Virgin Great and Glorious

This is a hymn about Mary.  It is based on a work by church Father, theologian, poet and hymn-writer, Ephraim the Syrian (c.306-73).

The English-language text has meter, or  with refrain depending on the version use.

The earliest located publication of this text is in the English-produced New Catholic Hymnal (Faber, 1971).   The text is attributed to Jeremy Ashton, and set to the tune ORIENTIS PARTIBUS with the melody attributed to Pierre de Corbeil (d 1222) and harmonised by Geoffrey Laycock.

In 1977, it was included in the Australian Hymn Book, which was published by an ecumenical committee with representatives from the Anglican (Church of England), Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches (ref) - this hymn was included in both the original edition, and the "with supplement" version published following Roman Catholic input.   This also used the tune  ORIENTIS PARTIBUS, and has an arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams )1872-1958).  The book notes that this is a Mediaeval French traditional melody from the Office of Pierre de Corbeil ? - 1222.  Other sources say that the tune was used for  “Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus” - translated as "From the East the ass has come" - a hymn praising the ass which Mary rode from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  This was part of the Fete de l’Ane (The Donkey’s Festival) which celebrated the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and was a regular Christmas observance in Beauvais and Sens, France in the 13th century.

The hymn was also included in a folk-oriented Roman Catholic hymn collection published in Christchurch, New Zealand in the 1970s (ref).  The tune used here has not been confirmed, but is likely to be ORIENTIS PARTIBUS.

In 2003, E C Shirmer Music of Boston, USA published a setting composed by American Roman Catholic organist and composer Leo Nestor (1948-2019).  This was composed in 1999, commissioned by the choir of the Cathedral of the Madeliene in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.   This uses Aston's verses, and includes a chorus attributed to the Dominican Nuns of Summit, New Jersey, USA.  The tune is not named in this version, and is described as "variations after a Basque melody" - later recordings have called the tune BASQUE FESTIVAL SONG.    This version has been included is in the fourth edition of the St Michael Hymnal (2011), and is most commonly used in recordings.

In 2007, American musician Henry Doktorski included it in a CD of hymns about Mary played on the accordion,  The tune used is not confirmed but is likely to be BASQUE FESTIVAL SONG (ref).

Details about the translator, Jeremy Ashton, are sparse.    The New Catholic Hymnal gives no further information about him, and notes itself as the copyright contact.    The inclusion of the hymn in the Australian Hymn Book suggested that he may have been an Anglican bishop from the diocese of Bendigo:  This Jeremy Ashton was an Anglican priest and an assisted migrant from England who arrived in Australia in 1960, then went fairly quickly to Papua New Guinea as a missionary.  He worked there for 26 years (ref) - and there is no suggestion in descriptions of his work that he was a scholar, translator or hymn-writer.  So it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that the work is his.


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Choir with organ - recorded during a Lessons and Carols service:

Choir with organ - professional recording:

Organ and cantor / choir - recorded in a church service:

Instrumental - piano, tune ORIENTUS PARTIBUS:


The lyrics are copyright so cannot be reproduced here. But they are currently available on this website. A rough outline is:
1 Virgin great and glorious, bearing God?s own Son for us ...

Ave mater Domini!
Filium laudemus Dei!

2 How can human voices raise honour worthy of your praise? ...

3 God has graced you evermore through his Son, whom hosts adore; ...

4 Blessed Virgin, full of grace, noblest of the human race ...

See more ...

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