Indebted to a sore throat

Suppose you are a deacon coming down with unusual hoarseness in the evening of Good Friday. You are scheduled to chant the Exsultet in the Easter Vigil the following Holy Saturday. What will you do? Probably an ‘overdose’ of Strepsils or Dequadin, right? Or, if your throat craves a more ‘esoteric’ approach, pei pa koa or salabat, right? But this would only be the first part of Homo proponit, Deus disponit. For the second part, whose special intercession would you ask to obtain a swift restitution of your vocal faculties? Saint Blaise, the martyred bishop of Sebaste, is the first one that comes to mind, naturally. After all, there is a special blessing of throats on his feast day.

Oratory Easter Vigil 2017-3

In the 8th century, however, a Lombard historian (at the same time a deacon in Rome and a monk in Monte Cassino), by the name of Paul Warnefried, invoked Saint John the Baptist, most likely inspired by how the birth of the Precursor loosened the tongue of his father [1]. On Holy Saturday, before the Vigil, Paul wrote a poem, in perhaps the best classical metre there is (the Sapphic Adonic metre), which he dedicated to Saint John, asking in the very first stanza for the healing of his throat [2]:

Ūt quĕānt lāxīs rĕsŏnāre fībrīs
Mīră gēstōrūm fămŭlī tŭōrūm
Sōlvĕ pōllūtī lăbĭī rĕātūm,
Sānctĕ Iŏānnes.

Quantitatively speaking, this stanza is indeed made up of three Sapphic verses and one Adonic verse. The entire stanza is a complex sentence, the first two verses being the subordinate or dependent clause. The independent clause is in the imperative: O Saint John, cleanse the guilt of the stained lip. The dependent clause, with the subject (famuli) and the direct object (mira) in the second verse, and the verb phrase (queant resonare) in the first, goes this way: That thy servants may be able to resound with loosened voices [3] the wonders of thy deeds.

La natività di San Giovanni Battista
La nascita di San Giovanni Battista | Jacopo Robusti, il Tintoretto | c. 1554

Excluding the fact that the poem eventually made its way to the Divine Office (which we shall not touch here), what Paul the Deacon did achieved two things: one that is immediate; and another that is long-lived. That very same day, the soreness of his throat miraculously resolved, enabling our Roman deacon to chant the Exsultet. Guido d’Arezzo picked up the poem later and applied the words to the melody used for Horace’s Ad Phyllidem [4], as evidenced by a 10th-century manuscript (which appears on the cover of a fresh translation of the Odes [5] here), and then used the first and sixth (after the anceps at the caesura) syllables of each of the Sapphic verses to produce a mnemonic device for easily familiarising with the notes of the mediaeval hexachord [6].

Ūt quĕānt lāxīs sŏnāre fībrīs
ră gēstōrūm mŭlī tŭōrūm
Sōlvĕ pōllūtī bĭī rĕātūm,
Sānctĕ Iŏānnes.

The hymn sounds like this. (Except the one by Vianini in probably the Ambrosian recension, we could not find a video of sufficient quality with both chant and notation matching. This one has the Liber notation but with the monastic rendition.)

Back to our topic. Subsequent musicologists modified the mnemonics: changing ut to do during the Renaissance in order for each note allegedly to end in an open vowel (c/o Giovanni Battista Doni); adding si from the first letters of the Adonic verse for the seventh note to complete the diatonic scale; and, finally, changing si to ti in English-speaking countries in the 19th century in order for each note to begin with a different letter (c/o Sarah Anne Glover). The rest is history.

It would be overcompensating, but isn’t it amazing how one pre-Paschaltide sore throat moved the gears of the entire body of musical discipline?

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

[1] Lk. 1, 63–64.
[2] Guillaume Durand, Prochiron, bk. 7, ch. 14.
[3] A quick digression. The word fibra in the appositive is tricky. We render it as voice (in deference to the more illustrious churchmen who have translated this before), when its literal meaning is fibre or filament. By extension, it can mean nerve in the body. However, it is commonly associated with the liver, and, again, by extension, to the entrails or the bowels. Figuratively, it can also mean sensibility. Our interest lingers upon the connection with the liver, since the Tagalog luwalhatì and dalamhatì both have liver connections (the hatì etymon). In the Austronesian culture, the hatì, that is, the liver, is considered to be the seat of emotion. Possessed with this knowledge, from our point of view, laxis fibris (loose liver) appears now closer now to luwalhatì (glory or glorification) than to loosened voices.
[4] Horace, Carmina, bk. 4, ode 11.
[5] Stuart Lyons, Horace’s Odes and the mystery of do-re-mi (2007), Oxford.
[6] Hugh Henry, Ut queant laxis resonare fibris: The Catholic Encyclopedia 15 (1912), New York:


5 thoughts on “Indebted to a sore throat

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