Sunday, June 24, 2007

Ut queant laxis

There's a famous hymn for the feast of St John the Baptist, written by Paul the Deacon in the 8th Century A.D., which begins "Ut queant laxis resonare fibris".

It's famous mainly because it is the origin of the names ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la to name the notes of the musical scale (the plainsong tune to this hymn, which, alas, we did not sing this morning, starts on the tonic with the word "ut", and then "re-" of resonare occurs on the second note of the scale, and so on with each new five or six syllable phrase starting one note higher). This way of naming the notes was apparently invented by Guido of Arezzo in the tenth century. "Ut", for the tonic, was changed to "Do" in the sixteenth century by someone called Hubert Waelrant.

Paul the Deacon's hymn came in three parts. "Ut queant laxis" is the first part, five verses, and is set for vespers on the eve of the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist; the second part "Antra deserti teneris sub annis" is set for Matins, and the third part "O nimis felix, meritique celsi" is set for Lauds.

Translations of two of these parts were included in the English Hymnal, with Ut queant laxis set as office hymn for evensong and Antra deserti set as office hymn for matins (Hymns 223 and 224, both to the same tune though, oddly, the plainsong tune given in EH was not ut queant laxis.) The EH version, translated by R. Ellis Roberts, presumably specially for this hymnal, begins with a verse that goes like this
Let thine example, Holy John, remind us
Ere we can meetly sing thy deeds of wonder,
Hearts must be chastened, and the bonds that bind us
Broken asunder.
It's true that this is not entirely effective as a translation of the Latin, which is a plea to Saint John himself to cleanse our polluted lips of the sin (reatum) so that we can sing with loosened vocal cords (laxis fibris) the wonders of his deeds. It's said that this verse was composed by Paul the Deacon after he'd had some trouble intoning the Exsultet at the Easter service, and the verse is a prayer to avert such an affliction. Given how the hymn goes on, he's evidently adverting to the affliction that silenced Zechariah when he doubted the word of the Lord, and he's asking that our vocal cords won't be seized up in the same way; so, pace Ellis, it's not John's example that needs to remind us of this risk, but Zechariah's. Here's the Latin for verse 1.
Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Joannes.
Still, Ellis proceeds to give us the rest of the hymn pretty accurately, with beautifully formed stanzas that rhyme first and third, second and fourth (although Paul the Deacon didn't use rhymes in this hymn). I won't bore you with the details now, but will add them at the foot of the post.

By contrast the New English Hymnal has done some of its dastardly deeds.

First, notice that it no longer claims that this hymn is actually "Ut queant laxis" at all. No Latin is given at the head of the hymn. Yet it does have that metre and it is set to that tune.

Instead they say that it is a hymn by the "EDITORS based on the Latin of Paul the Deacon 730-99".

This is always a bad sign. It means they've decided they can improve on Paul the Deacon's sentiments with some drivel of their own.

So what heinous crimes have they committed on this ancient and famous text?

Well, predictably enough the first and oh-so-famous verse about not having our voices silenced has gone altogether.

Perhaps they didn't see that it is about the story of Zechariah's silence?

Perhaps they couldn't find a way to put it into good English in sapphics?

Anyway, what they've done is invent a kind of introductory verse in the form of one of those abbreviated death announcements in the newspaper:
On this high feast day honour we the Baptist,
Greatest and last of Isreal's line of prophets,
Kinsman of Jesus, herald of salvation,
Chosen forerunner.
Then they give us two verses that are translations of verses 2 and 3 of the Latin original, though of course, in the absence of verse 1, it's now become rather pointless to narrate the story of Zechariah's dumbness.

Verse four in the original was an extremely clever composition recalling the occasion when Mary visited Elizabeth; and John, then still in the womb, recognised the babe in Mary's womb as king, hence acting already as a prophet revealing hidden mysteries to the two mothers even before his birth. This verse has gone entirely from the EDITORS' substitute, even though it was an eminently suitable event to recall on this particular day, celebrating the birth of the Forerunner.

Instead we have what appears to be a set of completely random ramblings about John the Baptist, mostly without foundation, some positively false as far as I can see. On what basis, for example, do they say "Greater art thou than all the sons of Adam"? Presumably this is supposed to reflect Luke 7:28 "For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." Well, first what Jesus says there is nothing at all about sons of Adam, but rather about those born of woman. And since Jesus himself is born of a woman, this has got to be a paradox, since many texts testify to John saying that "He who comes after me is greater than I " and so on. And second, even if we took it straight, that among those born of woman, John is greater than any other prophet, Jesus's next saying undercuts it by saying that that's no big deal since anyone in the kingdom of God is greater than that. I suppose the editors may have been prompted by verse 8 of the complete text (see below) but they haven't really got it right, have they? In fact Ellis Roberts does it better, don't you think? (see verse 7 of the English translation at the end of this post)

The rest of their verse 'Lowly in spirit, faithfully proclaiming Israel's Messiah, Jesus our Redeemer, Thus we exalt thee"— all this is just bubble wrap to fill up the space in the verse. It has no theological import or profundity and adds no spiritual uplift. Rather, downlift.

All hymn books add a trinitarian doxology as the last verse, at the end of part one. The NEH has given us a version that presumably purports to be a translation of the last verse of Paul the Deacon's hymn.

But overall, the result is a very sad hymn, because the two really distinctive verses with some theological stuffing have been cut and replaced with a sorry mess. Oh how sad! How very sad! How twentieth century...

Read to the bottom of the post for this week's competition.

Here, for interest, is first the complete Latin text of all three parts of Paul the Deacon's work:

1.
Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes!
2.
Nuntius celso veniens Olympo
te patri magnum fore nasciturum,
nomen et vitae seriem gerendae
ordine promit.

3.
Ille promissi dubius superni
perdidit promptae modulos loquelae;
sed reformasti genitus peremptae
organa vocis.

4.
Ventris abstruso positus cubili
senseras regem thalamo manentem,
hinc parens nati meritis uterque
abdita pandit.

5.
Antra deserti teneris sub annis
civium turmas fugiens, petisti,
ne levi saltim maculare vitam
famine posses.

6.
Praebuit hirtum tegimen camelus,
artubus sacris strofium bidentis,
cui latex haustum, sociata pastum
mella locustis.

7.
Caeteri tantum cecinere vatum
corde praesago iubar adfuturum;
tu quidem mundi scelus auferentem
indice prodis.

8.
Non fuit vasti spatium per orbis
sanctior quisquam genitus Iohanne,
qui nefas saecli meruit lavantem
tingere limphis.

9.
O nimis felix meritique celsi
nesciens labem nivei pudoris,
prepotens martyr heremique cultor,
maxime vatum!

10.
Serta ter denis alios coronant
aucta crementis, duplicata quosdam;
trina centeno cumulata fructu
te, sacer, ornant.

11.
Nunc potens nostri meritis opimis
pectoris duros lapides repelle
asperum planans iter, et reflexos
dirige calles,

12.
ut pius mundi sator et redemptor
mentibus pulsa luvione puris
rite dignetur veniens sacratos
ponere gressus.

13.
Laudibus cives celebrant superni
te, deus simplex pariterque trine,
supplices ac nos veniam precamur:
parce redemptis!

And now here's the EH translation:

Let thine example, holy John, remind us,
Ere we can meetly sing thy deeds of wonder,
Hearts must be chastened, and the bonds that bind us
Broken asunder!

Lo! a swift angel, from the skies descending,
Tells to thy father what shall be thy naming;
All thy life’s greatness to its bitter ending
Duly proclaiming.

But when he doubted what the angel told him
Came to him dumbness to confirm the story;
At thine appearing, healed again behold him,
Chanting thy glory!

Oh! what a splendour and a revelation
Came to each mother, at thy joyful leaping,
Greeting thy Monarch, King of every nation,
In the womb sleeping.

E'en in they childhood, mid the desert places,
Thou hadst a refuge from the city gainèd,
Far from all slander and its bitter traces
Living unstainèd.

Often had prophets in the distant ages
Sung to announce the Daystar and to name him;
But as the Saviour, last of all the sages,
Thou didst proclaim him.

Than John the Baptist, none of all Eve's daughters,
E'er bore a greater whether high or lowly,
He was thought worthy, washing in the waters
Jesus the holy.

Angels in orders everlasting praise Thee,
God, in Thy triune majesty tremendous,
Hark to the prayers we, penitents, upraise Thee:
Save and defend us.

And finally, this week's competition. Can you produce a better translation of verse 1 of this hymn, retaining the metre of the original, but not necessarily the rhyme scheme introduced by Ellis Roberts? Answers in a comment please....

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