Tuesday, October 04, 2022

A Proper Hymn of St Francis of Assisi

Here is a nice recording of the hymn for 2nd Vespers of St Francis, taken from the proper Office composed for him shortly after his canonization, and used ever since then by the Franciscan Order.

Decus morum, dux Minorum,
Franciscus tenens bravium,
In te vite datur vitae,
Christe, redemptor omnium.
The glory of our way, the leader of the
Friars Minor, / Francis, holding his prize,
is given to life in Thee, the Vine,
O Christ, Redeemer of all.
Plaudat frater, regnat pater
Concivis caeli civibus;
Cedat fletus, psallat coetus,
Exsultet caelum laudibus.
Our brother hails, our father reigns
a fellow with heaven’s citizens;
Let weeping end, let the chorus sing,
Let heaven exult in praise.
Demptum solo, datum polo
Signorum probant opera;
Ergo vivit, nam adivit
Aeterna Christi munera.
His works of wonder prove that he is
Taken from earth, given to heaven;
Therefore he lives, for he entered
The eternal gifts of Christ.
Pro terrenis votis plenis
Reportat dona gloriae;
Quem decoras, quem honoras,
Summae Deus clementiae.
For the fullness of his prayers on earth
He receives the gifts of glory,
Whom Thou grace and honor,
O God greatest mercy.
Hunc sequantur, huic iungantur
Qui ex Aegypto exeunt,
In quo duce, clara luce,
Vexilla Regis prodeunt.
Let them follow him, and be joined to
him / Who march out of Egypt;
With him as leader, in bright light
The standards of the King go forth.
Regis signum ducem dignum
Insignit manu, latere;
Lux accedit, nox recedit,
Iam lucis orto sidere.
The sign of the king marks him on his
Side and hand as a worthy guide;
The light comes, the night departs,
When the star of day has risen.
Est dux fidus, clarum sidus,
Ducit, relucet, devia
Devitando, demonstrando
Beata nobis gaudia.
He is a trusty guide, a bright star
He leads, he shines, avoiding
The wrong path, showing
Blessed joys to us.
Mina gregem dux ad regem
Collisor hostis callidi,
Nos conducas et inducas,
Ad cœnam Agni providi. Amen.
Bring the flock to the king, our leader,
Who dash down the clever enemy;
May thou lead and bring us
To the banquet of the Lamb. Amen.

The Franciscan Office of their Holy Founder was composed by a German member of the order, Julian of Speyer, roughly ten years after the Saint’s death, and is one of the best known examples of a later type of Office known as a “rhymed office.” This particular hymn, however, was apparently added to it by Cardinal Thomas of Capua (1185-1239), Archbishop of Naples and a notary in the Papal court at the time St Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX. (The highly compressed rhyme scheme puts an accurate and poetic translation far beyond my literary skills.)

Rhyme itself was not used by the ancient Greeks or Romans, and where it occurred it was considered a blemish on poetry. Verse was formed by the alternation of long and short syllables in regular patterns; the iambic pentameter used so much by Shakespeare is broadly similar. (His type of English poetry is however much freer than Latin verse.) An example of this type of poetry in the liturgy is an antiphon found in the Office of St Peter in Chains on August 1st.

Aña Solve, jubente Deo, terrarum, Petre, catenas,
Qui facis ut pateant caelestia regna beatis.

Release at God’s order, o Peter, the earthly chains
Who make the kingdom of heaven open to the blessed.

These two lines are written in dactylic hexameters, the same metrical form used in the epic poetry of Homer and Virgil; they were composed by Pope St Leo I, (440-61) and inscribed on a wall of the ancient church of St Peter.

As the Latin language evolved into the modern Romance languages, the vowel quantities on which ancient poetry was based came to be less and less perceptible, leading over the centuries to the emergence of rhyme as we understand it today. (The older forms, on the hand, never ceased to be used.) By the High Middle Ages, this new type of poetry had become extremely popular in the liturgy. Four of the five sequences in the Roman Missal (Lauda Sion on Corpus Christi, Veni Sancte Spiritus on Pentecost, Stabat Mater on the feast of the Seven Sorrows, and the Dies irae of the Requiem Mass) are in rhyme. Likewise, whole Offices were routinely composed in which all of the proper musical parts, (antiphons, hymns and responsories), are rhymed.

Julian of Speyer is considered one of the great masters of this type of liturgical composition, and the rhymed offices which he wrote for St Francis and St Anthony of Padua were widely imitated from his own time (he died in about 1250) until the Tridentine liturgical reform, when rhymed offices fell out of favor. Many continued to be used by the older religious orders, and churches which maintained their own proper Offices, but the newer orders, in the spirit of the Tridentine reform, preferred to base their proper Offices on Scriptural quotations. Thus, for example, the five antiphons used by the Oratorians at Lauds of St Philip Neri are all quotations from the Bible, while the proper hymns are all written in thoroughly classical meter. (The Jesuits, unsurprisingly, do not even have a proper Office for St Ignatius.)

The disfavor into which rhymed offices fell is also a by-product of the increasingly common habit in the Tridentine period of reciting the Office in choir recto tono, i.e. singing everything on a single note, rather than with its longer, proper notation. This manner of saying the Office makes the sing-song quality of the medieval rhyme schemes far more obvious; most people would agree that the Dies irae, for example, sounds much better when sung then when read. The recording of the hymn above shows very nicely how the proper musical notation transcends the rhyme scheme.

Medieval hymnographers also loved the trick used in 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 Cistercian Office of St Bernard.) The hymns thus quoted are all from the repertoire generally found in all medieval Uses of the Office.

Christe redemptor omnium - from Vespers of Christmas, pre-Urban VIII
Exultet caelum laudibus - from the Common of Apostles
Aeterna Christi munera - from the Common of Apostles
Summae Deus clementiae - from ferial Matins of Saturday, pre-Urban VIII
Vexilla Regis - from Vespers of Passiontide
Iam lucis orto sidere - the hymn of Prime
Beata nobis gaudia - from Lauds of Pentecost
Ad cœnam Agni providi - from Vespers of Eastertide, pre-Urban VIII

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 quite good. Some of the expressions in the vocative case, such as “Lucis creator optime,” could be interchanged with any of the others, but I do not say this as a critique of the author; medievals valued originality far less than we do. “Aeterna Christi munera,” however, works very cleverly with the third stanza, as do “Vexilla Regis prodeunt” with the fifth and “Beata nobis gaudia” with the seventh.

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. The exact same flaw occurs in a hymn to St Anthony the Abbot constructed in the same way, which I have written about previously.

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