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Te Deum

Hymn in rhythmical prose whose opening words are Te Deum laudamus

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Te Deum, THE, an abbreviated title commonly given both to the original Latin text and the translations of a hymn in rhythmical prose, of which the opening words, Te Deum laudamus, formed its earliest known title (namely in the Rule of St. Caerius for monks, written probably when he was Abbot of Lerins, before A.D. 502). This longer title is used in the “Rules for Virgins” composed by St. Caesarius while Archbishop of Arles, and by his second successor in the same see, St. Aurelian, also in the Rule of St. Benedict; and generally in earlier literature. The hymn is also sometimes styled “Hymnus Ambrosianus”, the “Ambrosian Hymn“; and in the Roman Breviary it is still entitled, at the end of Matins for Sunday, “Hymnus SS. Ambrosii et Augustin”. It is interesting to note that the title has been changed to “Hymnus Ambrosianus” in the “Psalterium” of the new Roman Breviary of Pius X. This Psalterium has been printed (1912), but became obligatory only from January 1, 1913. The Te Deum is found in the first part of the “Psalterium (“Ordinarium”, etc.) The tradition that it was spontaneously composed and sung alternately by these saints on the night of St. Augustine’s baptism (A.D. 387) can be traced back to the end of the eighth century, and is referred to in the middle of the ninth century by Hincmar of Reims (ut a majoribus nostris audivimus) in his second work,” De praedestinatione” (P.L., CXXV, 290), and in an elaborated form in a Milanese chronicle attributed to Datius, Bishop of Milan (d. about 552), but really dating only from the eleventh century (thus Mabillon, Muratori, Merati, etc.). This tradition is now generally rejected by scholars.

It should naturally have held, from earliest times, a prominent place in Milan; but of the earlier manuscripts of the Te Deum which refer to the tradition in their titles, none has any connection with Milan, while the “Milan Cathedral Breviary” text (eleventh century) has no title whatever. The tradition ascribing the authorship to the two saints is not unique. Another tradition is represented by the remark of Abbo of Fleury (A.D. 985) in his “Quaestiones grammaticales” (P.L., CXXXIX, 532, §19) concerning the erroneous substitution of “suscepisti” for “suscepturus” in the verse “Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem”, etc., in what he styles “Dei palinodia quam composuit Hilarius Pictaviensis episcopus”. It may be added that an eighth- or ninth-century MS. of the hymn, now at Munich, refers it to St. Hilary. But neither to Hilary nor to Ambrose may the hymn be prudently ascribed, because although both composed hymns, the Te Deum is in rhythmical prose, and not in the classical metres of the hymns known to have been written by them. While, from the ninth century down to the present day, there is no century and no country of Western Europe that has not given its witness to the traditional ascription, the earliest MS., the “Bangor Antiphonary” (seventh cent.) gives as title merely “Ymnum in die dominica”, while other early MSS. make no reference to the authorship, either giving no titles or contenting themselves with such general ones as “Laudatio Dei” (MS. of eighth cent.), “Laus angelica” (twelfth cent.), “Laus angelorum” (twelfth cent.), “Hymnus matutinalis” …”Hymnus die dominico”, “Hymnum dominicale”, etc. Other MSS. ascribe the hymn variously to St. Nicetus, Vicetus (obviously a slip of the pen for Nicetus), Nicetius, Nicetes, Neceta (all of these being thought identical with Niceta or Nicetas, Bishop of Remesiana, q. v.), to St. Hilarius, St. Abundius, St. Sisebutus, St. Ambrose, or St. Augustine. The importance of the occasion to which the legend assigns the composition of the hymn (the baptism of St. Augustine) and the comparatively late appearance of the ascription to the two saints are additional arguments against the tradition. Merati thinks the legend may have been based on the words of a spurious sermon, given as no. 92 in an edition of the works of St. Ambrose (Paris, 1549), “De Augustini Baptismo”: “In quo una vobiscum cum divino instinctu Hymnum cantavimus de Christi fide”. It may be added that the Maurists omitted the Te Deum from their edition of St. Ambrose; that Batiffol (“Hist. du Brev. romain”, Paris, 1893, p. 98; authorized and corrected tr., London, 1898, p. 110) writes: “No one thinks now of attributing this cento either to St. Ambrose or to St. Augustine”; that Father Burton, in his “Life of St. Augustine, … An Historical Study” (Dublin, 3rd ed., 1897) does not even mention the legend about the dual authorship and the baptism of St. Augustine; and finally that Portalie (see St. Augustine of Hippo) remarks: “The tradition maintaining that the Te Deum was sung on that occasion by the bishop and the neophyte alternately is groundless”.

The other names mentioned above not being favored by scholars, the question of authorship remained open. In 1894 Dom Morin put forward Nicetas of Remesiana for the honor of authorship. His suggestion has been adopted by Zahn, Kattenbusch, Kirsch (in Germany); Frere, Burn (in England), while the Anglican Bishop of Salisbury considers Morin’s conjecture “very plausible”; and in France, by Batiffol. The reasons for this view are: (I) Ten MSS. (the earliest of the tenth century), mostly of Irish origin, name Nicetas (with variant spellings and identifications, however); and Ireland, remote from the continent of Europe, could easily keep until the tenth century a tradition of the fifth. (2) The probable date of composition of the hymn corresponds with that of the literary activity of Nicetas. (3) St. Paulinus of Nola praises (Carmina, xvii, xxvii) the poetic and hymnodal gifts of his friend Nicetas. (4) Gennadius speaks of the neat and simple style of his prose, and Cassiodorus commends his conciseness. These critical appreciations are thought applicable to the style of the Te Deum, which depends for its effect mostly on the nobility of the theme and the simplicity and directness of the _expression. (5) The authorship of the treatises “De psalmodiae bono” and “De vigiliis servorum Dei” was formerly ascribed to Nicetas of Trier, but is now attributed with greatest probability to Nicetas of Remesiana. Their “internal evidence … proves that Nicetas felt the need of such a hymn as the Te Deum, and, so to speak, lived in the same sphere of religious thought” (Burn, cii), while parallel passages from his writings (given by Burn, ciii-civ), although offering no direct quotation, exhibit similarity of thought and diction.

The authorship of St. Nicetas is questioned by some scholars (Cagin, P. Wagner, Agaesse, Koestlin, Blume). Among the passages cited to indicate a much earlier origin perhaps the most notable one is that from the “De mortalitate” (xxvi) of St. Cyprian of Carthage, written during the plague in 252: “Illic apostolorum gloriosus chorus; illic prophetarum exsultantium numerus; ihic martyrum innumerabilis populus ob certaminis et passionis gloriam coronatus; triumphantes virgines, quae concupiscentiam carnie et corporis continentia robore subegerunt; remunerati misericordes.” There is an obvious similarity between this and the verses of the Te Deum: “Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus; te prophetarum laudabilis numerus; te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus [verses 7-9] ….Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis gloria munerari [verse 21]”. Perhaps the “remunerati” of St. Cyprian and the “munerari” of the oldest texts of the Te Deum are a mere coincidence; but the rest of the similar passages cannot be an accident. Which was the earlier—the Te Deum or the text of St. Cyprian? It is contended that, however well known and highly esteemed the works of the saint, there is little in this particular passage to strike the fancy of a hymn-writer, while it would be a very natural thing for a prose writer to borrow some expressions from such a widely-sung hymn as the Te Deum may have been. Moreover, if the hymn was borrowed from St. Cyprian, why did it not include the “virgines” instead of stopping with “martyrum”? Additional argument for a very early origin of at least the first ten verses of the hymn is found in comparisons between these and the texts and melody of the Prefaces, in the structure of the Gloria in excelsis, in the rhythmic and melodic character of the Te Deum, in the Greek translations.

This archaeological argument cannot be stated intelligibly in a few words, but some of its bases may be mentioned: (a) If the Te Deum were composed in the latter years of the fourth century, it would be a unique exception to the hymnology of that time, which was all fashioned in the regular strophic and metric manner introduced and popularized by St. Ambrose. (b) From the point of view of melody, the hymn has three divisions: verses 1-13, 14-20, 21 to the end. The first melody (I-13) is apparently older than the others. (c) From the point of view of rhythm, there are also three divisions: verses 14-21 exhibit perfect conformity with the laws of the “cursus”, or rhythmic closes, which date from the fourth century, verses 1-10, however, have only five (4, 6 and 8-10) verses closed with the rhythmical cursus, and these five are supposed to be the result of accident; verses 22 to the end belong to a wholly different category, being taken mostly from the Psalms (xxvii, 9; cxliv, 2; cxxii, 3; xxxii, 22; xxx, 2). It is argued that, judged by melody and rhythm, the first ten verses form a complete hymn (verses 11-13 having been added subsequently as a doxology) to God the Father, while verses 14-21 form a hymn (added in the fourth century) to Christ. As noted above, the first ten verses offer (vv. 7-9) the parallelism with the words of St. Cyprian, and are, for the various reasons outlined, supposed to ante-date the year 252. Speculation ascribes their author-ship to Pope St. Anicetus (d. about A.D. 168).

Three textual points may be noted here. “Unigenitum” in v. 12 is considered the original reading (“unicum” having supplanted it perhaps through the influence of the Apostles’ Creed, in which “unigenituin” was rare). In v. 21 nearly all MSS. read “munerari” (gloria munerari) instead of the present “numerari” (in gloria numerari) which Blume has found in a twelfth-century MS., and which perhaps was suggested by the words in the Canon of the Mass: “in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari” Verse 16, “Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem”, etc., offers much opportunity for critical discussion. Most of the old MSS. favor “suscepisti” (with “liberandum”, followed sometimes by “mundum “—Tu ad liberandum mundum suscepisti hominem): but “suscepturus”, contended for by Abbo of Fleury, Hine. mar, and others, and quoted in a letter of Cyprian of Toulon (about 530), was probably the original word. The verse does not lend itself readily to translation. A fifteenth-century translation runs: “When thou shouldest take upon Thee mankind for the deliveronce of men, thou horydest not the Virgin’s womb”. With similar accuracy a Sarum “Primer” of 1504 has: “Thou (when thou shouldest take upon our nature to delyver man) dydest not abhorre a virgynes wombe”. The last “Primer” of Henry VIII (1546) was probably the first to introduce the ambiguous rendering: “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man”. The (Baltimore) “Manual of Prayers” is not more accurate: “Thou having taken upon Thee to deliver man, didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb”. The “Roman Missal Adapted to the Use of the Laity” (New York, 1901) is laboriously accurate: “Thou, when about to take upon Thee man to deliver him, didst not fear the Virgin’s womb”. The “Missal for the Use of the Laity” (London, new ed. 1903, cxxxiv) gives a new version in rhyme:

“Thou, to redeem lost man from hell’s dark doom,
Didst not abhor the lowly Virgin’s womb”.

This is not far removed from Dryden’s version:

“Thou, who to save the world’s impending doom,
Vouchsaf’dst to dwell within a Virgin’s womb”.

The general rubrics (titulus XXXI) of the Roman Breviary direct the recitation of the Te Deum at the end of Matins: (a) on all feasts throughout the year, whether of nine or of three lessons, and throughout their octaves. It is said on the octave day of the feast of the Holy Innocents, but not on the feast it-self unless this should fall on Sunday; (b) on all Sundays from Easter (inclusively) to Advent (exclusively) and from Christmas (inclusively) to Septuagesima (exclusively); (c) on all ferial days during Eastertide (namely from Low Sunday to Ascension Day) except Rogation Monday. For the sake of greater explicitness, the rubrics add that it is not said on the Sundays of Advent or from Septuagesima to Palm Sunday inclusively, or on ferial days outside of Easter-tide. It is said immediately after the last lesson, and therefore replaces the third or ninth responsory, as the case may be; but on days when it is not said, its place is occupied by the responsory. The Te Deum is followed immediately by Lauds except on Christmas Day (when it is followed by the prayer, and this by Mass). In general, the Te Deum may be said to follow the same rubric as the Gloria in excelsis at Mass.

In addition to its use in the Divine Office, the Te Deum is occasionally sung in thanksgiving to God for some special blessing (e.g. the election of a pope, the consecration of a bishop, the canonization of a saint, the profession of a religious, the publication of a treaty of peace, a royal coronation, etc.), and then usually after Mass or Divine Office, or as a separate religious ceremony. When sung thus immediately before or after Mass, the celebrant, who intones the hymn, may wear the vestments appropriate in color to the day, unless these should happen to be black. Otherwise, while the rubrics prescribe no special color, violet is forbidden in processions of thanksgiving (pro gratiarum action), green is inappropriate for such solemn occasions, red (though permissible) would not suggest itself, unless some such feast as Pentecost, for example, should call for it. White, therefore, or gold, which is considered its equivalent, is thus left as the most suitable color. The choir and congregation sing the hymn standing, even when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, but kneel during the verse “Te ergo quaesumus …” At the end the versicles “Benedicamus Patrem” etc. are added, followed by the single prayer “Deus cujus misericordi”.

There is practically but one plain-chant melody for the hymn, varying greatly, however, in different MSS. The official and typical melody is now given in the Vatican Gradual (1908) in the Appendix (pro gratiarum actions) in two forms, the tones solemnis (in which every verse begins with preparatory or intoning notes) and juxta morem romanum (in which the verse begins ex abrupto). Pothier notes a strong affinity between the melodies of the Te Deuin laudamus, to dominum confitemur and those of the Preface, Per omnia … Sursum corda. He also points out (Melodies gregoriennes, 239) a psalmodic turn in the melody of the Te Deum, strengthened by the introduction of a distinct antiphon-form at the words “Aeterna fac”, etc., the antiphonal melody being thrice repeated. While the chant melody has been frequently used as a canto fermo for polyphonic Masses, the polyphonic settings are few compared with many hymns of less prominence. Palestrina, Jacob Haendl, and Felice Anerio have thus treated the old melody. Italian composers of the seventeenth century made settings for several choirs with organ and orchestra. Cherubini’s manuscript setting is lost. Berlioz considered the finale of his own setting (for two choirs, orchestra, and organ) “undoubtedly his finest work”. Sometimes the alternate verses only are set to music, so that another choir or the congregation may sing the other verses in plain-chant (as in the Miserere, q. v.). The Latin text has been translated into English and has received many settings in that form. Handel’s “Utrecht” and “Dettingen” Te Deums are famous. One interesting feature of the latter is that it borrows inspiration for ten of its numbers from a Te Deum composed by the Minorite Francesco Urio, an able Milanese composer of the seventeenth-eighteenth century. Perhaps the most satisfactory of the recent settings of the Te Deum for use in Church is that of Edgar Tinel, written to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Belgian independence (1830-1905). It is composed for six-voiced mixed choir, orchestra, and organ.

There are about twenty-five metrical translations into English, including the sonorous version of Dry-den, “Thee, Sovereign God, our grateful accents praise”, and that of the Rev. Clarence A. Walworth, commonly used in American Catholic hymnals, “Holy God, we praise Thy Name”, but written before his conversion, as it appeared with date of 1853 in the “Evangelical Hymnal”. There are also six versions into English based on Luther’s free rendering into German. There are many German versions, of which the “Grosser Gott, wir loben dich” is commonly used in Catholic churches. Probably the most recent Catholic translation is that found in the new edition (London, 1903) of Provost Husenbeth’s “Missal for the Use of the Laity“, “We praise thee, God: we glorify thee, Lord.”


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