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.

“A certain mediocrity, superficiality, and banality”

Yesterday, the Holy Father addressed a conference at the Vatican commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Instruction on Music in the Liturgy of the Sacred Congregation for Rites, Musicam sacram. While not as detailed as St. John Paul’s 2003 chirograph commemorating the 100th anniversary of St. Pius X’s great Tra le sollicitudini, it is still an interesting statement. Especially interesting is the Holy Father’s candid admission that:

Certamente l’incontro con la modernità e l’introduzione delle lingue parlate nella Liturgia ha sollecitato tanti problemi: di linguaggi, di forme e di generi musicali. Talvolta è prevalsa una certa mediocrità, superficialità e banalità, a scapito della bellezza e intensità delle celebrazioni liturgiche. Per questo i vari protagonisti di questo ambito, musicisti e compositori, direttori e coristi di scholae cantorum, animatori della liturgia, possono dare un prezioso contributo al rinnovamento, soprattutto qualitativo, della musica sacra e del canto liturgico. Per favorire questo percorso, occorre promuovere un’adeguata formazione musicale, anche in quanti si preparano a diventare sacerdoti, nel dialogo con le correnti musicali del nostro tempo, con le istanze delle diverse aree culturali, e in atteggiamento ecumenico.

(Emphasis supplied.) We will leave it to you, dear reader, to obtain a machine translation of the text, unless you have better Italian than we do. (And almost anyone does.)

An Ash Wednesday reflection

Matthew Walther is one of the funniest writers working today. If you have not read his columns for the Washington Free Beacon about the 2016 presidential election, you have missed a great treat. (It’s not too late, though!) He is also a very serious, traditionally minded Catholic. Today, at the Catholic Herald, he has an excellent column about his return to the Church, sparked by T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. It would be unfair to excerpt it, so we will say instead that you should read it there.

We observe, in passing, one bit in particular from Walther’s essay: the music at the Ash Wednesday Mass he attended was in Latin. And his is not the only story we have read in which the majesty of the Church’s liturgical tradition has drawn Catholics back to the Church or made converts of non-Catholics. (If anyone validly baptized can be said to be a non-Catholic.)


Background on the O antiphons

Gregory DiPippo at New Liturgical Movement has a wonderful essay about the so-called O antiphons, which started being sung at vespers (at the Magnificat) on December 17. These antiphons survived the post-conciliar liturgical reforms and are said even in the Liturgia Horarum. A brief selection, about the antiphon sung today, O Adonai:

O Adonai” speaks of Christ as the one who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Mount Sinai; “Adonai”, Hebrew for “My Lord”, is the word which Jews, when reading the Bible, say in place of the Divine Name YHWH that was revealed to Moses in Exodus 3. The prayer to “come to redeem us with arm extended” refers to God’s own words when speaking to Moses in Exodus 6, 6, “I am the Lord who will bring you out from the work-prison of the Egyptians, and will deliver you from bondage: and redeem you with a high arm, and great judgments,” as well as the canticle which Moses sings after the crossing of the Red Sea, “Let fear and dread fall upon them, (i.e. upon the Egyptians) in the greatness of thy arm.” (Exod. 15, 16)

(Hyperlink in original) Read the whole thing there.

Pure pop for Synod secretaries

One of our favorite New Order singles is “True Faith,” one of the new tracks written for their singles compilation Substance 1987. (We actually thought until just now that “True Faith” had been recorded in connection with 1986’s Brotherhood LP, but apparently it was recorded with Substance in mind.) While not as evocative as the lyrics to “Bizarre Love Triangle,” the single immediately previous, “True Faith” has been much on our minds lately:

I can’t tell you where we’re going
I guess there’s just no way of knowing

We don’t know whether anyone in the Synod secretariat is a New Order fan, though we doubt it. It appears, notwithstanding the cool reception that it might receive in the secretariat’s offices, that “True Faith” is fast climbing the charts to be the theme song for the Synod. This from Tom McFeely at the National Catholic Register:

But echoing Cardinal Tagle’s earlier comments, Father Lombardi stressed that it’s not even known if there will be any final document. The synod is only “approaching he end of the first week, so I cannot know what will happen at the end,” the Vatican spokesman said, noting that the Pope may provide clearer indications in the coming days.

He goes on to report:

More could be known on Monday, however. The small groups are not scheduled to discuss Part III of the instrumentum laboris, which contains the paragraphs referencing the divorced-remarried Communion issue and the pastoral care of persons who have homosexual tendencies, until the third week. But it was disclosed at the Saturday press briefing that the synod fathers progressed through Part II of the synod document with unexpected speed at their general congregations on Friday and Saturday. So they will now kick off their Part III interventions on Monday, at which time the battle lines among them may start to be drawn openly on the two contentious issues potentially in play.

In other words, the Synod is moving far faster than anyone anticipated, and may reach the showdown over the Kasperite proposal this week. However, showdown or no showdown, the Synod may not even produce a Relatio Synodi. (Which tells us that there are serious doubts about whether the Synod will produce the desired-by-so-many results. Though we doubt that that failure will be dispositive of the matter.) And the media continue to notice how poorly the Holy See Press Office, including one priest in particular, is handling the daily reports.

What is that bit from “True Faith”? Ah, yes:

I feel so extraordinary
Something’s got a hold on me
I get this feeling I’m in motion
A sudden sense of liberty
The chances are we’ve gone too far
You took my time and you took my money
Now I fear you’ve left me standing
In a world that’s so demanding

Even pop singers get it right once in a while.

Sorting boxes

We just pulled the trigger on the Pierre Boulez Complete Columbia Album Collection. We knew we would sooner or later. We have remarked previously about several other really very interesting bargain boxes, including Deutsche Grammophon’s really very interesting Ferenc Fricsay boxes. For some reason, Sony in particular has been putting out consistently very interesting boxes over the last few years.

There were the two opera boxes, Wagner at the Met and Verdi at the Met, both of which are essential listening. Sony also put out several big, big boxes devoted to conductors, none of whom are exactly household names in 2015. For example, they reissued, very attractively, the monumental Toscanini series. They put out a big Fritz Reiner collection. They put out—and this is really surprising—boxes of Pierre Monteux and Jean Martinon. And the Boulez box. All interesting and not hugely expensive. (We bought Testament’s issue of Keilberth’s 1955 Ring as it was issued one music-drama at a time, so we know hugely expensive.)

But as we have accumulated several of them, a question occurs to us: does anyone actually listen to all of the recordings in these sixty-some-CD boxes? We’re not asking a rhetorical question, either. When we buy one of these enormous boxes, we buy it (1) on the strength of the reputation of some of the recordings in it, (2) whether we are especially interested to hear a given performance, and (3) whether the price is right. We don’t sit down and thing, “Now, would I be interested in hearing Pierre Boulez conduct each and every piece included?” If some pieces interest us tremendously and others leave us cold, well, we figure that it all comes out in the wash. (Sometimes our interest in a single recording outweighs other considerations: we bought an otherwise not-very-interesting box of odds-and-ends Wagner recordings just to get Erich Leinsdorf’s Lohengrin.) In other words, we get a box and figure that we’ll never listen to all of the recordings. Others may, however, agonize over the choice.

We wonder what the label producers think when they assemble these massive boxes. Who are they pitching to?

A suggestion relating to reissues

We have always wondered how producers at the classical labels come to settle on their archival releases. For example, what back-catalogue whiz at Deutsche Grammophon decided that Ferenc Fricsay needed not just one but two massive boxes (divided largely into orchestral and vocal music)? Likewise, who at Sony decided that Max Goberman’s influential but, frankly, sort of obscure Haydn recordings needed to be released? We are not complaining, of course, but sometimes it would be nice to know why the records got released.

When a smaller label puts out an archival release—take Marston’s downright necessary set of Fernando De Lucia’s early recordings, for example—we automatically assume that there must be some intrinsic merit to the release. Sometimes the merit is merely sonic (e.g., Music & Arts’ recent remaster of Furtwängler’s 1942 9th) and sometimes the merit is artistic. But because small labels—we assume—have limited resources, there has to be a good reason for them to spend the money working the release up for issue. This is true, also, for blues and jazz releases. Big labels, on the other hand, do not appear to have such financial constraints. In many cases, the masters are in the can and the artwork can be worked up on short notice.

Also, the big labels are much less personal. One can almost get to know the personalities running boutique labels. We have mentioned Ward Marston, but there are others, such as Mark Obert-Thorn, who, either through interesting liner notes or by participating in online discussion boards, become not only record executives but trusted critics. This is not the case, universally, at the big labels. Some names—such as Andreas Meyer—come up repeatedly, but in other cases booklets simply do not provide any meaningful background on the men and women putting the releases together.

Perhaps the big labels would do well to allow their producers to show a little more personality. Obviously, budgets are tight all over the record business, but it seems to us that brief notes from record producers, especially on releases not likely to sell more than a few thousand (or few hundred or few dozen, in some cases) copies, explaining their motivations for putting together the releases would do well. At the very least, it might encourage the casual listener to search out some aspect of the recordings previously overlooked. (On the other hand, it might confirm the cynical listener’s worst fears about the industry.)