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Lauda Sion

Opening words of the sequence composed by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Mass of Corpus Christi

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Lauda Sion.—The opening words (used as a title) of the sequence composed by St. Thomas Aquinas, about the year 1264, for the Mass of Corpus Christi. (See Feast of Corpus Christi.) That the sequence was written for the Mass is evidenced by the sixth stanza:

Dies enim solemnis agitur

In qua mensae prima recolitur

Hujus institutio.

(“for on this solemn day is again celebrated the first institution of the Supper”). The authorship of the sequence was once attributed to St. Bonaventure; and Gerbert, in his “De cantu et musica sacra”, declaring it redolent of the style and rhythmic sweetness characteristic of the verse of this saint, moots the question whether the composition of the Mass of the feast should not be ascribed to him, and of the Office to St. Thomas. The fact that another Office had been composed for the local feast established by a synodal decree of the Bishop of Liege in 1246 also led some writers to contest the ascription to St. Thomas. His authorship has been proved, however, beyond question, thinks Martene (De antiq. rit. eccl., IV, xxx), by the dissertation of Noel Alexandre, which leaves no doubt (minimum dubitandi scrupulum) in the matter. There is also a clear declaration (referred to by Cardinal Thomasius) of the authorship of St. Thomas, in a Constitution issued by Sixtus IV (1471-1484), and to be found in the third tome of the “Bullarium novissimum Fratrum Praedicatorum”. In content the great sequence, which is partly epic, but mostly didactic and lyric in character, summons all to endless praise of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar (lines 1-15); assigns the reason for the commemoration of its institution (lines 16-30); gives in detail the Catholic doctrine of the Sacrament (lines 31-62): “Dogma datur Christians”, etc.; shows the fulfilment of ancient types (lines 63-70): “Ecce panis angelorum”, etc.; prays the Good Shepherd to feed and guard us here and make us sharers of the Heavenly Table hereafter (lines 71-80): “Bone pastor, panis vere” etc. Throughout the long poem the rhythmic flow is easy and natural, and, strange to say, especially so in the most didactic of the stanzas, despite a scrupulous theological accuracy in both thought and phrase. The saint “writes with the full panoply under his singing-robes”; but always the melody is perfect, the condensation of phrase is of crystalline clearness, the unction is abundant and, in the closing stanzas, of compelling sweetness. A more detailed description of the content of the “Lauda Sion” is not necessary here, since both Latin text and English version are given in the Baltimore “Manual of Prayers”, p. 632.

It is clear that St. Thomas, following the form of the “Laudes crucis” throughout all its rhythmic and stanzaic variations, composed a sequence which could be sung to a chant already in existence; but it is not a necessary inference from this fact that St. Thomas directly used the “Lau des crucis” as his model. In form the two sequences are indeed identical (except, as already noted, that one has two stanzas more than the other). But identity of form is also found in the “Lauda Sion” and Adam‘s Easter sequence, “Zyma vetus expurgetur”, which Clichtoveus rightly styles “admodum divina”, and whose spirit and occasional phraseology approximate much more closely to those of the “Lauda Sion”. This is especially notable in the sixth stanza, where the first peculiar change of rhythm occurs, and where in both sequences the application of the theme to the feast-day is made directly and formally. Thus (in “Lauda Sion”): “Dies enim solemnis agitur”, etc.; and (in “Zyma vetus”): “Haec est dies quam fecit Dominus” (This is the day which the Lord hath made). It may well be surmised that Adam desired to include this famous liturgical text in his Easter sequence of “Zyma vetus expurgetur”, even at the expense of altering the rhythm with which he had begun his poem; and St. Thomas, copying exactly the new rhythmic form thus introduced, copied also the spirit and pungency of its text. The same thing is not true, however, of the corresponding stanza of the “Landes crucis”, which gives us merely similarity of form and not of content or of spirit. Other verbal correspondences between the “Zyma vetus” and the “Lauda Sion” are observable in the closing stanzas. It may be said, then, that the “Lauda Sion” owes not only its poetic form, but much also of its spirit and fire, and not a little even of its phraseology, to various sequences of Adam, whom Gueranger styles “le plus grand poete du moyen age”. Thus, for instance, the two lines (rhythmically variant from the type set in the first stanza) of the “Lauda Sion”:

Vetustatem novitas,

Umbram fugat veritas,

were directly borrowed from another Easter sequence of Adam‘s, Ecce dies celebris, in which occurs the double stanza:

Laetis cedant tristia,

Cum sit major gloria,

Quam prima confusio.

Umbram Fugat veritas,

Vestustatem novitas,

Luctum consolatio—

while the “Pascha novum Christus est” of the Easter sequence of Adam, and the “Paranymphi novae legis Ad amplexum novi Regis” of his sequence of the Apostles, find a strong echo in the “Novum pascha novae legis” of the “Lauda Sion”.

The plainsong melody of the “Lauda Sion” includes the seventh and eighth modes. Its purest form is found in the recently issued Vatican edition of the Roman Gradual. Its authorship is not known; and, accordingly, the surmise of W. S. Rockstro that the text-authors of the five sequences still retained in the Roman Missal probably wrote the melodies also (and therefore that St. Thomas wrote the melody of the “Lauda Sion”), and the conviction of a writer in the “Irish Ecclesiastical Record”, August, 1888 (St. Thomas as a Musician), to the same effect, are incorrect. Shall we suppose that Adam of St. Victor composed the melody? The supposition, which would of course date the melody in the twelfth century, is not an improbable one. Possibly it is of older date; but the peculiar changes of rhythm suggest that the melody was composed either by Adam or by some fellow-monk of St. Victor‘s Abbey; and the most notable rhythmic change is, as has been remarked above, the inclusion of the intractable liturgical text: “Haec dies quam fecit Dominus “—a change demanding a melody appropriate to itself. Since the melody dates back at least to the twelfth century, it is clear that the “local tradition” ascribing its composition to Pope Urban IV (d. 1264), who had established the feast-day and had charged St. Thomas with the composition of the Office, is not well-based: “Contemporary writers of Urban IV speak of the beauty and harmony of his voice and of his taste for music and the Gregorian chant; and, according to a local tradition, the music of the Office of the Blessed Sacrament—a composition as grave, warm, penetrating, splendid as the celestial harmonies—was the work of Urban IV” (Cruls, “The Blessed Sacrament”, tr., Preston, p. 76). In addition to the exquisite plainsong melody mention should be made of Palestrina’s settings of the “Lauda Sion”, two for eight voices (the better known of which follows somewhat closely the plainsong melody), and one for four voices; and also of the noble setting of Mendelssohn.

The “Lauda Sion” is one of the five sequences (out of the thousand which have come down to us from the Middle Ages) still retained in the Roman Missal. Each of the five has its own special beauty; but the “Lauda Sion” is peculiar in its combination of rhythmic flow, dogmatic precision, phrasal condensation. It has been translated, either in whole or in part, upwards of twenty times into English verse; and a selection from it, the “Ecce panis angelorum”, has received some ten additional versions. Amongst Catholic versions are those of Southwell, Crashaw, Husenbeth, Beste, Oakeley, Caswall, Wallace, Aylward, Wackerbarth, Henry. Non-Catholic versions modify the meaning where it is too aggressively dogmatic and precise. E. C. Benedict, however, in his “Hymn of Hildebert”, etc., gives a literal translation into verse, but declares that it is to be understood in a Protestant sense. On the other hand, as the editor of “Duffield’s Latin Hymns” very sensibly remarks, certain stanzas express “the doctrine of transubstantiation so distinctly, that one must have gone as far as Dr. Pusey, who avowed that he held ‚Äòall Roman doctrine’, before using these words in a non-natural sense.” The admiration tacitly bestowed on the sequence by its frequent translation, either wholly or in part, by non-Catholic pens, found its best expression in the eloquent Latin eulogy of Daniel (Thesaurus Hymnologicus, II, p. 88), when, speaking of the hymns of the Mass and Office of Corpus Christi, he says: “The Angelic Doctor took a single theme for his singing, one filled with excellence and divinity and, indeed, angelic, that is, one celebrated and adored by the very angels. Thomas was the greatest singer of the venerable Sacrament. Neither is it to be believed that he did this without the inbreathing of God (quern non sine numinis afflatu cecinisse credal), nor shall we be surprised that, having so wondrously, not to say uniquely, absolved this one spiritual and wholly heavenly theme, he should thenceforward sing no more. One only off-spring was his—but it was a lion (Peperit semel, sed leonem).”

H. T. HENRY


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