, and wonderful. Even when sung without academic robes.
In the early years of the college, the tradition was for each freshman class to come up with its own Lantern Night song. The Class of 1889 came up with “Sophias”. Later, it became one of the permanent Lantern Night songs, along with the hymn to Athena (contribution of the class of 1893).1
The words were extracted from Thucydides’s account of Pericles’s Funeral Oration, as found in The Peloponnesian War (Book 2, Chapter 40)2 …because everyone has common knowledge of that, and ancient Greek, and thinks, “hey, you know what would be good for our song?” Right? Sure. But that’s the kind of place Bryn Mawr is. I recall attending a lantern-lit funeral for a pet goldfish involving orations in Greek and English (oddly, modern English) before solemn interment in a tiny grave dug with a spoon that may have been liberated from the cafeteria.
And now for the Russian content (and the classical music content—thank you for your patience). The melody was written by Alexei Fyodorovich Lvov. He was a Russian composer and violinist who was friends with Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. His string quartet regularly held private concerts for Russian aristocracy, and guest performers at these concerts included Liszt, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Berlioz.3 In “Sophias,” Bryn Mawr students used Lvov’s religious work, “Of Thy Mystical Supper” (“Вечери Твоея тайныя”), which can be heard here performed by an ensemble wearing period attire. Please note the bass, who sings the incredibly deep notes underpinning this beautiful piece of music.
Lvov is also known for composing the Russian Imperial Anthem, “God Save the Tsar” (“Боже, Царя храни”). In another interesting twist, this melody is regularly sung by students of the University of Pennsylvania as they sing the words to “Hail, Pennsylvania.”
- Bryn Mawr College Special Collections Facebook page, “Lantern Night Songs,” https://www.facebook.com/pg/Bryn-Mawr-College-Special-Collections-205274397222/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10151998179002223
- “Alexei Lvov”, Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexei_Lvov
Image attributions: Photographs by C. Gallant.