RECENTLY RECORDED the Soprano and Alto vocal parts for this recording of “A Solis Ortus Cardine” which is the very first hymn of the beautiful Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal. It’s a hymn based on an ABECEDARIUS poem from the early Christian poet Caelius Sedulius, who lived in the 5th century. In preparing to blog about this, I discovered a lot of interesting snippets about the hymn, the writer of the hymn’s melody, the translator and even about the poet who penned these lines in Latin—so much so that I might have to do a two-part article on this! We recorded each individual voice part so your choir members can rehearse whenever it’s convenient for them.
Well-Chosen Beginning! • Let me start off by saying how appropriate it is that a hymn with the first lyric line of ‘From the hinge of the sun’s rising’ is placed as the beginning hymn which opens up Brébeuf Hymnal. Just as life follows many patterns laid out in Nature, like the arc of the sun’s rising and setting, the Brébeuf editors—perhaps taking the cue from the ABECEDARIUS poem by Caelius Sedulius—seem cognizant of following the arc of the Lord’s life in the layout of this very well-thought-out hymnal. Along these same lines, check out the very last hymn of the Hymnal, “Solemn Hymn To The Son of God” which in its very last verse seemingly looks towards PAROUSIA, when God shall be ‘All in All’!
Digging Deeper • Let’s examine the translation of the hymn from its Latin source by turning to page 66 of the book Hymns of the Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1874) authored by Fr. John Wilfred Wallace, OSB. This translation is the source material for the hymn, which we learn from the footnote on page 6 of the Brébeuf Hymnal. Below, I’ve provided the translation as written by Fr. John Wilfred Wallace in his book, and I’ve italicised the lines which have been edited within the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal, whilst also providing the edited line within the brackets.
M Now, from the rising of the sun
M Unto the utmost bounds of earth,
M We sing the praise of Christ our King,
M Sweet Mary’s Child of virgin-birth.
M (The Child of Mary’s virgin birth)
M The blessed Founder of the World,
M In form of guilty slave arrayed;
M The flesh redeemed which He assumed,
M (For flesh in flesh redemption wrought)
M Lest they should perish whom He made.
M The splendour of celestial grace
M Illumines that unspotted breast
M (That bower fresh and fair illumes)
M A Virgin’s womb becomes the shrine,
M Where God unseen takes up His rest.
M (Where God His hidden throne assumes)
M M Notice how clever the editors were here;
M M since they added “assumed” earlier,
M M they are careful not to repeat it here.
M The chaste enclosure of that frame
M Becomes a temple all divine;
M In stainless purity she bore
M The Son of God within that shrine.
M The time fulfilled, she gave Him birth
M —Whom Gabriel had once foretold
M And whom, when yet within the womb,
M Saint John exulted to behold.
M A manger was His lowly bed,
M Disdaining not on hay to lie;
M And He was nourished at the breast
M (And meager milk supported Him)
M Who feeds the ravens when they cry.
M The choirs of heav’n exult with joy,
M And angels sing before His throne;
M The Shepherd of our souls supreme
M To shepherds makes His Glory known.
M To Jesus born of Virgin pure
M (O Jesus Virgin-born, to Thee)
M Eternal glory be confessed,
M Who with the Father and the Spirit
M (With Father and with Spirit, Lord)
M For ever reigns—One Godhead blest.
M (For ever in one Godhead blest)
Singability • One thing that struck me about the lines that were edited within the Brébeuf Hymnal is that the changes were carefully thought through and beautifully made, especially in terms of the ‘singability’ of the lines. As a singer, I would much rather sing a line such as With Father and with Spirit, Lord, instead of the awkwardly-worded line Who with the Father and the Spirit which would be really hard to conduct in terms of a choral sound as well. The consonant ‘t’ is just not a good consonant to sing at the end of a line. From a songwriter’s point of view, in terms of the craft of songwriting and the placement of lyrics (key concept being the placement of important words at ‘spotlighted’ places such as the end of lines and the beginning of lines, in addition to syllabic stresses following the natural conventions of normal speech and conversation), I appreciated the edited lines even more.
Our Blessed Mother • Take for example the change made to the last line of the first verse: Sweet Mary’s child of virgin-birth. The original line as sung with the melody ‘TRINITY COLLEGE’ places the emphasis (especially in conjunction with the highest melodic note in this line, which highlights even more the particular word on which the highest note is given) on ‘Mary’s’. The edited line as done by the editors of the Brébeuf Hymnal reads ‘The Child of Mary’s virgin birth’. This beautifully and rightly gives the main emphasis and the melodic high point of that lyric line to the word ‘Child’. When this line is sung, the word ‘Child’ also feels more natural to sing along with that high note, versus the word ‘MA-ry’s’. The vowel sound for ‘Ah’ in ‘Child’ carries more naturally than the ‘Air’ sound on ‘Mary’. These thoughtful edits done by the Brébeuf Hymnal team, are a delight for singers, and for songwriters and lyricists.
Avoiding ‘Wimpy’ • I love the changes done too, on the basis of their poetic beauty and evocativeness. Take for example, this line in the second verse: The flesh redeemed which He assumed …which the Brébeuf Hymnal edits to For flesh in flesh redemption wrought. Try it for yourself. Sing those two lines with the same melody. Can you hear the action of ‘wrought’? What a brave, courageous verb standing powerfully at the end of that lyric line! So much better than the (“sorry, Fr. John Wallace”) ‘wimpy’ sounding ‘assumed’ which passively sits there in the line without evoking the grandeur and majesty that the verb ‘wrought’ evokes. Next, take a look at the powerful alliteration that underscores the Incarnation, in the line ‘flesh in flesh’. Bravo!
Humble Hiddenness • I’m on a roll, I can’t end there… I have two more lines to point out. In verse 3, we see the line Where God unseen takes up His rest. …which the Brébeuf Hymnal team edits to: Where God His hidden throne assumes. In so doing, they wisely kept the word ‘God’ at the highest melodic point in the line, so as to rightly emphasise and preserve that most powerful and important reality of the lyric. But see how they changed the words from ‘unseen takes up His rest’ to ‘His hidden throne assumes’. How beautiful to evoke and showcase at the same time the Kingship of God and his humble hiddenness in the words ‘hidden throne.’ A reality unseen in the previous words ‘unseen takes up His rest’. This is indeed, poetic beauty at its best. The book of Isaiah 45:15 says: ‘Verily, Thou art a hidden God.’
‘Meager Milk’ • Lastly, this line in verse 6: And He was nourished at the breast …which the Brébeuf Hymnal team edits to And meager milk supported Him. The alliteration of ‘meager milk’ used here works well to underscore the littleness, the insufficiency of our humanity. I love the contrast in that line. The contrast between His Divinity and our Humanity! The contrast between the generosity of God and our aching littleness. This contrast is contained in the Latin original of Parvóque lacte pastus est, Per quem nec ales ésurit (which has the helpful literal translation ‘and he by whom no bird goes hungry, was fed a little milk’ provided on page 5 of the Brébeuf Hymnal) but was not brought forth in the otherwise excellent translation written by Fr. John Wilfred Wallace, OSB.
Intestine Wars Invade Our Breast? • I also appreciate the editors for making sure that the language and expressions used in the hymns within the Brebéuf Hymnals matched the current sensibilities of the culture so as to raise us up in virtue, rather than to use language that—because of more archaic expressions—would lead to distraction from prayerful singing. Within the hymnal itself, on page 566, I found this little nugget in the footnotes which illuminated this point (and also made me giggle): ‘A very popular translation (early 19th century) of the O SALUTARIS HOSTIA translated bélla prémunt hostília into English as intestine wars invade our breast.” Wow….imagine having to sing that!
Mystery #1 • I tried to find out more about Fr. John Wilfred Wallace, but other than the following little snippet taken from the pages of The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal (Benziger Brothers, 1922), I could find nothing else to tell me more about what he majored in at college, or what inspired him to take up the priesthood, and later to be a Benedictine. And why did he choose to take on the name Wilfred? Did he choose the name after Saint Wilfred, who is said to have ‘ruled a large number of monasteries, and claimed to be the first Englishman to introduce the Rule of Saint Benedict into English monasteries.’ (Wikipedia entry on Saint Wilfred).
“WALLACE, REV. WILFRID, O.S.B., D.D. (d. 1896). Father Wallace was educated at London University and in Rome. He was ordained a secular priest and was known to the world as John Wallace. In 1877 he entered the Benedictine Order and was afterwards known by his religious name Wilfrid. In his Hymns of the Church, 1874, he translated all the hymns of the Breviary and Missal.” – pg 371, The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal (Benziger Brothers, 1922).
Mystery #2 • Now to uncover the next mystery…who exactly were the people who made such beautiful edits to Fr. John Wilfred Wallace’s translation of A Solis Ortus Cardine? The pages of the Brébeuf Hymnal are quiet on this issue. Was it Father Dominic Popplewell (b. 1973) who has himself translated many beautiful hymns within the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal? The answer hopefully will be given soon enough. Suffice to say that for now, I’m thankful that a lot of effort has been put into the translations of these hymns to make them, indeed—as the Brébeuf Hymnal editors sought to achieve in their guiding principles for this book—what they describe on page vii of their INTRODUCTION as “the most excellent translations”!
Photos feature the Immaculate Heart of Mary Choir at Saint Joseph Church (Victoria Street), Singapore. Photo credit: Adrian Tee for pixelmusica.com