Monday, March 05, 2012

Christe Qui Lux es et Dies - An Ancient Hymn for Compline during Lent

The Gospel of the Transfiguration, which was read this past Saturday, the Ember Saturday of Lent, and resumed yesterday at the Mass of the second Sunday of Lent gives me the opportunity to present an ancient hymn for Compline glorifying Christ as Light of the World.

This hymn, Christe qui lux es et dies, used to be sung for Compline during Lent but was not retained by the Roman Breviary; remember, as the word itself suggests, that the Breviary is an abbreviation of the ancient choral office in order to get all the divine office in a convenient book easy to carry; the Roman Breviary - whose first realization seems to be the work of clerks of the papal chapel under Pope Innocent III (1198 - 1216) - has, for instance, simplified the office of Compline as well as vespers during Lent.

However, this Compline hymn was kept by many diocesan or religious uses and rites (e.g. Sarum, Worcester, Paris, Cambrai, Tours, Utrecht, Tongeren, Salzburg, Aachen, Mainz, Esztergom, Benevento, Dominican, Augustinian, etc.), usually for Lent. This widespread might be explained, in my view, by the antiquity of that hymn. Indeed, Christe qui lux es et dies is already cited in the Rule for the Virgins written around 500 AD by St. Caesarius of Arles, and has already the function of hymn for Compline during the whole year, outside the Easter time (during this time an other hymn is sung: Christe precamur annue). This beautiful hymn has long been attributed to saint Ambrose (cf. Pat. Lat. 17, 1176-1177), unfortunately, its real author remains unknown. The rhythmic construction is however the same as in the hymns of St. Ambrose.

The adoption of the Roman liturgy in the Carolingian Empire was accompanied by widespread dissemination of the Rule of St. Benedict, according to a canon of the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle in 817 held under Louis the Pious:

111. Ut officium juxta quod in regula sancti Benedicti continetur celebrent monachi.
(cf. Labbe, Concilia, t. VII, c. 1505; Baluze, Capitul., I, c. 579).

Yet there was a significant synthesis of the Benedictine hymnarium (where the hymn at Compline is Te lucis ante terminum) & the Gallican one, as shown in several manuscripts of these times. For instance, the manuscript 2106 of Darmstadt (which might be from the VIIIth or IXth century) gives: "Ad completorium Christe qui lux es et dies, item ad completorium Te lucis ante terminum". Saint Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester, gives the same in his rule for monks in 963.

Of course there are some variations in the manuscripts, but in general the chant of this hymn is built around a very quiet and meditative minor third (D-F) of the second tone. Here is the chant found in the books of choirs of Notre-Dame of Paris dated 1300:

Here is a English translation of the iambic dimeters of Christe qui lux es et dies:

Christ, who art the light and day,
You drive away the darkness of night,
You are called the light of light,
For you proclaim the blessed light.

We beseech you, Holy Lord,
Protect us this night.
Let us take our rest in you;
Grant us a tranquil night.

Let our sleep be free from care;
Let not the enemy snatch us away,
Nor flesh conspire within him,
And make us guilty in your sight.

Though our eyes be filled with sleep,
Keep our hearts forever awake to you.
May your right hand protect
Your willing servants.

You who are our shield, behold;
Restrain those that lie in wait.
And guide your servants whom
You have ransomed with your blood.

Remember us, O Lord,
Who bear the burden of this mortal form;
You who are the defender of the soul,
Be near us, O Lord.

Glory be to God the Father,
And to his only Son,
With the Spirit, Comforter,
Both now and evermore. Amen.

The Dominican Chant is almost the same of the Parisian one, just one note differs: D instead of C at the beginning of the second verse (also, the perielesis at he end of the intonation is a typical Parisian tradition). Here is a further evidence of the relationship of these two rites. In the Dominican use, a genuflection is made while singing "Quos sanguine mercatus es".

The chant of Sarum can be found in the website Music of the Sarum Rite: Dominica prima Quadragesima, p. 855.

Several composers have set this hymn in music. Here are the beautiful alternating polyphonic verses written by Robert White (c. 1538 † 1574), they are sung here with the Sarum chant:

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