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Ambrosian Hymnography

Hymns of St. Ambrose

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Ambrosian Hymnography. —The names of St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367), who is mentioned by St. Isidore of Seville as the first to compose Latin hymns, and St. Ambrose, styled by Dreves “the Father of Church-song”, are linked together as those of pioneers of Western hymnody. The first actually to compose hymns was St. Hilary, who had spent in Asia Minor some years of exile from his see, and had thus become acquainted with the Syrian and Greek hymns of the Eastern Church. His “Liber Hymnorum” has unfortunately perished. Daniel, in his “Thesaurus Hymnologicus”, mistakenly attributed seven hymns to Hilary, two of which (“Lucis largitor splendide” and “Beata nobis gaudia”) were, down to the present day, considered by hymnologists generally to have had good reason for the ascription, until Blume (Analecta Hymnica, Leipzig, 1897, XXVII, 48-52; cf. also the review of Merrill’s “Latin Hymns” in the “Berliner Philologische Wochenschrift”, 24th March, 1906) showed the error underlying the ascription of Daniel and of those who followed his mistake. The two hymns are mentioned here, since they have the metric and strophic cast peculiar to the authenticated hymns of St. Ambrose and to the wellnigh innumerable hymns which were afterwards composed on the model, and often with the inspiration, of those of the Saint. It may be truly said, then, that St. Ambrose, writing hymns in a style severely elegant, chaste, perspicuous, clothing Christian ideas in classical phraseology, and yet appealing to popular tastes, and succeeding in the appeal, had indeed found a new form and created a new school of hymnody. Like St. Hilary, St. Ambrose was also a “Hammer of the Arians”, for the combatting of whose errors it was his special distinction to have composed hymns. Answering their complaints on this head, he says: “Assuredly I do not deny it… All strive to confess their faith and know how to declare in verse the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” And St. Augustine (Confessions, IX, vii, 15) speaks of the occasion when the hymns were introduced by Ambrose to be sung “according to the fashion of the East”. St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) testifies to the spread of the custom from Milan throughout the whole of the West, and refers to the hymns as “Ambrosian” (P.L., LXXXIII, col. 743). In uncritical ages, hymns, whether metrical or merely accentual, following the material form of those of St. Ambrose, were generally ascribed to him and were called “Ambrosiani”. As now used, the term implies no attribution of authorship, but rather a poetical form or a liturgical use. On the other hand, the term will still doubtless be used without implying necessarily a negation of authorship, in the belief that some may be really the compositions of the Saint, despite the calculations of the most recent scholarship, which gives fourteen hymns certainly, three very probably, and one probably, to him.

The rule of St. Benedict employed the term; and Walafridus Strabo (P.L., CXIV, coll. 954, 955) notes that, while St. Benedict styled the hymns to be used in the canonical hours Ambrostianos, the term is to be understood as referring to hymns composed either by St. Ambrose or by others who followed his form; and, remarking further that many hymns were wrongly supposed to be his, thinks it incredible that he should have composed “some of them, which have no logical coherence and exhibit an awkwardness alien to the style of Ambrose”. Daniel gives no less than ninety-two Ambrosiani, under the heading, however, of “S. Ambrosius et Ambrosiani”, implying a distinction which for the present he cared not to specify more minutely. The Maurists limited the number they would ascribe to St. Ambrose to twelve. Biraghi and Dreves raise the figure to eighteen. Kayser gives the four universally conceded to be authentic and two of the Ambrosiani which have claims to authenticity. Chevalier is criticised minutely and elaborately by Blume for his Ambrosian indications: twenty without reservation, seven “(S. Ambrosius)”, two unbracketed but with a “?”, seven with bracket and question-mark, and eight with a varied lot of brackets, question-marks, and simultaneous possible ascriptions to other hymnodists. We shall give here first of all the four hymns acknowledged universally as authentic: (I) “Aeterne rerum Conditor”; (2) “Deus Creator omnium”; (3) “Jam surgit hora tertia”; (4) “Veni Redemptor gentium”. With respect to the first three, St. Augustine quotes from them and directly credits their authorship to St. Ambrose. He appears also to refer to No. 4 (the third verse in whose fourth strophe is: Gemince Gigas substantice) when he says: “This going forth of our Giant [Gigantic] is briefly and beautifully hymned by Blessed Ambrose…” And Faustus, Bishop of Riez (A.D. 455), quotes from it and names the Saint as author, as does also Cassiodorus (d. 575) in quoting the fourth strophe entire. Pope St. Celestine, in the council held at Rome in 430, also cites it as by St. Ambrose. Internal evidence for No. 1 is found in many verbal and phrasal correspondences between strophes 4-7 and the “Hexaemeron” of the Saint (P.L., XIV, col. 255). Of these four hymns, only No. 1 is now found in the Roman Breviary. It is sung at Lauds on Sunday from the Octave of the Epiphany to the first Sunday in Lent, and from the Sunday nearest to the first day of October until Advent. There are sixteen translations into English, of which that by Cardinal Newman is given in the Marquess of Bute’s Breviary (I, 90). No. 2 has eight English renderings; No. 3, two; No. 4, twenty-four.

The additional eight hymns credited to the Saint by the Benedictine editors are: (5) “Illuminans altissimus”; (6) “Aeterna Christi munera”; (7) “Splendor paternae glori”; (8) “Orabo mente Dominum”; (9) “Somno refectis artubus”; (10) “Consors paterni luminis”; (11) “O lux beata Trinitas”; (12) “Fit Aorta Christi pervia”. The Roman Breviary parcels No. 6 out into two hymns: for Martyrs (beginning with a strophe not belonging to the hymn (Christo profusum sanguinem); and for Apostles (Aeterna Christi munera). The translations of the original text and of the two hymns formed from it amount to twenty-one in number. No. 7 is assigned in the Roman Breviary to Monday at Lauds, from the Octave of the Epiphany to the first Sunday in Lent and from the Octave of Pentecost to Advent. It has twenty-five translations in English. Nos. 9, 10, 11 are also in the Roman Breviary. (No. 11, however, being altered into “Jam sot recedit igneus”. It has thirty-three translations, in all, into English, comprising those of the original text and of the adaptation.) Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12 have verbal or phrasal correspondences with acknowledged hymns by the Saint. Their translations into English are: No. 9, fifteen; No. 10, nine; No. 11, thirty-three; No. 12, two. No. 5 has three English translations; No. 6, one; No. 7, twenty-five. No. 8 remains to be considered. The Maurists give it to the Saint with some hesitation, because of its prosodial ruggedness, and because they knew it not to be a fragment (six verses) of a longer poem, and the (apparently) six-lined form of strophe puzzled them. Daniel pointed out (Thes., I, 23, 24; IV, 13) that it is a fragment of the longer hymn (in strophes of four lines), “Bis ternas horas explicans”, and credits it without hesitation to the Saint. In addition to the four authentic ones already noted, Biraghi gives Nos. 5, 6, 7, and the following: (8) “Nunc sancte nobis spiritus”; (9) “Rector potens, verax Deus”; (10) “Rerum Deus, tenax vigor”; (11) “Amore Christi nobilis”; (12) “Agnes beat ae virginis”; (13) “Hie est dies verus Dei”; (14) “Victor Nabor, Felix pii”; (15) “Grates tibi Jesu novas”; (16) “Apostolorum passio”; (17) “Apostolorum supparem”; (18) “Jesu corona virginum”. This list receives the support of Dreves (1893) and of Blume (1901). The beautiful hymns Nos. 8, 9, 10 are those for Terce, Sext, None, respectively, in the Roman Breviary, which also assigns No. 18 to the office of Virgins. The Ambrosian strophe has four verses of iambic dimeters (eight syllables), e.g.,

Aeterne rerum Conditor,

Noctem diemque qui regis,

Et temporum das tempura

Ut alleves fastidium.

The meter differs but slightly from the rhythm of prose, is easy to construct and to memorize, adapts itself very well to all kinds of subjects, offers sufficient metric variety in the odd feet (which may be either iambic or spondaic), while the form of the strophe lends itself well to musical settings (as the English accentual counterpart of the metric and strophic form illustrates). This poetic form has always been the favorite for liturgical hymns, as the Roman Breviary will show at a glance. But in earlier times the form was almost exclusively used, down to and beyond the eleventh century. Out of 150 hymns in the eleventh-century Benedictine hymnals, for example, not a dozen are in other meters; and the Ambrosian Breviary re edited by St. Charles Borromeo in 1582 has its hymns in that meter almost exclusively. It should be said, however, that even in the days of St. Ambrose the classical meters were slowly giving place to accentual ones, as the work of the Saint occasionally shows; while in subsequent ages, down to the reform of the Breviary under Urban VIII, hymns were composed most largely by accented measure.


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