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Ut Queant Laxis Resonare Fibris

The first line of a hymn in honor of St. John the Baptist

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Ut Queant Laxis Resonare Fibris, the first line of a hymn in honor of St. John the Baptist. The Roman Breviary divides it into three parts and assigns the first, “Ut queant laxis”, etc., to Vespers, the second, “Antra deserti teneris sub annis”, to Matins, the third, “O nimis felix, meritique celsi”, to Lauds, of the feast of the Nativity of St. John (June 24). With hymnologists generally, Dreves ascribes the authorship to Paulus Diaconus and expresses surprise at the doubt of Duemmler, for which he can see no reason. The hymn is written in Sapphic stanzas, of which the first is famous in the history of music for the reason that the notes of the melody corresponding with the initial syllables of the six hemistichs are the first six notes of the diatonic scale of C. This fact led to the syllabic naming of the notes as Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, as may be shown by capitalizing the initial syllables of the hemistichs:

UT queant laxis Resonare fibris Mira gestorum Famuli tuorum, Solve polluti Labii reatum, Sancte Ioannes.

Guido of Arezzo showed his pupils an easier method of determining the sounds of the scale than by the use of the monochord. His method was that of comparison of a known melody with an unknown one which was to be learned, and for this purpose he frequently chose the well-known melody of the “Ut queant laxis”. Against a common view of musical writers, Dom Pothier contends that Guido did not actually give these syllabic names to the notes, did not invent the hexachordal system, etc., but that insensibly the comparison of the melodies led to the syllabic naming. When a new name for the seventh, or leading, note of our octave was desired, Erich Van der Putten suggested, in 1599, the syllabic BI of “labii”, but a vast majority of musical theorists supported the happier thought of the syllable SI, formed by the initial letters of the two words of the last line. UT has been generally replaced by DO because of the open sound of the latter. Durandus says that the hymn was composed by Paul the Deacon on a certain Holy Saturday when, having to chant the “Exsultet” for the blessing of the paschal candle, he found himself suffering from an unwonted hoarseness. Perhaps bethinking himself of the restoration of voice to the father of the Baptist, he implored a similar help in the first stanza. The melody has been found in a manuscript of the tenth century, applied to the words of Horace’s Ode to Phyllis, “Est mihi nonum superantis annum”. The hymn offers exegetical difficulties in the stanza “Ventris obstruso”, etc. Littledale’s version, used in Bute’s “The Roman Breviary“, refers the “uterque parens” to Mary and Elizabeth:

“Pent in the closet of the womb, thy Savior Thou didst adore within His chamber stained: Thus did each parent in their unborn offspring Mysteries find.”

Caswall translates similarly: “What time Elizabeth and Mary sang.” Pauly refers the two words to Zachary (for his canticle of the Benedictus) and Elizabeth (for her address to Mary: “Blessed art thou among women”, etc.); and “uterque” would better support this view. Also, “Mysteries find” is a poor version of “Abdita pandit”, since it conceals the allusion to the twofold “utterance” of the parents. Greater difficulty is found in the interpretation of the stanza “Serta ter denis”, etc. A sufficiently close rendering would be:

“Some crowns with glory thirtyfold are shining;Others, a double flower and fruit combining:Thy trinal chaplet bears an intertwining Hundredfold fruitage.”

This is an evident allusion to the parable of the sower (Matt., xiii, 8) whose seed fell upon good ground and brought forth fruit, “some an hundredfold, some sixty-fold, and some thirtyfold”; but the composer of the hymn clearly adds the thought of a triple crown—perhaps that of Precursor, Prophet, Martyr; perhaps that of Prophet, Virgin, Martyr.


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