HICH VERNACULAR HYMN is the most ancient? Like so many liturgical items, the answer is complicated. Father Robert Skeris said Christ ist erstanden—a Leise from the 12th century—is “the oldest preserved Easter hymn in the vernacular.” A 14th century version (in campo aperto) can be found on folio 83v in the KLOSTERNEUBURG MS #1213. Yes, that means ancient Latin manuscripts suddenly break into German (“Christ ist erstanden”) for this little tune—and I realize some will find that remarkable. In 1943, Dom Hügle attempted to match a Latin text with the famous tune, but it has several awkward moments. The Brébeuf hymnal (Sophia Institute Press, 2018) uses the text of the Church’s oldest Latin Eucharistic hymn, which fits like a glove. The Brébeuf hymnal also provides an English version, translated by Fr. Adrian Fortescue. Unlike other translations—such as the one by Dr. John M. Neale—Fortescue’s translation matches the original meter.
We had a new group of singers yesterday and needed a nice little hymn. Here’s our live recording:
* YouTube • VERSION IN LATIN
—Number 465 from the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal.
* YouTube • VERSION IN ENGLISH
—Number 464 from the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal.
* PDF Download • Original Text (7th Century)
—Hat tip to Steven Van Roode and the Library of Milan.
Of course Father Fortescue was not the only person to translate this hymn into English. For example, a Roman Catholic poet named Denis Florence MacCarthy also produced a very fine English translation, but unlike the version in the Brébeuf hymnal, MacCarthy’s doesn’t match the original meter:
Many composers set Christ ist erstanden. For example, the Flemish composer Jacob Regnart (d. 1599) created an entire Mass based upon it. Each movement (KYRIE, GLORIA, CREDO, SANCTUS, BENEDICTUS, AGNUS) quotes the famous melody:
* PDF Download • KYRIE
—Jakob Regnardt (d. 1599) Missa super “Christ ist erstanden”
The complete Mass is quite beautiful, and we are considering singing it at our FSSP parish. I often tell my choir members how the best composers tended to die around 1599AD—it’s quite remarkable! Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (d. 1594); Orlande de Lassus (d. 1594); Annibale Zoilo (d. 1592); Jacob Regnart (d. 1599); Luca Marenzio (d. 1599); Father Francisco Guerrero (d. 1599); and so forth.
At the height of the Second World War, Dom Ermin Vitry wrote about Christ ist erstanden as follows: “There is no motet or hymn which deserves more to be reintroduced in our catholic tradition. The proof of its musical superiority is proven by the fact that J. Sebastian Bach composed on its design more than seven figured chorals.” He is correct—for example, search YouTube for the Bach Cantata with “Christ lag in Todesbanden.”
How Old Is This?
The melody in the Brébeuf hymnal is from approximate 1150AD.
The text in the Brébeuf hymnal is from approximately 625AD.
The harmonies in the Brébeuf hymnal are from 2018.
Remember that texts are always going to be “older” than melodies, because humanity didn’t figure out how to write down melodies until about 950AD, thanks especially to a Benedictine monk named Guido d’Arezzo. For more information about the Church’s oldest Latin Eucharistic hymn, please see: