Sunday, August 20, 2023

A Medieval Hymn of St Bernard

Here is a very nice medieval hymn for the feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux, which is used in the Cistercian Divine Office at both Vespers of his feast. According to the Analecta hymnica, the great catalog of medieval liturgical hymns, both the author and the date of composition are unknown, but it appears in several Cistercian sources in the 13th century, and has been in continual use within the order ever since. (It does not seem that any of the great translators like Neale or Caswell ever put their pens to this, so we must be content with my poor English prose translation.) This recording from the abbey of Marienstatt in Germany also includes the versicle that follows the hymn, “Ora pro nobis, sancte Bernarde”, in a more solemn tone which is different from the Roman one.

Bernardus Doctor inclytus,
Caelos conscendit hodie,
Quem attraxit divinitus
Splendor paternae gloriae.
Bernard, the renowned doctor
ascends the heavens today
Whom the splendor of the Father’s
glory drew from on high.
Exsultet caelum laudibus
De Bernardi consortio,
Quem conjungis caelestibus,
Jesu, nostra redemptio.
Let heaven exult in praises
for Bernard’s company,
Whom You join to the citizens
of heaven, Jesus, our redemption.
Rufum dorso per catulum
Praefigurasti puerum
Fore Doctorem sedulum,
Conditor alme siderum.
By the figure of a dog with a red
back, you showed that the boy
would be a zealous teacher,
O maker of the stars.
Nascentis ei claruit
Clara Christi nativitas,
Hoc a te donum habuit,
O lux, beata Trinitas.
For him shined most brightly
The glorious birth of Christ;
This gift he had from you,
o light, o blessed Trinity.
Arcana sacrae paginae
Declarat, et mysterium
Quod effecit in Virgine
Deus, creator omnium.
He set forth the mysteries
of the holy book, which God, the
creator of all things, wrought
in the Virgin.
Rore perfusum gratiae
Monstrat dulcor eloquii;
Per te fons sapientiae,
Summi largitor praemii.
The sweetness of his speech
showed him to be filled with grace,
though Thee, o font of wisdom,
giver of the highest reward.
Detentos a daemonibus
Sanat, morbos languentium
Curat, confert doloribus
Magnum salutis gaudium.
He heals those held by devils,
he cures the ailments of the sick,
and gives the great joy of salvation
to their griefs.
Vita vivit feliciter
Cum Maria Christifera
Cum qua degustat dulciter
Aeterna Christi munera.
Happily he lives (eternal) life
with Mary, the bearer of Christ,
with whom he sweetly tastes
the eternal gifts of Christ.
Summae Deus potentiae,
Tibi sit laus et gloria:
Da post cursum miseriae
Beata nobis gaudia. Amen.
God of highest power,
to thee be praise and glory:
after the way of wretchedness
give us blessed joys. Amen.

There are some interesting things to note. The hymn is an acrostic, the first letters of each stanza spelling his name BERNARDVS. 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 times 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 could in theory be sung in any one of a great many melodies, and other common hymns in this meter were often sung with different music from one church to another. However, it was an essential characteristic of the medieval Cistercians to keep a strict uniformity of observance in all their houses, and it is almost certain that they would have all used the same music.

The words of the third stanza “By the figure of a dog with a red back” refer to an episode recorded in the life of St Bernard. When his mother Aleth was pregnant with him (the third of her seven children, of whom four others are Blesseds), she dreamt that she was carrying a barking white dog with some red hair on its back. A religious man whom she consulted explained this dream to mean that the child she bore would be like the dogs mentioned in Psalm 67, “The tongues of your dogs lick the blood of their enemies”, guarding the house of God against its enemies, a preacher, and a healer of souls. This latter idea derives from St Gregory the Great’s symbolic interpretation of the dogs that licked the sores of Lazarus (hom. 40 in Evang.), in a passage which is read in the Roman Breviary on Thursday of the second week of Lent. “A dog’s tongue heals the sore which it licks; and so do holy teachers, when they instruct is in the confession of our sins, touch the sores of our souls by their tongues (i.e. their speech).” The following stanza refers to a vision of the Child Jesus which Bernard himself had when he was a boy, and fell asleep while waiting with his family to go out to Matins and the Midnight Mass of Christmas.

Christ Embracing St Bernard, ca. 1625, by Francisco Riablta (1565-1628). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Medieval hymnographers 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 proper Office of St Anthony the Abbot.)

Splendor paternae gloriae – an original hymn of St Ambrose himself, which the
      Cistercians sing at Sunday Lauds, the Roman Office at Monday Lauds.
Jesu, nostra redemptio – from the feast of the Ascension, pre-Urban VIII
Conditor alme siderum – from Vespers of Advent, pre-Urban VIII
O lux, beata Trinitas – Saturday Vespers, pre-Urban VIII
Deus, creator omnium – the Ambrosian hymn for Sunday Vespers
Summi largitor praemii – a hymn for Lent sung by the Cistercians at Matins;
      also used at Sarum, but not in the Roman Office.
Magnum salutis gaudium – processional hymn for Palm Sunday
Aeterna Christi munera – Matins hymn of the Apostles.
Beata nobis gaudia – Lauds hymn of Pentecost.

In addition, the first line of the second stanza, “Exsultet caelum laudibus”, is the title of the pre-Urban VIII version of the Vespers hymn of the Apostles. (Like all the religious orders that retained their own Uses of the Divine Office, the Cistercians never adopted Pope Urban VIII’s reform of the hymns.)

The difficulty of this trick is to integrate the titles into the words of a new composition in a new sense. Some of the expressions in the vocative case, such as “Jesu, nostra redemptio,” 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,) but the last three are particularly well chosen.

The Cistercians were founded at the very end of the 11th century as “strict constructionalists” of the original Rule of St Benedict, which they felt had been unhappily compromised by later developments and customs that emerged within the Cluniac monastic empire. The term which St Benedict uses for “hymn” in the Rule (capp. 9, 12, 13 and 17) is “ambrosianum”, since it was St Ambrose who first introduced the use of hymns into the West. This led the Cistercians to the believe that St Benedict’s original intention was not merely that monks should sing “a hymn” at certain Hours, but that they should use the specific corpus of hymns used by Ambrose himself. This corpus would be found, as they thought, in the Ambrosian Divine Office; they therefore sent people to Milan to copy out the Ambrosian hymnal then in use, and bring it back to Citeaux. It was incorporated into their Office to the despite of many hymns which at that point had long been in general use within the broad liturgical family of the Roman Rite. This was very controversial, even for an age in which there was a great deal of liturgical variation, and the Order was eventually pressured into adopting the traditional corpus of hymns, with some variations. This is why some of the original Ambrosian hymns such as “Splendor paternae gloriae” are given a more prominent place within the Cistercian Office than they were elsewhere.

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