Saturday, March 11, 2023

A Hymn for Lent, Lost and Restored

The Roman tradition has always been very conservative about the use of hymns in the Divine Office. In most liturgical seasons, there are three proper hymns, one each for Matins, Lauds and Vespers, but many feasts, including some of the greatest solemnities (Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension etc.), have only two. In the Ordinal of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), the ancestor text of the breviary of St Pius V, Lent is an exception, since it has four hymns, one each for Matins and Lauds, but two for Vespers. Audi, benigne Conditor is said from Monday to Saturday, but Sunday Vespers has its own hymn, Aures ad nostras, an anonymous work first attested in a 10th century manuscript from the abbey of St Benedict on Monte Cassino.
The hymn Aures ad nostras in a breviary according to the Use of Esztergom, the primatial see of Hungary, 1523-24. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 8879)
St Pius V’s reform of the Roman breviary made very few alterations to the established repertoire of musical propers for the Office in all their genres (antiphons, responsories etc.) This hymn was therefore left in its place, with a small correction of the awkwardly arranged opening words (“Ad preces nostras Deitatis aures”), but otherwise unchanged.
In early 1588, Pope Sixtus V established the Sacred Congregation for Rites, and appointed as its first prefect Alfonso Gesualdo, archbishop of Conza in southern Campania, and uncle of the famous composer Carlo Gesualdo. As part of the preparatory work for new editions of the breviary and missal of St Pius, the cardinal wrote to various nuncios in Europe, asking them to canvas the learned men of their respective nations for suggestions as to what might be due for revision. The reports of two different nuncios (Prague and Madrid) contained the suggestion that Aures ad nostras be removed from the Office completely; another (Venice) suggested it be corrected, since its numerous metrical flaws made the Catholic Church look foolish to the Protestant heretics. [1]
This information comes from an article by a chant scholar and canon of the cathedral of Chartres, Fr Yves Delaporte, published in 1907. In the second part, he gives the following information from the notes of the commission that prepared the revised breviary which Pope Clement VIII promulgated in 1602. “The hymn Ad preces nostras... has been removed; it seemed inept in both its choice of words and phrasing, was put together with no account of (metrical) feet or syllables, and further, was superfluous, since in all offices, the same hymn is said at both Vespers, and no other solemn observance... has more then three hymns.” [2]
In the post-Conciliar Rite, however, it has been restored to use, but not in Lent. The first three stanzas serve as the hymn for the Office of Readings on Tuesday of weeks 2 and 4 of the Psalter, and the fifth, sixth and eighth on Wednesday; on both days, it concludes with the same, original doxology. In accordance with the usual censorship of any negative thoughts that might disturb the complacency of Modern Man™ in his splendor, the fourth stanza, which says that “we are submerged beneath the wave of sin” is suppressed, as is the seventh, which refers to the newly unfashionable practice of fasting, and the “thousand vices of the flesh.” Both of these stanzas also contain significant blemishes in their Latinity. Surprisingly, the reference to Satan in the eighth stanza remains in place, and only a few other alterations were made.
This first recording, from the always wonderful Schola Hungarica, begins with the antiphon Media vita, which was commonly sung with the Nunc dimittis at Compline in Lent. The first stanza of the hymn begins at 2:20, in a Gregorian melody, followed by a polyphonic version of the second, and only these two are sung.
The first stanza of the hymn in a musical collection of the 15th century. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique, RES-1750)
This English translation is from the collection Pange Lingua by Alan G. McDougall (Burns and Oates, London, 1916.) [3]
Ad preces nostras Deitátis aures, [4]
Deus, inclína pietáte sola:
Súpplicum vota súscipe, precámur
   Fámuli tui.
God, of thy pity,
   unto us thy children
Bend down thine ear in
   thine own loving kindness,
And all thy people’s
   prayers and vows ascending
Hear, we beseech thee.
Réspice clemens solio de sancto,
Vultu seréno lámpades illustra:
Lúmine tuo ténebras depelle
   Péctore nostro.
Look down in mercy
   from thy seat of glory.
Pour on our souls the
   radiance of thy presence,
Drive from our weary
   hearts the shades of darkness,
Lightening our footsteps.
Crímina laxa pietáte multa,
Ablue sordes, víncula disrumpe:
Parce peccátis, réleva jacentes
   Déxtera tua.
Free us from sin by
   might of thy great loving,
Cleanse thou the sordid,
   loose the fettered spirit,
Spare every sinner,
   raise with thine own right hand
All who have fallen.
Te sine tetro mérgimur profundo:
Lábimur alta scéleris sub unda:
Brachio tuo tráhimur ad clara
   Sídera caeli.
Reft of thy guiding
   we are lost in darkness,
Drowned in the great wide
   sea of sin we perish,
But we are led by
   thy strong hand to climb the
Ascents of Heaven
Christe, lux vera, bónitas et vita,
Gaudium mundi, píetas immensa,
Qui nos a morte róseo salvasti
   Sánguine tuo:
Christ, very light and
   goodness, life of all things,
Joy of the whole world,
   infinite in kindness,
Who by the crimson
   flowing of thy life-blood
From death hast saved us,
Insere tuum, pétimus, amórem
Méntibus nostris, fídei refunde
Lumen aeternum, charitátis auge
Plant, sweetest Jesu,
   at our supplication
Deep in our hearts thy
   charity: upon us
Faith’s everlasting
   light be poured, and increase
Grant us of loving.
Tu nobis dona fontem lacrimárum,
Jejuniórum fortia ministra;
Vitia carnis millia retunde
   Frámea tua.
Grant to our souls a
   holy fount of weeping,
Grant to us strength to
   aid us in our fasting,
And all the thousand
   hosts of evil banish
Far from thy people.
Procul a nobis pérfidus absistat
Satan, a tuis víribus confractus:
Sanctus assistat Spíritus, a tua
   Sede demissus
Bruised by thine heel may
   Satan and his legions
Far from our minds be
   driven, that are guided
By the indwelling
   of the Holy Spirit
Sent from Heaven
Gloria Deo sit aeterno Patri:
Sit tibi semper, Genitóris Nate,
Cum quo aequális Spíritus
      per cuncta,
   Sáecula regnat. Amen.
Glory to God the
   Father everlasting,
Glory for ever
   to the Sole-begotten,
With whom the Holy
   Spirit through the ages
Reigneth coequal.
This splendid polyphonic version by the Flemish composer Adrian Willaert (1490 ca. - 1562) has only the odd-numbered stanzas, since it was written to be sung in alternation with the Gregorian melody. (Willaert spent the last 35 years of his life as the Master of the Chapel at the basilica of St Mark in Venice, and is regarded as the founder of the Venetian school of polyphony, which makes great use of multiple choirs.)
[1] Of the hymn’s thirty-six lines, twenty-eight contain mistakes according to the rules of classical Latin prosody.
[2] Les Hymnes du Bréviaire Romain de Pie V à Urbain VIII, 1568-1632; Rassegna Gregoriana, Nov.-Dec. 1907, col. 495-512; cited by Dom Anselmo Lentini OSB in Te decet hymnus, p. 49, with incorrect citation of the first column number (489 instead of 495). Second part, May-June 1908, col. 231-250. (My thanks to Fr Brian Austin, FSSP, for providing me with a copy of the second part.)
[3] This meter is known as the Sapphic stanza, after its inventor, the Greek poetess Sappho (ca. 630-570 B.C.) Each stanza has three lines that run as follows, ⎼⏑⎼⏒⎼⏑⏑⎼⏑⎼⏒, and then one shorter line, ⎼⏑⏑⎼⏒, with the primary accents on the long syllables (⎼) at the beginning of each foot. English, however, lends itself more naturally to meters that place the primary accent at the end of a foot, such as the iambic pentameter (⏑⎼ x5); this accounts for the awkwardness of McDougall’s translation in many places, since he retained the meter of the Latin version.

[4] The original wording, “Aures ad nostras Deitatis preces, / Deus, inclina”, abuses the flexibility of Latin word order, and sounds at first blush like it means “O God, incline the prayers of the Divinity to our ears”; hence, the correction to the much clearer (and theologically sounder) “Ad preces nostras Deitatis aures, / Deus, inclina. – O God, incline the ears of the Divinity to our prayers.”

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