For terms and their definitions, please see the associated Glossary which accompanies this compendium.
Compendium of the Reforms of the Roman Breviary, 1568-1961
by Gregory DiPippo
for publication on the New Liturgical Movement
Part 4 - 1629: The Hymns of Urban VIII
In the context of the Divine Office, ‘hymnus’ means a metrically composed song, arranged in strophes, or ‘stanzas’ in the modern musical terminology derived from Italian. They are relative late-comers to the public worship of the Church; they were not accepted into general use in the Office at Rome until the 13th century, and were never adopted into the oldest forms of the Divine Office, Tenebrae, Easter, and the Office of the Dead. However, the complete rejection of them by the Council of Braga in 563, for example, or by Agobard of Lyon in the mid-9th century, is clearly a minority opinion. The approval of them by Saint Benedict in his Rule guaranteed that they must eventually become a constituent part of the Office, and one of the chief criticisms of Cistercians made in their earliest days was precisely the fact that they made notable changes to the well-established corpus of hymns.
Saint Benedict’s term for a hymn is ‘ambrosianum’, because it was Saint Ambrose who introduced their use into the West, in the famous episode of the Portian Basilica. (See the Confessions of Saint Augustine , book 9, chapter 7, and Paulinus’ Life of Saint Ambrose, chapter 13.) For this reason, a very large number of the commonly used hymns of the Office are attributed to him, while others were said to be the work of Saints Hilary of Poitiers or Gregory the Great. The great hymns of Passiontide are the work Saint Venantius Fortunatus, composed for the reception of some relics of the True Cross which his friend, Queen Radegund, received as a gift from the Byzantine Emperor and installed in the monastery of the Holy Cross at Poitier, where Venantius was bishop. The Vesperal hymn of Saints Peter and Paul, Aurea lucis was long attributed to Elpis, the legendary first wife of the philosopher Boethius, but this attribution, like so many others, is now rejected by the majority of liturgical scholars, (in the specific case of Elpis, because she did not exist.)
Poetry in the Latin and Greek classical tradition is not based on rhyme, which was considered a defect by the ancients, but on the length of syllables. The earliest Christian hymns in Latin, beginning with those of Saint Ambrose, were mostly composed in a meter called the iambic dimeter. The iamb consists of a short syllable followed by a long one, and is used in pairs; the first short syllable in a pair may be substituted by a long one. Other substitutions are also possible, making the dimeter, i.e. two pairs of iambs, quite flexible within a constant length of eight syllables. Other meters, such as the sapphic stanza, (named for its inventor, the poetess Sappho,) are also used. Each stanza of the iambic dimeter and the sapphic has four lines, as do most other meters, although a few have six.
Each hymn is concluded with a doxology, on the analogy of the Great Doxology “Glory be unto the Father”, which is sung in the Office at the end of every psalm and canticle. By the time of the Tridentine reform it had become the universal custom of the Western Rite to change the doxology according to the season, and feasts of the Virgin had a special doxology as well. Thus, for example, from Christmas day to the vigil of the Epiphany, the common doxology “Praesta, Pater piissime,” was everywhere substituted by “Gloria tibi, Domine, / qui natus es de Virgine.” (Glory to you, O Lord, that wast born of the Virgin.)
The medieval Church produced a truly vast number of hymns. A German-produced catalog of hymns written from 500 to 1400 A.D., the Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi, was printed in 55 volumes over the course of fourty years, 1886 to 1926; the first volume, containing hymns written in Bohemia from the 13th to 15th centuries, has over 200 entries. However, the Church of Rome, as mentioned before, took a long time to accept the use of hymns in the Office, and in its habitual liturgical conservatism, adopted fewer of them than other medieval Rites. The hymns of Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline are the same every day of the year. Each of the great seasons, such as Advent or Lent, has three proper hymns, one for Matins, one for Lauds and one for Vespers. Many major feasts, however, such as Christmas and the Epiphany, have only two, the hymn of either Vespers or Lauds being sung also at Matins.
A similar conservatism is found among the hymns of the Saints. Of the 39 Saints named in the Roman Canon, (apart from the Virgin Mary) only John the Baptist and the Apostles Peter and Paul have their own hymns; all the rest have hymns taken from the common offices. Of the seven common offices of Saints, only that of Several Martyrs has a separate hymn for each of the three major hours. The Virgin Mary’s common office, adapted from the Office of the Assumption, also has three hymns, which are used on nearly all of Her feasts, in the Saturday Office, and in the Little Office as well.
As a result, some of the finest gems of medieval hymnody are not found in the historical Roman Rite, such as the Christmas hymn, Veni, Redemptor gentium, the Easter hymn, Chorus novae Jerusalem, the hymn of the Assumption, O quam glorifica, and the hymn of St. Stephen, Sancte Dei pretiose; all of these are commonly found in most other medieval breviaries. The use of Sarum, which predominated in pre-Reformation England , has four more hymns for Lent than the Roman use: a proper hymn for Compline, sung throughout the season, and different hymns for Matins, Lauds and Vespers of the third and fourth week. Greater variety of this sort is typical of non-Roman breviaries before Trent.
It would be unfair, however, to ascribe the relative paucity of hymns in the Roman Breviary to mere laziness or lack of interest. Any medieval collection of hymns, whatever its size, is in the final analysis highly repetitive; a limited corpus of hymns makes them easier to learn by heart, no small matter in an age in which books were not cheap to produce. The two hymns of the Common of Apostles, sung on all of the Apostles’ feasts, originated in Rome as hymns for the feast of the Roman Church’s founders, Saints Peter and Paul. By singing these hymns on the feasts of all of the Apostles, the Church signifies the unity of their evangelizing work, and the unity of the peoples throughout the world brought by them to Christ.
The corpus of hymns in the breviary of 1529 is carried over into the Pian breviary almost identically; as with the antiphons, the exceptions are mostly cases where the entire office of a particular feast is changed. Such is the case with the feast of the Holy Trinity, for which one Office was substituted with a different, earlier Office, and with the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, which had four proper hymns, (Matins, Lauds, and both Vespers), but was removed from the Calendar by St. Pius V. It may seem, therefore, all the more remarkable that in 1629, Pope Urban VIII appointed a commission for the revision of the hymns, and after three years of work, promulgated a new hymnal for use in the Roman Breviary, the last substantial revision of the Breviary until the reform of the Psalter in 1911.
Prior to his election to the papacy in 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini had been well known as a scholar and a Latinist; a book of his Latin poems written before his election was published in 1637, and the Latin epigrams on the bases of two of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculptures are also his work. As Pope, he personally composed the hymns of Saints Hermenegild, Martina and Elizabeth of Portugal, all in various classical meters, rather than in iambic dimeters. To him, as to many Latinists of the Renaissance before him, the simple diction of the traditional hymns, their disregard for the rules of classical metrics, and especially the large number of later Latin words not used by the great classical authors such as Virgil and Horace, or even an occasional non-Latin word, could only seem as blemishes on the public prayer of the Church. The job of the commission, therefore, was to conform the hymns to the vocabulary and metric forms of classical Latin poetry.
The commission consisted of four Jesuits, three Italians and a Pole, but Pope Urban appears to have done much of the work himself, although the precise degree of his contribution has been disputed. In the course of their work, hardly a single hymn was left untouched, notwithstanding their antiquity or the sanctity of their authors. The hymns of St. Ambrose, to whom far more were attributed at the time than modern scholars will now grant, had been in more or less continuous use in the Church for over 12 centuries. Even the magnificent Passiontide hymns of St. Venantius were substantially reworked.
In his History of the Roman Breviary, Msgr. Pierre Batiffol gives an example of the reformed text of the hymns, the very first hymn of the ecclesiastical year, Conditor alme siderum, placed side by side with the revised version of the same, without commentary. Following his example, it may be beneficial to examine a few of the specific changes made to this hymn, as examples of the work of Pope Urban and his commission.
The first stanza of the original reads:
Conditor alme siderum,
Aeterna lux credentium
Christe, Redemptor omnium,
Exaudi preces supplicum.
(Kindly creator of the stars, / Eternal light of believers, / Christ, redeemer of all, / Hear the prayer of your suppliants.)
The revised version of the same stanza reads:
Creator alme siderum,
Aeterna lux credentiuum,
Jesu, Redemptor omnium,
Intende votis supplicum.
The change of cónditor, accented on the first syllable, to creator, accented on the second, is more in keeping with the classical form of an iamb; it also avoids all possibility of misreading the word as condítor, although we may safely hope that few people in the preceding centuries thought they were addressing the “kindly embalmer of the stars”. The change of Christe to Jesu likewise conforms the verse to a more classical understanding of the iamb, although Christian poetry had always been much more flexible about the arrangement of syllables. Intende votis in place of Exaudi preces is also a metrical correction, and could not be a more perfect example of the exchange of a Christian Latin expression for a Ciceronian one.
The penultimate stanza of this same hymn begins with the words “Te deprecamur, Hagie, / Venture Judex saeculi,” – “we beseech Thee, o holy one, / judge of the world that art to come.” Hagie is Greek for sancte, the vocative of sanctus, and was commonly used in medieval Christian Latin. It is here chosen because its extra syllable neatly finishes the eight-syllable line of the iambic dimeter. The unknown 9th century author probably did not know, and certainly would not have cared if he did, that all three syllables of Hagie are short, where the fifth syllable of an iambic dimeter should, according to the classical rules, be long. It is a Greek word, the use of which is peculiarity of the Greek-born Christian tradition, alien to the prose of Cicero and the poetry of Horace and Ovid. The two verses are therefore revised to read:
“Te deprecamur ultimae / magnum diei judicem,” – “we beseech Thee as the great judge of the last day.”
Examples of this sort could be multiplied at great length; apart from its doxology, the new version of Conditor alme siderum alone changes all but 15 words of the original sixty-four, and half of the 15 are in the first stanza. All together, there are several hundred metrical corrections in the hymnal, and some hymns, such as the two of the Dedication of a Church, and the three of Eastertide, were so drastically rewritten as to constitute entirely different works. The hymn of Saint Michael’s day, Tibi Christe, splendor Patris, was completely altered in both text and meter.
Although the new hymns became the standard text of the Roman Breviary, and remain so to this day in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, they were not everywhere received. The chapters of many major churches retained the use of the older hymns, not least among them that of Saint Peter’s Basilica itself. None of the religious orders which retained the use of their proper breviaries after Trent, such as the Premonstratensians, ever adopted the new text, nor did any of the monastic breviaries. Less than twenty years later, in 1647, the Cistercian abbot-general Claude Vaussin brought about a thorough revision of his Order’s liturgical books, but rejected the new hymns; this, despite the fact that his reason for reforming the books was to stave off a movement within the order to abandon the Benedictine use altogether in favor of the liturgical books of St. Pius V.
Since the days of Dom Guéranger, liturgical scholarship has been as unsparing in its criticism of the Urban VIII revision as the religious orders were unwelcoming of it. Msgr. Batiffol calls the new hymns “deformed”, likening them to the broken ancient statues discovered in Rome, which “the Barberini … and many others restored …, attaching to them new limbs which are a greater disfigurement to them than all the mutilations inflicted on them by the rude hand of time.” (p. 221) Fr. Adrian Fortescue is equally, characteristically severe. In the preface to a 1916 collection of Latin hymns and English translations by Alan G. McDougall, he writes (p. 27-28) “Whatever good the Renaissance may have done in other ways, there can be no question that it was…disastrous to Christian hymns. There came the time when no one could conceive anything but the classical meters and classical language. So they wrote frigid imitations of classical lyrics… There is nothing to be done with this stuff but to glance at it, shudder, and pass on. … (T)hose absurd Renaissance people did not realize that, because an original is beautiful, it does not follow that a bad imitation will be.” But not even Fr. Fortescue’s barbs can match the oft-quoted witticism of Pope Urban’s contemporaries, many of whom were less than impressed by the new hymns: “Accessit latinitas, recessit pietas. – Latinity came in, piety went out.”
The 1970 Liturgy of the Hours
There is a popular misconception that the new Liturgy of the Hours promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970 restored the hymns to their pre-Urban VIII text. This is only very partially true. It is true that the older text was the basis of the reform, and that most of what was done under Pope Urban did not find its way into the post-Conciliar version of the hymnal. In this sense, the criticism of Msgr. Batiffol and Fr. Fortescue, among many others, have been amply vindicated. However, a very large number of changes were made to the older texts by the committee responsible for a new selection and revision of the hymns.
In the year 1984, Dom Anselmo Lentini, O.S.B., the head of the committee published a very informative dossier of its work called Te decet hymnus, noting in the introduction that, of the numerous committees that produced the new liturgy, his was almost the only one to publish a complete record of its activities. The hymns are arranged in an order similar to the order in the Breviary itself: hymns of the Psalter, of the liturgical seasons, the Proper of the Saints, and the common offices. Each hymn is accompanied by a critical apparatus, indicating its author and age, if known, its meter, the critical editions of the hymn, where available, and the breviaries in which it was used after the Tridentine reform, where applicable. There then follow notes on the changes to the original text made by the committee.
As in the work of Pope Urban VIII, metrical corrections abound in the newest version of the hymnal; as a general rule, they are less intrusive than those of the 17th century, and the modern revisers clearly had a better understanding of medieval poetry. Many of the corrections are justified in the critical notes as rendering the hymns easier to sing; for example, a verse of the Christmas hymn Christe, Redemptor omnium, is changed from “Memento, salutis auctor” to “Salutis auctor, recole.” I cannot say from experience that this does in fact render the line easier to sing. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that the original version was sung five times a day every day for centuries in the hymn for the minor hours of the Little Office of the Virgin.
The vocabulary of the hymns is also retouched, although with much less severity, and much better taste, than in the 17th century reform. The line cited above from the Vesper hymn of Advent, “Te deprecamur, Hagie”, is re-written “Te, Sancte, fide quaesumus,” a metrical correction that eliminates the use of a Greek word branded “exotic” in the critical notes, although it was still being used by the Benedictines, Dominicans and others even as the committee did its work. Some of these changes are motivated by external factors. With the suppression of the Church’s discipline of Lenten fasting, the Latin word for fasting, ‘jejunium’, is removed from the original text of the traditional hymns of Lent, substituted by ‘abstinentia’.
Many of the hymns are shortened by the elimination of entire stanzas, “for the sake of brevity”, as the critical notes state repeatedly. The Christmas hymn Veni, Redemptor gentium is added to the repertoire of hymns for Advent, but without its fifth strophe. In the recording of this very beautiful hymn by the Schola Gregoriana Magyar, this strophe is sung in 17 seconds; in the Dominican chant, it takes a full 28 seconds.
The repertoire of hymns is very considerably expanded. For example, the new Liturgy of the Hours has nine proper hymns for Lent, two each for Matins (now known as the Office of Readings), Lauds and Vespers, and proper hymns for the minor hours of Terce, Sext and None. (Prime is of course suppressed in the new Office.) The great defect of Te decet hymnus is that it indicates which hymns or versions of hymns were used in post-Tridentine, non-Roman breviaries, but does not say anything about the pre-Tridentine sources from which hymns which have been added. The three Lenten hymns of the minor hours are noted as “author unknown, at least of the 8th century”, but no indication is given as to where and when they were actually used, if anywhere.
This rearrangement of the traditional order of the hymns is the origin of a number of oddities. Veni, Redemptor gentium was in use in four surviving proper breviaries in 1961; it had been used in almost all pre-Tridentine breviaries as well. In almost all of them it was sung at Vespers of Christmas, not in Advent. The three classic hymns of the Virgin Mary originated in the ancient Roman Office of the Assumption, from which the common Office is derived; in the Liturgy of the Hours, they are found in the common, but not on the Assumption. O quam glorifica was used on the feast of the Assumption by those churches which had it; it is now placed on the feast of Our Lady’s Queenship, and the Assumption has three completely different hymns. The hymn Agnoscat omne saeculum, traditionally attributed to St. Venantius, was used in some German breviaries and in Liège as a hymn of Christmas; it is now assigned to the Annunciation, which is no longer a feast of Our Lady.
There are also a very large number of new compositions; in several cases, they were made even where a welter of ancient hymns was ready available to chose from. The hymns of Christmas Matins, of the feast of the Holy Trinity, (which has two proper hymns in the Dominican Breviary) of Lauds of St. Bernard (who has three proper hymns in the Cistercian Breviary) are all newly made especially for the Liturgy of the Hours. As mentioned before, the hymns of the common of Apostles began as Roman hymns for the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, and were used on the feasts of all the Apostles. In the new breviary, each Apostle, apart from Peter and Paul, gets a new proper hymn at Lauds; with the sole exception of Saint Andrew, they are all new compositions.
The very last thing in Te decet hymnus is an index of the authors; the single most represented author, by a margin of four-to-one over second-place Prudentius, and almost five-to-one over third-place St. Ambrose: Dom Anselmo Lentini, O.S.B.
-- Copyright (c) Gregory DiPippo, 2009
To read previous installments in this series, see: Compendium of the Reforms of the Roman Breviary, 1568-1961