Notes on the hymns of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary

We have previously outlined the great antiquity of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The hymns in the Little Office are no less ancient than the office itself. However, it may interest you, dear reader, to learn a little more about those hymns. As you no doubt know, the Little Office uses four hymns. At matins, Quem terra pontus sidera is sung; at lauds, O gloriosa virginum; and at vespers, the great Marian hymn Ave maris stella. At all the little hours and compline, Memento rerum conditor is sung. We shall see that these are all hymns of great antiquity, of Merovingian or Carolingian origin. However, we shall also see that these venerable hymns did not pass through Urban VIII’s reforms unharmed, despite the fact that the obligation to say the Little Office had been greatly reduced by St. Pius V. It is not our intention to present a complete history of the hymns of the Little Office; instead, we offer a few notes.

Matins: Quem terra pontus sidera and Lauds: O gloriosa virginum

Just as matins and lauds formed, traditionally, one office, so too do Quem terra pontus sidera and O gloriosa virginum form one hymn—a hymn of great antiquity. Walpole sets forth in his Early Latin Hymns, pp. 193–95, an argument for attributing this hymn, under its pre-Urban VIII incipit, Quem terra pontus aethera, to the great Merovingian poet, St. Venantius Fortunatus. It is Walpole’s argument that Quem terra pontus sidera, the Christmas hymn Agnoscat omne saeculum, and the long poem in elegiacs Walpole calls the Laus Mariae are all by one author. All three are very much in Venantius’s style, and this point Walpole finds conclusive, as he does not think it likely that anyone in the next couple of hundred years after Venantius’s death could have so ably imitated the master poet. There are, however, some metrical issues with both Agnoscat omne saeculum and Quem terra pontus sidera, but Walpole finds none of them dispositive. The bottom line is that the poems are “not unworthy” of Venantius, as Walpole puts it. If true, this means that Quem terra pontus aethera was composed no later than Venantius’s death at the very beginning of the seventh century, and it has remained in widespread use for over a thousand years.

Of course, the fact that Quem terra pontus aethera was a composition of Venantius, close to the heart of every Catholic in Europe for six hundred years, did not spare it from the revisions initiated by Pope Urban VIII in 1629 or so. (This was part of a broader project of revision initiated by Urban.) As you, dear reader, no doubt recall, Urban was a man of tremendous erudition and good taste, and he wished to correct the prosody of those good old Merovingian and Carolingian hymns. It seemed, we suppose, to him that the hymns of the Breviary were deficient insofar as they were not written by Horace. Unfortunately, Urban’s assistants—the Jesuits Strada, Gallucci, Sarbiewski, and Petrucci—went a little too far, and frankly mangled some of the most beloved hymns in Christendom. All told, they made about a thousand changes to the Breviary. Quem terra pontus aethera came through it all right, with aethera being replaced with sidera. Unfortunately, O gloriosa femina didn’t fare so well. The first stanza is almost unrecognizable in Urban’s text. They tinkered somewhat less with the second stanza, and almost not at all with the third.

It is too bad, too, as O gloriosa femina (O gloriosa domina is a known variant, per Walpole, attested by several sources) was a favorite hymn of St. Anthony of Padua, who learned it as a child from his mother. He died with it on his lips. One imagines that that saint was by no means alone in his devotion to the hymn. And, of course, if we say Venantius Fortunatus wrote it, we find ourselves with Quem terra pontus aethera being an expression of Marian devotion by the greatest Christian poet of his age. Either way, one may say both that Quem terra pontus aethera should have been spared the attentions of Urban’s Jesuits and that it is a preeminent example of their handiwork.

Little Hours and Compline: Memento rerum conditor

The authorship of Quem terra pontus aethera is just about the only question about that hymn. The same cannot be said for the hymn most used by the Little Office: Memento rerum conditor. We do not know who wrote it, nor when. Indeed, it is not a wholly original composition. Memento salutis auctor, the pre-Urban VIII version of Memento rerum conditor, takes its first stanza from the Christmas hymn Christe redemptor omnium. This is an anonymous hymn, part of the so-called New Hymnal of the Carolingian period, and it has had, over the past thousand years, a prominent place in the Christmas office. One imagines that the popularity of Christe redemptor omnium explains how one of its stanzas found its way into the Little Office.

But the second stanza, Maria mater gratiae, is not part of Christe redemptor omnium. It has been from time to time suggested that it is a continuation of Quem terra pontus aethera, or the second part of it, O gloriosa femina, said at lauds. It is thus found in Cardinal Quignon’s controversial breviary. However, Maria mater gratiae is not found in the text of Quem terra pontus aethera, and must be considered a later composition, whatever its source. It has been, however, a prayer close to the hearts of many Catholics down through the ages. For example, Fr. Henry Garnet, the English Jesuit hanged for his supposed complicity in the so-called Gunpowder Plot, died with it on his lips.

Memento salutis auctor also met with substantial revisions under Urban VIII. The first three lines of the first stanza were substantially rewritten into their present form, and in the second stanza, Mater misericordiae, a quotation perhaps of the Salve Regina, was changed into Dulcis parens clementiae. The Jesuit Hornsby, discussing this revision in the American Ecclesiastical Review, observed that, “though corrected in meter, it has lost some of its sweetness.”  While contemporary critics remarked accessit latinitas, recessit pietas, we think Hornsby has a nice way of putting it, too. It is telling, we think, that Dom Anselmo Lentini, when putting together the hymns for Paul VI’s Liturgia Horarum, rolled back the clock, stripping away Urban’s classicizing revisions. (And introducing some revisions of his own.)

At any rate, none of this answers the fundamental question: who wrote Memento salutis auctor, or, perhaps more precisely, who added the stanza Maria mater gratia to the stanza of Christe redemptor omnium selected for the Little Office? When did it happen? Walpole observes (p. 306) that Christe redemptor omnium is found in most manuscripts from the 10th century onward. We may guess that the stanza was excerpted and enlarged at about that time or shortly thereafter. Such would jive with what we know about the emergence of the Little Office generally. But that answers nothing. We are still left with questions upon questions about this little hymn.

Vespers: Ave maris stella

Little needs to be said about this great Carolingian hymn in honor of Our Lady. It is found already in the ninth century Codex Sangallensis 95, and it has been attributed to numerous authors, including Venantius, Paul the Deacon, and Bernard of Clairvaux (who could not have written it). However, its certain authorship remains a mystery. What is not mysterious is the preeminent place it has held in the Breviary, even down to the present day. It passed unscathed through Urban’s process of reform, a testament, we suspect, as much to its stature as to its prosody.