Saturday, March 24, 2007

Vexilla regis prodeunt

When we went to sing evensong at Bury St Edmunds one of the hymns prescribed for the service was "The Royal Banners Forward Go". There was a great to-do among us the visiting choir "because," (said some) "they've added two verses which aren't normally there."

Well I think the truth is this (though I've lost the service sheet so I'm not absolutely sure). It's not that they'd added two verses. It's that the New English Hymnal has left one out, and also that the photocopy of the words and melody that we had in our choir folders was incomplete and had the last verse left off, due presumably to the fact that the last verse was over the page in the hymn books.

The New English Hymnal supplies seven verses of vexilla regis. The old English Hymnal supplied the same seven. They are given in J.M. Neale's translation but the NEH has made one change to the translation ("The universal Lord is he who reigns and triumphs from the tree" has now replaced "Amidst the nations, God, saith he, hath reigned and triumphed from the tree" in verse 3).

But what is the eighth verse that is missing?

Eight verses are given in Frederick Brittain's Penguin Book of Latin Verse attributed to Venantius Fortunatus. You don't have to go far to find one that's missing in our hymnals: here is verse 2 of the original:

Confixa clavis viscera
Tendens manus, vestigia,
Redemptionis gratia
Hic immolata est hostia.

Roughly this means "His innards were pierced through with the nails, stretching out his hands, his feet, for the sake of redemption he here was sacrificed as victim."

However if we thought that was the missing verse we're going too fast, because the last two verses of the Latin text are also not in the translation. In fact what we get in the EH and the NEH is only five of eight verses written by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), with two extra verses that form the doxology which were apparently added (in Latin) by someone else a bit later. You can find the whole of it (ten verses, including the two that are not by VF) here along with the translation (of selected verses) by Walter Kirkham Blount (d 1717), which Michael Martin there suggests is considered to be the best one ever done. As you'll see, the three unfamiliar verses don't appear in Blount's translation either. So what we got in Bury St Edmunds was a bit more of what Venantius F wrote. However, since I don't have the service sheet with me I can't tell you exactly which other verse we got (but probably one of the last two judging by where it came in the hymn).

Not something to complain about, it seems to me. The more the merrier, I say.


Virginia said...

Not to do with Vexilla Regis, but our Rector reflects in his April letter in the church magazine that NEH provides 21 hymns for Passiontide /Good Friday and 35 for Eastertide, but that Holy Saturday is 'a day of silence so far as this Hymn Book is concerned'. But had he looked at the English Hymnal (in use in one of the parish churches) he'd have found two hymns there for 'Good Friday Evening and Easter Even'.

Catherine Rowett said...

I think it's kind of liturgically right that Holy Saturday is a time of silence and waiting. We don't have much to sing about then, and just as the bells fall silent on Maundy Thursday, so also it seems that the hymn books fall shut.

But that said, there's plenty for "Easter Eve" in the liturgical section of the NEH which provides plainsong psalms with their antiphons for the Easter Vigil. Of course if you have the vigil at 4.30 a.m. on Easter Sunday as we do, this isn't exactly Holy Saturday, but it is part of the time of waiting before dawn. And singing psalms off by heart in the dark is what we're supposed to do then.

Catherine Rowett said...

I've just discovered a copy of the service sheet from that service at Bury St Edmunds so I can now tell you the answer to what the extra verse was. Actually it's not as happy an answer as I imagined. It looks (though I didn't notice at the time) as though the extra verse we got was actually a second alternative translation of verse 5, so we sang the same verse twice (indeed lines 3 and 4 of the two verses were not just translating the same text but identical translations).
This is what we sang (verses 5 and 6 of the St Edmundsbury set):

Blest tree whose chosen branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore,
The price of humankind to pay
Ans spoil the spoiler of his prey.

On whose dear arms so widely flung,
The weight of this world's ransom hung,
The price of humankind to pay
And spoil the spoiler of his prey.

Alas these are both rendering the same verse in the Latin, namely

Beata, cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi:
statera facta corporis,
praedam tulitque tartari.

I rather think this was probably a typing error in the preparation of the service sheet. Presumably the alternative rendering of lines 1 to 2 of this verse comes from some other hymn book. It is not unlike the version by Walter Kirkham Blount mentioned in my post.