Changing hymn texts

The original first verse (top) of the matins hymn of Epiphany (from the appendix of the Hymnariolum Adventus & Nativitatis) compared against the Urban-ised version (bottom) of the verse (from the Nocturnale Romanum)

Change to our liturgical texts did not end with the infamous Urbanite hymnographical classicalisation (the quantitative altīssimī donūm Deī flirts with classical metre but spars with a chant rhythm that faithfully favours its original Christian poetic dónum Déi altíssimi) eventually reversed after the Second Vatican Council, nor with the subsequent postconciliar mut(il)ations and antimediaevalist historical revisionism (peccatricem qui solvisti sounds like a musical apology for the centuries-old qui Mariam absolvisti) that evened out whatever good the aforementioned reversal boded. Well-meaning choristers and cantors continue to change the text of our hymns.

Our first example is the fifth stanza of Veni, Emmanuel, which appears correctly as below:

Veni, O Iesse virgula,
ex hostis tuos ungula,
de specu tuos tartari
educ et antro barathri.

Mantegna - Discesa al Limbo
Discesa al Limbo | Andrea Mantegna | 1492
Sint Jans - De Boom van Jesse
De boom van Jesse | Geertgen tot Sint Jans | c. 1500

Church musicians sometimes rewrite the boldfaced word above as spectu, presumably the ablative of an unknown and undocumented fourth declension Late Latin spectus. This change makes no sense since the stanza is already correct by all standards of Latin grammar. The whole stanza is an imperative, the two commands being veni (come, intransitive) and educ (lead out, transitive). The direct object of educ is, of course, tuos (yours), which appears twice, the only instances of the accusative case in the stanza. Singing this verse implores the Iesse virgula (Rod of Jesse, vocative) to lead out (educ) everyone who belongs to Him—his children, his faithful, his sheep, his disciples—(tuos) out of three places: out of the ungula hostis (claw of the enemy); from the specus tartari (abyss of hell); and from the antrum barathri (the cave of the netherworld). Notice likewise how the sequence progressively moves from the most intimate bosoms of the realm of darkness (the claw of the enemy) outwards to its exteriorities (the abyss, and finally the cave). The metred translation of this stanza unfortunately emasculates its exigent petition—O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem, | from ev’ry foe deliver them | that trust Thy mighty power to save, | and give them vict’ry o’er the grave—dynamically deleting ungula and equivalently enfeebling specus and antrum by reducing them into grave. This notwithstanding, let us keep in mind its true meaning, and, in Advent, filled with hope, let us correctly sing: Come, O Rod of Jesse, lead Thine faithful out of the claw of the enemy, from the abyss of hell, and from the cave of the netherworld.

The third stanza of O esca viatorum, which appears correctly as below, is our next example:

O Iesu, tuum vultum,
quem colimus occultum
sub panis specie,
fac, ut remoto velo,
post libera in coelo,
cernamus acie.

Raffaello - La disputa del Sacramento
La disputa del Sacramento | Raffaello Sanzio | 1509–1510
Bouts - Moses and the burning bush, with Moses removing his shoes
Mozes en het brandende braambos | Dirk Bouts (attr.) | c. 1465–1470

In this scenario, we sometimes find ourselves singing facie instead of acie. The stanza is again an imperative, the command being fac (make, intransitive). The accusative tuum vultum (Thine countenance), which the second and third lines modify, is the direct object of the subjunctive cernamus (may we see). When and where we hope to see the Lord’s face, the fourth and fifth lines declare. With what should we gaze at the Lord’s face, the ablative acie (pupil of the eye), described as libera (unrestricted), answers. Turning acie into facie (face, visage) sours the whole point of the stanza, and comes across as irreverent. Immediately associating acie with the sense invoked in that phrase applied to Our Lady—terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata (terrible as an army arrayed in battle)—is perhaps the pitfall that leads to this misfortune. But acies is not merely an army; it also means vision, sight, and, by extension, eye or the pupil of the eye. Now that we know better, let us abandon this misconstruction. Let us, from now on, correctly sing: O Jesus, afterwards in heaven, when the (sacramental) veil has been lifted, allow us to see with unrestricted eyes Thine countenance, which we worship hidden under the appearance of bread. Insist with facie and we might just be struck down for maintaining arrogance, where Moyses had once chosen to hide his face (cf. Ex. 3, 2, 6).

Our final example does not come from what we may call a Latin hymn of ‘good standing’. Nevertheless, choirs for some time have sung it in the Traditional Latin Mass despite its purportedly New Age provenance. The third stanza of this hymn, Veni, Domine, appears correctly as:

Deus meus, in te confido :
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
sine te nihil est in homine :
Iesu Christe, Redemptor omnium,
te laudamus ; veni, Domine.

Van Eyck - Het Lam Gods
Het Lam Gods | Jan van Eyck & Hubert van Eyck (attr.)| 1432
Bouts - Het verzamelen van het manna
Het verzamelen van het manna | Dirk Bouts | c. 1464–1468

For some reasons, it took us a long time to realise that we were approaching heresy by substituting homine with Domine, not to mention the difficult grammatical situation to which we were condemning ourselves. Firstly, to address the Lord, and then say that, without the Lord (sine te), nothing is in the Lord (nihil est in Domine), is an exercise in absurdity that borders on the preposterous. The more questionable thought, however, this sponsors is the claim that nothing is in the Lord! Some comment that error can be averted by construing nihil est in Domine as nobody is in the Lord, but this is ultimately futile since, ignoring the impaired declension of Domine, nobody is normally nemo or, to some extent, nullus in Latin. Secondly, as noted, Domine is declined incorrectly. The preposition in requires the accusative or ablative of the noun or pronoun (which homine, the ablative of homo, satisfies), never its vocative (which is what Domine is with respect to Dominus). Finally, the confusion most probably stemmed from the difficulty of resolving the phonetic sound produced by its singer, the Czech actress Barbora Basiková. However, listening more closely should suffice to convince us that the phoneme being produced is a voiced glottal fricative, such as [ɦ] (as in a Bohemicised reading of homine), and not a voiced alveolar stop, such as [d̪] (as in a Bohemicised reading of Domine). Considering these three points—rational, grammatical, and phonetic—we should, starting today, sing this correctly, if ever we still elect to sing it at Mass: O My God, in Thee I trust; O Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, without Thee nothing is in man; O Jesus Christ, Redeemer of all, Thee we praise, come, O Lord.

Pronaos of the Pantheon
Bare and bronze-less ceiling of the Pantheon’s pronaos

Pope Urban VIII, born Maffeo Barberini, who had the bronze ceiling of the Pantheon’s pronaos removed and allegedly melted for use on the baldacchino of Saint Peter’s basilica, earned a brilliant lampoon on Pasquino: Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did). He also had the Latin hymnal reformed (read: classicalised). So, unless we stop tampering with the text of our Latin hymns, unless we put an end to this hymnological metalogosis, then a similar pasquinade can be levelled against us: Quod non fecerunt Barberini, cantores fecerunt moderni (What the Barberini did not do, modern cantors did). Quieta non movere, as Romans used to say. Hymns are part of our Catholic patrimony. They may not occupy the same position as sequences and antiphons in the Liturgy, but they are our patrimony nonetheless. Just as man has a body and a soul, a hymn has a melody and a text. Let us keep both whole.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

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