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A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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“Catholics in America have been the heirs of a sentimental and subjective hymn tradition that, for some reason or other, has taken a deep and fast hold on the fancy of the average person.”
— Fr. Francis Brunner (1953)

The “Long & Short” of Latin Hymns
published 3 August 2016 by Jeff Ostrowski

“Whatever good the Renaissance may have done in other ways, there can be no question that it was finally disastrous to Christian hymns. […] There is nothing to be done with this stuff but to glance at it, shudder, and pass on. […] There are cases where these seventeenth-century Jesuits did not even know the rules of their own grammar books. In Conditor alme siderum they changed lines which are perfectly correct by quantity.”
|Fr. Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)

273 Christ Saves ATIN HYMNS are written according to different metrical systems: QUANTITATIVE considers long and short syllables, whereas QUALITATIVE considers stress-accent. Fortescue says quantitative was once considered “the more noble” form, but as the centuries elapsed it was quashed by the stress-accent type. For those of us now living, the problem is that both systems were commingled for roughly 600 years.

Space does not allow this article to explore the various aspects of Latin syllable length. However, please know that vowels within the same word can change, depending on how that word is used. For instance, the vowel “u” in the Latin word PÓRTUS is short in the nominative singular but long in the accusative plural. Moreover, quantity is independent of stress-accent. For example, the tonic accent of LAETÍTIA is on the antepenult even though both “i” vowels are short. Likewise, the “a” in PÁTER is short, even though it has the tonic accent. One handy thing: diphthongs are always long. 1

Let’s examine a hymn by Caelius Sedulius, a fifth-century Catholic poet. Called A SOLIS ORTUS CARDINE, it’s acrostic—meaning every line begins with a different letter of the alphabet. If you don’t understand, click here and look at the big colored letters. Fr. Joseph Connelly says:

This hymn is quantitative, though it tends sometimes to be accentual. It also uses rhyme, though not consistently. These two tendencies foreshadow what the Latin hymn was to become in later centuries.

Here’s how the hymn appeared inside a 14th-century Antiphonale:

    * *  PDF Download • A SOLIS ORTUS

It follows iambic dimeter perfectly, never breaking the rules:

272 Quantitative Accent (Longs & Shorts)

The plainsong setting seems to respect long & short syllables:

Perhaps you noticed that 14th-century page also contains a hymn called CHRISTE REDEMPTOR OMNIUM, written in the 6th century. This hymn is also iambic dimeter, and doesn’t break any rules:

266 Gregorian Hymns

The musical setting of this hymn, however, doesn’t appear to respect the long & short syllables. On the “dor” of splendor Patris, I had a hard time “squeezing in” all the consonants (while creating the audio recording). Moreover, certain parts of this melody seem to “accent” short syllables:

Thus far, we’ve considered two hymn melodies. Both are quite ancient, as far as I can tell. We’ve also discussed how hymn texts were often composed according to the quantitative system, which has nothing to do with tonic accents—something many plainsong “experts” fail to understand. The first melody seemed to reflect the long & short syllables, whereas the opposite seemed true in the second. Some might claim that considering just two melodies proves nothing, but that’s incorrect because these melodies were used for innumerable texts. The first melody was probably the most common choice for iambic dimeter hymns. The second melody is also no “fluke,” and I’ve found it used for many texts: (a) Christe Redemptor; (b) Jesu Salvator; (c) Exultet Orbis; (d) Placare Christe; (e) Hostis Herodes; and (f) O Lux Beata.

Research should be conducted to explore the relationship between the quantitative meters and the ancient tunes. 2 From what I can tell, some hymn melodies seem indifferent to the long & short syllables—such as the following—but let me first explain what I’ve done. I took a melody commonly used for the iambic dimeter AUDI BENIGNE CONDITOR, which you can examine:


Then I inserted the same iambic dimeter verse (SEE ABOVE) to make comparison easier:

As I mentioned, that melody seems indifferent to long & short syllables. Other melodies, however, seem almost irreconcilable with the quantitative meter. Consider a melody often used for “Te lucis ante terminum” which is—needless to say—iambic dimeter, sometimes used with AD COENAM AGNI PROVIDI, as you can see:

    * *  PDF Download • AD COENAM AGNI PROVIDI

Once again, I’ve chosen the same verse, to make comparison easier:

Do you agree the melody seems “contrary” to the long & short syllables? By the way, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Indeed, such choices might be intentional, to counteract excessive emphasis.

Fr. Adrian Fortescue was a Catholic priest with three doctorates who spoke many languages with marvelous fluency. He succinctly summarizes an important development:

From what is called the “silver age” of the later emperors, the sense of quantity in Latin was fading; stress-accent was taking its place. So the Romance languages have but little sense of quantity. […] The Teutonic people, when they began to speak Latin, helped this development. They had little sense of quantity in Latin, much sense of accent. So, finally, by the middle ages, all natural sense of long and short syllables had gone; there remained—as there remains to most of us when we speak Latin now—only a sense of accent.

By the High Renaissance, composers setting the breviary hymns to music paid zero attention to long & short syllables. Consider the setting of CHRISTE REDEMPTOR OMNIUM by Francisco Guerrero, who was indisputably one of the greatest composers of all time. I have added other verses taken from the same hymn in red and blue:

254 Guerrero A 7457

Such underlay would be considered loathsome by composers like Guerrero. Indeed, it’s an impossibility. Yet, those are verses from the same hymn! The fact that they cannot be substituted is quite a remarkable thing—and those who have read this article know the reason. 3

An interesting paradox can be found with regard to Renaissance composers. On one hand, their pristine counterpoint soars to heights of utter perfection and has never been surpassed. On the other hand, their CANTUS FIRMUS text underlay is often quite free—or one might even suggest “sloppy.” Consider measures 34-40 and 53-60 of Guerrero’s setting of Hostis Herodes:

253 Mutavit

Many other examples might be considered—indeed, there are close to sixty—of Guerrero’s underlay for this hymn tune. Suffice it to say that the criterion used by Renaissance composers remains somewhat mysterious. 4

When it comes to plainsong, we must reject approaching with preconceived ideas. For example, in Oculi Omnium, there’s a famous melisma that doesn’t occur on the tonic accent. It’s confirmed by all the ancient manuscripts, and people who believe melismas don’t belong on “weak” syllables are quite uncomfortable with this. Indeed, I have before my eyes an article attempting to prove that “áperis tu” is wrong in the dictionary and would have been pronounced “apéris tu.” The author’s mistake was to look backwards at history, failing to realize that composers in the Baroque (for example) treated the tonic accent differently than composers in the dark ages.

The better path is to carefully examine what actually happened—not what we wish happened or think should have happened—and then draw one’s conclusions.


1   Much more could be said regarding discernment of longs and shorts. Indeed, this is a complex topic, and I encourage Latin experts to notify me if I make any errors. To give some idea of the complexities, consider how PÁTRIS has a short “a” in some of these examples, even though “tr” is a double consonant:

These rules are not absolute, and some consonant combinations (-cr, -pr, and -tr) will not always create a preceding long vowel.   (source)
For the record, I doubt long and short syllables were “pounded out,” which would have become tedious. Instead, I suspect the longs and shorts were subtle, the same way English poetry is read by a competent person.

2   Based on a preliminary survey of iambic dimeter hymns, it would appear that Lucis Creator Optime, Vexilla Regis Prodeunt, Aeterne Rex Altissime, and Jesu Nostra Redemptio respect the long syllables.

3   In our English hymns, we occasionally encounter verses that don’t sound correct. A famous example is the second verse from “O God Our Help In Ages Past,” which is usually sung to the St. Anne melody. The accentuation of “under” will grate on singers sensitive to the text, and I’ve often wondered why editors don’t replace it with “beneath.”

4   Ligatures sometimes help explain why the text underlay was chosen, but not always. Moreover, ligatures were often unnecessary, leaving composers free to avoid them if a particular underlay was desired. (Some still continued to use ligatures because they save paper, preserve distinctive elements of the plainsong, and were considered “traditional.”) I do not posses enough knowledge of Guerrero’s particular style to say anything more on this topic, but Dr. Stevenson notes that Guerrero’s Requiem employs “a number of ligatures not often encountered in the works of other Spanish composers after 1550.”