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The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal


The use of hymns in the Western Church dates from the fourth century, from the days of the two illustrious Doctors of the Church, SS. Hilary and Ambrose. The first in point of time to write hymns was Hilary, the ever vigilant bishop of Poitiers (d. 368). St. Hilary, who had earned for himself the title of Malleus Arianorum, “the Hammer of the Arians,” was sent into exile by the Arian Emperor Constantius. His place of exile was Phrygia, a country in western Asia Minor. During the six years of his enforced sojourn among the Greeks, he became familiar with Greek metrical hymns which were at that time coming into use among the Christians in the East. On his return to Poitiers in 361 he began the writing of Latin hymns in the West. His efforts were not crowned with great success. Most of his hymns have perished and many of those which bear his name are the compositions of later writers. In 1887, three fragments of hymns from St. Hilary’s Liber Hymnorum were discovered; these are probably the only genuine hymns of St. Hilary that have survived.

To St. Ambrose (340-397), the great Bishop of Milan, is to be ascribed the honor of being the real founder of hymnody in the West. St. Ambrose began the writing of hymns as a means of combating the pernicious doctrines of the Arians. His hymns were used to convey correct Catholic doctrine to the minds and hearts of his people. For this purpose he chose with remarkable judgment a simple stroph consisting of four iambic dimeters—four lines of eight syllables each. This, which is the simplest of all the lyric meters, is most suitable for congregational singing and is easily memorized. The hymns of St. Ambrose became very popular, and from Milan they spread rapidly throughout the West. Many imitators arose who imitated the style and meter of St. Ambrose. All such hymns were give the general name Ambrosiani—Ambrosian hymns. So popular were the hymns of St. Ambrose and of the Ambrosian school of hymn-writers that with a few insignificant exceptions hymns in this meter were almost exclusively used down to the eleventh century, nor did other meters come into extensive use until as late as the sixteenth century. Even to this day hymns written by St. Ambrose or by his imitators greatly predominate in the Breviary. H. A. Daniel in his Thesaurus Hymnologicus (Vol. 1), gives ninety-two hymns which he ascribes to St. Ambrose or to his contemporaries or successors. Many of these Ambrosiani are certainly not the work of St. Ambrose. The Benedictine editors of the works of St. Ambrose attribute to him twelve hymns. Father Dreves, the eminent hymnologist, after a careful study of the hymnaries in the Vatican and at Milan in 1893, gives it as his opinion that fourteen of the hymns ascribed to St. Ambrose are “genuine” and that four others are “possibly his.”

During the four centuries that elapsed between the death of St. Ambrose (397) and that of Charlemagne (814), many Christian poets sang in noble strains. In meter and outward form they imitated the hymns of St. Ambrose. Conspicuous among those whose hymns are used in the Divine Office are the Spanish poet Prudentius (d. 413) whose Cathemerinon is frequently mentioned in this volume; Seculius (5th cent.) who gave us the beautiful Christmas hymn A solis ortus cardine; Fortunatus (d. 609) “the last of the Latin poets of Gaul” and the author of the incomparable Vexilla Regis and of the sublime passion hymn Pange lingua; St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) to whom tradition assigns a place among the hymn-writers; Paul the Deacon (d. 799), a Benedictine of Monte Cassino, the author of the first Sapphic hymn Ut queant laxis; and Rabanus Maurus (d. 856), the learned Archbishop of Mainz, the probable author of the Veni Creator Spiritus.

The second period of hymn-writing embraces the period between the ninth and the sixteenth century. It was a period of the greatest activity. Many of the medieval hymn-writers were exceedingly prolific, and a mere mention of the names of those who distinguished themselves would be a lengthy task. The hymn-writers of the Middle Ages allowed themselves greater liberty than the earlier Christian poets, and in general the rules of prosody were disregarded. It is noticeable also that the hymns of this period became more subjective than the somewhat austere hymns of St. Ambrose and his imitators. Popular subjects were—the Passion and Wounds of Christ, His Holy Name, the Joys of Paradise, the Terrors of the Judgment, hymns in honor of Our Lady and of the Saints. Among the greatest names of this period is that of St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), the poet of the Blessed Sacrament; Bernard of Cluny (12th cent.), author of De Contemptu Mundi, a poem of 3,000 lines which is well known to English readers from Neale’s translations—”The world is very evil,” and “Jerusalem the golden,” which are found at the end of this volume. To this period also belongs Adam of St. Victor, the author of many sequences of incomparable beauty, and the most prominent and prolific hymn-writer of the Middle Ages. To these great names must be added that of Jacopone da Todi (d. 1306), the author of the tenderest of all poems, the Stabat Mater; and the still greater name of Thomas of Celano (d. circa 1255), the immortal author of the greatest of uninspired compositions, the Dies Iræ.

The third period of Latin hymn-writing extends to the present day. It is not a period marked by any great names nor has it been productive of any noteworthy new school of hymn-writers. As in all worldly things a period of growth and activity is followed by a period of decay. The art of Latin hymn-writing did not prove to be an exception to this rule. With the close of the Ages of Faith the sun of Latin hymnody set in all its splendor. Two causes conspired to make Latin hymn-writing a lost art. During the ages when hymnody flourished men thought in Latin and spoke Latin; for them Latin was a living language, and one fully capable of giving expression to the most subtle and refined thoughts and feelings of the human soul.

Fortunately also men gloried in their Faith and in the external manifestation of it in literature, in architecture, in painting, and in sculpture. Unfortunately these conditions obtain no longer. Latin has become a dead language even to scholars, and no one writes poetry in a language which he has not learned from his mother but from books. The second cause of the decay of hymnody was the Renaissance. To the Humanist no Latin poem was correct that did not measure up to the classical standards of the Augustan Age. Any deviation from this standard was a barbarism. “The Humanists,” says Father Clemens Blume, S.J., “abominated the rhythmical poetry of the Middle Ages from an exaggerated enthusiasm for ancient classical forms and meters. Hymnody then received its death blow as, on the revision of the Breviary under Pope Urban VIII, the medieval rhythmical hymns were forced into more classical forms by means of so-called corrections.” (Cath. Encycl., Art. Hymnody). Pope Urban was himself a Humanist, the last in fact of the Humanist Popes. During his reign a commission was appointed to revise the Breviary, and a special commission of four distinguished Jesuit scholars, Fathers Sarbiewski, Strada, Galluzzi, and Petrucci was appointed to correct the hymns of the Breviary. As a result of the labors of this commission, 952 corrections were made in the 98 hymns then in the Breviary. Eighty-one hymns were corrected: 58 alterations were made in the hymns of the Psalter, 359 in the Proper of the Season, 283 in the Proper of the Saints, and 252 in the Common of the Saints. The first lines of more than 30 hymns were altered.

The Jam lucis orto sidere, the Ave Maris Stella, the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, and a few others were spared. Some hymns were practically rewritten, others were scarcely touched. In 1629, the Sacred Congregation of Rites approved of the alterations, and by the Bull Divinam Psalmodian in 1632, Pope Urban VIII introduced them into the official edition of the Breviary. In connection with the revision of the hymns it should be borne in mind that the act of Urban VIII was a purely disciplinary act, one which the Church may recall at any time, and one which she probably will recall, for the work of the revisers is now generally regarded as a mistake. The hymns in their old form are still found in the Breviaries of the Benedictines, Dominicans, Cistercians, Carthusians, and probably a few others. And, strangely enough, they are still used in the two great Churches in Rome, St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran.

A word yet remains to be said as to when hymns were first made an integral part of the Divine Office. It seems fairly certain that St. Benedict, who wrote his Rule some ten or fifteen years before his death in 543, was the first to make hymns an integral part of the canonical hours. St. Benedict invariably styles these hymns Ambrosiani but does not name them. A century later hymns constituted a part of the Office of the secular clergy in Gaul and Spain. Rabanus Maurus (d. 856) testifies that hymns were in general use in his day. And last of all Rome admitted hymns into the Divine Office in the twelfth century. It must not be inferred, however, that no hymns were sung in the churches throughout the West until they were officially recognized as a part of the liturgical Office. From the days of St. Ambrose (d. 397) the singing of Latin hymns in the Church occupied the same position that is now accorded the singing of hymns in the vernacular. This is true even of conservative Rome long before the twelfth century. It might be recalled that Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), himself a hymn-writer of note, was for several years before his elevation to the Papacy a Benedictine abbot in the monastery of St. Andrew on the Cælian Hill. While there he must have become familiar with the Ambrosiani of the Benedictine Office which he sang daily. Nor is it conceivable, from what we know of his life, that as Pope he should not have encouraged the singing of hymns in the churches of Rome.


A considerable variety of meters has been employed by the Christian poets in the composition of Latin hymns. These meters or verse forms receive their name partly from the foot that chiefly predominates in them; as, Iambic, Trochaic, and partly from the number of meters or measures then contain; as, Dimeter, Trimeter; or from the name of the author who originated or employed a certain kind of verse: as, Sapphic, Glyconic, Asclepiadic, etc.

By far the greater part of the hymns is written in Iambic and Trochaic meters. In these meters Latin verses are measured not by single feet as in English, but by pairs or dipodies. In Latin it requires four Iambi or Trochees to make a Dimeter, while in English a verse with the same number of feet is called a Tetrameter. A Dimeter, therefore, in these meters, contains four Iambi or Trochees; a Trimeter six; and a Tetrameter eight.

The Romans learned their poetry, as they learned the other fine arts, from the Greeks. About two centuries before Christ the influence of Greek poetry began to manifest itself in the writings of Ennius, “the Father of Roman poetry.” The influence of Greek models increased from year to year till it culminated in the immortal works of Horace and Virgil in the Golden Age of Latin literature. Horace exemplifies all that is best in Latin poetry, and it was the poetry of Horace and his contemporaries that was the delight of the cultured Romans whose taste had been formed on Greek models. This poetry, it need scarcely be said, was strictly quantitative.

But together with this classical poetry there co-existed, and that too from the beginning of Latin letters, a purely rhythmical poetry, a poetry of the people, in which the ballads and folk songs of the common people were written. The common people knew nothing of quantity with its artificial and arbitrary rules which the poets had made. Quantitative poetry was therefore the poetry of the educated; rhythical or accentual poetry was the poetry of the common people. Now, the early hymns of the Church were likewise the songs of the people, and were necessarily written in a manner that would appeal to all the people and not merely to the cultured classes. This was effected by St. Ambrose and by the earlier writers of the Ambrosian school, by a compromise between the quantitative and the rhythmical principles. These writers made use of the simplest of all the lyric meters, the Iambic Dimeter, with its regular succession of short and long syllables; but they took care that the accents should in general fall on the long syllables. Their quantitative hymns can therefore be read rhythmically. In the composition of his hymns, St. Ambrose did not make use of any greater licenses than did Horace and his contemporaries. Later on, however, it is noticeable that less and less attention was paid to quantity and great attention to accent which began to replace it. As early as the fifth century many hymn-writers employed the rhythmical principle only. This process continued until in the Middle Ages all sense of long and short syllables had vanished, and hymns were written in accentual, non-quantitative meters. In studying the hymns chronologically, it will be observed also that the growth of rhyme kept pace with the growth of accent.

The scales given below illustrate the common quantitative forms of the various meters employed in the composition of Latin hymns. In non-quantitative Latin hymns, and in English hymns, accent marks may be substituted for the marks indicating the long syllables.

Scale “A” - Iambic Dimeter

⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
Te lucis ante terminum,
Rerum Creator poscimus,
Ut pro tua clementia
Sis præsul et custodia.
Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the World, we pray
That with Thy wonted favor Tho
Wouldst be our Guard and Keeper now.

In this meter a spondee or an anapest may be used in the first and third foot. By far the greater part of the Breviary hymns are composed in this meter. In English this is the well-known Long Meter (L.M.) exemplified above.

Scale “B” - Iambic Trimeter

⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
Decora lux æternitatis auream
Diem beatis irrigavit ignibus,
Apostolorum quæ coronat principes,
Reisque in astra liberam pandit viam.
The beauteous light of God’s eternal majesty
Streams down in golden rays to grace this holy day
Which crowned the princes of th’ Apostles’ glorious choir
And unto guilty mortals showed the heavenward way.

A spondee or an anapest may be used in the odd-numbered feet of the Latin hymns. See hymns: 89, 91, 116, 117, 124, 128.

Scale “C” - Trochaic Dimeter

― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
Dies iræ, dies illa,
Solvet sæclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Day of wrath, that day whose knelling
Gives to flames this earthly dwelling;
Psalm and Sibyl thus foretelling.

The Dies Iræ alone is written in this meter. Hymn 87.

Scale “D” - Trochaic Dimeter Catalectic

― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
Veni Sancte Spiritus,
Et emitte cœlitus
Lucis tuæ radium.
Holy Spirit, Lord of light,
From the clear celestial height,
Thy pure beaming radiance give.

See hymn 67, which alone is written in this meter. The Stabat Mater is composed of six-lines stanzas of trochaic dimeters, the third and sixth lines being catalectic. See hymns 54 and 57, with their translations.

Scale “E” - Trochaic Dimeter Brachycatalectic

― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
Ave maris stella,
Dei Mater Alma,
Atque semper Virgo,
Felix cœli porta.
Ave, Star of Ocean,
Child Divine who barest,
Mother, Ever-Virgin,
Heaven’s portal fairest.

In this hymn (alone) each line consists of three trochees. “Brachycataletic,” i.e., wanting two syllables or the last foot of the final dipody. See hymn 149 and its two translations.

Scale “F” - Trochaic Tetrameter Catalectic

― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
Pange, lingua, gloriosi lauream certaminis,
Et super crucis trophæo dic triumpham nobilem,
Qualiter Redemptor orbis immolatus vicerit.
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle, sing the ending of the fray;
Now above the Cross, the trophy, sound the loud triumphant lay:
Tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer, as a Victim won the day.

The cæsura uniformly follows the fourth foot—thus dividing each verse into a trochaic dimeter acatalectic, and a trochaic dimeter catalectic; thus,

Pange lingua gloriosi
Laurem certaminis, etc.
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
Sing the ending of the fray, etc.

In the Breviary the lines are uniformly broken in two at the cæsura, thus forming stanzas of six lines. See hymns 52, 53, 76, 119, 132, 134b, 168 and their English translations.

Scale “G” - The Asclepiadic Strophe

― ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
― ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
― ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
― ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ⌣ ―
Sanctorum meritis inclyta gaudia
Pangamus socii gestaque fortia:
Gliscens fert animus promere cantibus
       Victorum genus optimum.

This strophe consists of three Asclepiadic lines and one Glyconic. The above is a classic specimen of a hymn written in this meter. See the translations of hymns 77, 136, 159.

There is some difference of opinion as to how the classical Asclepiadic strophe should be read. This question is discussed in the article on this hymn in the Cath. Encycl. However, the majority of those who read these hymns in the Breviary, read them rhythmically as if written in dactyls. This is well exemplified in another article in the same work on the hymn Sacris solemniis—a hymn written in accentual, non-quantitative measures:

Lo! the Angelic Bread feedeth the sons of men:
Figures and types are fled never to come again.
O what a wondrous thing! Lowly and poor are fed,
       Banqueting on their Lord and King.

Hymns: 77, 92, 93, 94, 104, 118, 131, 136, 159.

Scale “H” - The Sapphic Strophe

― ⌣ ― ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ― ― ― ⌣ ⌣ ― ⌣ ― ⌣
― ⌣ ⌣ ― ―
Ecce jam noctis tenuatur umbra,
Lux et auroræ rutilans coruscat:
Supplices rerum Dominum canora
       Voce precemur.
Lo! the dim shadows of the night are waning;
Lightsome and blushing, dawn of the day returneth;
Fervent in spirit, to the mighty Father
       Pray we devoutly.

Each of the first three lines of the Sapphic strophe consists of a trochee, spondee, dactyl, and two trochees. The last syllable may be long or short. The fourth line is Adonic, and consists of a dactyl followed by a spondee. In the first three lines the place for the cæsura is generally after the fifth syllable. See hymns: 7, 10, 96, 105, 106, 113, 114, 115, 121, 135, 160, 164. Most of these hymns are translated in the meters, Sapphic and Adonic, of the originals.

The Canoncial Hours

The canonical hours are: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. [Today in English these are called Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, (Prime was suppressed), Midmorning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Midafternoon Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer, respectively.-D.C.] Matins is composed of parts called Nocturns or Vigils, two or three in number. Lauds was originally the concluding part of Matins. Even now Matins and Lauds are scarcely ever separated. The traditional view is that the Nocturns of Matins were recited at different times during the night. Outside of monastic communities, however, the observance of such nightly Vigils would scarcely be possible.

There is in the Breviary a hymn assigned to each of the canonical hours. Many of these hymns contain allusions which are better understood in both the literal and symbolical sense, when it is known at what particular part of the day or night the hymn was formerly sung. The following table will be found sufficiently accurate for all practical purposes.

Table “A” - When the Canonical Hours Were Formerly Said

Prime at 6am
Terce at 9am
First Nocturm of Matins at 9pm
Sext at 12noon
None at 3pm
Second Nocturm of Matins at 12midnight
Vespers at 6pm
Compline at nightfall
Third Nocturm of Matins at 3am
Lauds was said at daybreak

In appointing these times for the recitation of the canonical hours, the Church had in mind the greater divisions or hours of the Roman day. The Romans divided the day, from sunrise to sunset, into twelve equal parts called “hours.” These were the common hours. “Are there not twelve hours of the day?” (John 11, 9). They also (as did the Jews after the conquest) divided the day into four greater hours, and the night into four watches (custodiæ, vigiliæ, noctes) each of which was of three common hours’ duration. As the hours or watches of the Roman day and night were based on solar time, they varied in length with the season of the year. The season of the equinox is uniformly taken as the standard. At that time the duration of day and night being equal, the hours and watches were also equal. The following Tables illustrate the greater divisions of the Roman day and night, and a comparison with Table “A” will show how the Church adopted the ancient Roman subdivisions of the day and night as times of prayer.

Table “B” - The Greater Hours of the Roman Day

First Hour 6am to 9am
Third Hour 9am to 12noon
Sixth Hour 12noon to 3pm
Ninth Hour 3pm to 6pm
(6am Prime; 9am Terce; 12noon Sext; 3pm None; 6pm Vespers)

Table “C” - Roman Divisions of the Night

First Watch evening 6pm to 9pm
Second Watch midnight 9pm to 12midnight
Third Watch cock-crowing 12midnight to 3am
Fourth Watch morning 3am to 6am

These hours and watches are frequently mentioned in the New Testament. In a single verse St. Mark refers to the four watches. “You know not when the lord of the house cometh; at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning” (13, 35). The Catholic Encyclopedia contains instructive articles on each of the canonical hours; there is also an article on Breviary, and one on Nocturns.