Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Proper Hymn for St Anthony the Abbot

Here is an interesting and very typically medieval hymn for the feast of St Anthony the Abbot, composed in the 14th century. I stumbled across this in the Breviary according to the Use of Passau, Germany, printed at Augsburg in 1490; Passau is one of several churches in southern Germany that adopted this proper Office, which does not seem to have been very popular in other parts of Europe.

Antonii pro meritis,
Eiusque gestis inclitis,
Claris quoque virtutibus,
Exultet caelum laudibus.
For the merits of Anthony,
and his famous deeds,
and his glorious virtues,
let heaven exult with praises.
Natus ex digno genere,
Verbo puer et opere,
Festinavit ad meritum,
Deus, tuorum militum.
Born of a worthy family,
a child in word and deed,
he hastened to the merit
of thy soldiers, o God.
Tempus aetatis tenerae
Non deducebat temere,
Te diligendo intime,
Lucis creator optime.
Not rashly did he pass
the time of his tender age,
loving Thee deeply,
o great creator of the light.
Hic satanae blanditias
Contempsit et insidias,
Tuo fretus solatio,
Iesu, nostra redemptio.
He disdained the lures
and snares of Satan,
supported by Thy comfort,
o Jesus, our redemption.
Omni degebat tempore
Poenas ferens in corpore,
Memor tuorum operum,
Conditor alme siderum.
Every season he passed
bearing hardship in his body,
mindful of Thy works,
o holy creator of the stars.
Noctes orationibus
Deduxit et laboribus,
Nec cessavit ab opere
Iam lucis orto sidere.
He passed the nights
in labors and prayers,
nor ceased he from work
once the sun had risen.
Ieiuniis se macerans,
Verberibus se lacerans,
Desiderabat ingredi
Ad cœnam Agni providi.
Wearing himself away
with fasts and scourging,
he longed to enter
the banquet of the Lamb.
Virtutum tandem titulis
Imbutus et miraculis
Migravit ad te Dominum,
Iesu, corona virginum.
At last, filled with renown
for virtues and with miracles,
he passed to Thee, his Lord,
o Jesus, crown of Virgins.
Sit laus Patri cum Filio
Semper in caeli solio,
Nosque replendo caelitus,
Veni, creator Spiritus. Amen.
Be praise to the Father with the Son,
ever on the heavenly throne,
and filling us from heaven,
come, Creator Spirit. Amen.

St Anthony the Abbot, by Francisco de Zurbarán, ca. 1640
There are a few interesting things to note here. The hymn is an acrostic, the first letters of each stanza spelling his name as ANTHONIVS. (The H after the T is a common medieval variant, not found in the original Latin form of the name, or in Greek.) The meter is the iambic dimeter, that of the original hymns of St Ambrose and other early Christian poets, short and long syllables alternating four time for a total of eight. (Substitutions are very common, especially since vowel quantities were already weakened in the 5th century, and hardly perceived as such in the High Middle Ages.) As such, it can be sung in any one of a great many melodies, and may very well have been sung in more than one, according to the traditions of various churches.

Medieval hymnographers also loved the trick performed by the author of this hymn, in which the last line of each stanza is the title (i.e. first line) of another hymn. (A similarly constructed piece is sung in the Cisterican Office of St Bernard.) The hymns thus quoted are all from the repertoire generally found in all medieval Uses of the Office.

Exultet caelum laudibus - from the Common of Apostles
Deus, tuorum militum - from the Common of Martyrs
Lucis creator optime - from Sunday Vespers
Iesu, nostra redemptio - from the feast of the Ascension, pre-Urban VIII
Conditor alme siderum - from Vespers of Advent, pre-Urban VIII
Iam lucis orto sidere - the hymn of Prime
Ad cœnam Agni providi - from Vespers of Eastertide, pre-Urban VIII
Iesu, corona virginum - from the Common of Virgins
Veni, creator Spiritus - Pentecost

The difficulty of this trick is to integrate the titles into the words of a new composition in a new sense, and the results here are uneven. Some of the expressions in the vocative case, such as “Lucis creator optime,” could be interchanged with any of the others. (I do not say this as a critique of the author; medievals valued originality far less than we do.) “Deus, tuorum militum,” however, works very cleverly with the second stanza, as “Iam lucis orto sidere” does with the sixth. The citation of the Easter hymn in its original text, “Ad coenam Agni providi,” is the only real flaw, since in the original, the word “providi” does not modify “Agni”, but the main subject of the stanza, which appears in the fourth line. (“Ad coenam Agni providi, et stolis albis candidi, post transitum maris Rubri Christo canamus principi. - Looking forward to the banquet of the Lamb, and shining in white stoles, after the passing of the Red Sea, let us sing to Christ the prince.”) Here, “providi” is left marooned to modify “the Lamb”, who is now “looking forward” to no stated object; I have left it untranslated above.

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