Early Christian hymnody made use of the psalms and canticles it inherited from Jewish practice. The Church was already adding its own material in New Testament times as we see through reference and fragments of early hymns. Among the first Greek hymns were those of various Gnostic groups; Orthodox hymnody, in part, grew as a reaction to heretical hymns, a tendency which would continue for centuries to come.1 There are few extant Christian hymns from before the triumph of Constantine and the change in status of the Church from persecuted minority to state religion. The Greek Phos hilaron, sung at the lighting of candles in the evening, is a good example of this period:
Hail, gladdening light, of his pure glory poured Who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest, Holiest of Holies, Jesus Christ our Lord! Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest, The lights of evening round us shine, We hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine. Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung with undefiled tongue, Son of our God, giver of life, alone: therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.2
In the West the Arian controversy proved to be a major catalyst for hymn writing. The Arians, as the Gnostics before them, found hymns to be an effective and popular means of teaching their doctrine. To combat this effort St. Hillary of Poitiers (c. 315-67), known as the “hammer of the Arians,” wrote a number of hymns only three or four of which are extant. St. Jerome and St. Isodore of Seville refer to St. Hilary as the first Latin hymnodist. St. Hilary and others made use of an Orthodox form of the doxology to teach Trinitarian faith. It was St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-97), however, who became known as the “father of Western hymnody”. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, records that:
It was only a year, or not much more, since Justina, the mother of the boy Valentinian, had been persecuting your devoted servant Ambrose in the interests of the heresy into which the Arians had seduced her. In those days your faithful people used to keep watch in the church, ready to die with their bishop, your servant… It was then that the practice of singing hymns and psalms was introduced, in keeping with the usage of the Eastern churches, to revive the flagging spirits of the people during their long and cheerless watch. Ever since then the custom has been retained, and the example of Milan has been followed in many other places, in fact in almost every church throughout the world.3
St. Ambrose wrote Orthodox hymns in what we now call long meter, four lines of eight syllables each. Fourteen extant hymns can be said with certainty to be the work of St. Ambrose. A number of others are attributed to him, but may be best called “of the Ambrosian school.” Ambrose intended his hymns to be sung by the congregation as opposed to more elaborate chant sung by cantors and choir. The great hymn Te Deum laudamus is sometimes attributed to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. As the Benedictine monastic liturgy developed, the hymns by St. Ambrose and his imitators became the basis for the Office Hymns sung at Matins, Lauds, Vespers, and the minor hours.
O splendor of God’s glory bright, O Thou that bringest light from light, O Light of Light, light’s living Spring, O Day, all day’s illumining.4
The other great figures in Western hymnody in the early middle ages were: Prudentius Aurelius Clemens (348-c. 410, Latin poet and hymn writer) — Earth has many a noble city and All ye who seek for Jesus; Caelius Sedulius (5th century Roman) — From East to West, from shore to shore and When Christ’s appearing was made known; St. Gregory the Great (540-604, who also organized the chant of the Western Church, hence the name Gregorian chant) — O kind Creator, bow Thine ear and The fast, as taught by holy lore; and Venantius Fortunatus (530-609, an Italian priest who became bishop of Poitiers) — The royal banners forward go and Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle. Numerous hymns were also written by poets of the Spanish, Gallican, and Celtic churches.
Now the Roman liturgy was not rich in hymns; indeed hymns often lacked the grave and sober language necessary to escape suspicion in Rome; but they flourished in Spain and Gaul… They flourished also in Ireland, and indeed in England, where Aldhelm and Bede were both practitioners. Aethelwulf’s words remind us more particularly of “a book of hymns for the week, written in the hand of St. Columba”, which forms the subject of one of Adamnan’s miraculous narratives. Both in Iona and in Aethelwulf’s monastery there were apparently prescribed hymns, and to judge from Aethelwulf these hymns were sung by the monks before they came to church for the night office, obviously in private in their cells as many offices had been recited in Egyptian monasteries.5
Many of these ancient hymns still enjoy use today and provide us with musical expressions of the “faith of the fathers.”
Western hymnody before the Reformation consisted primarily of Office Hymns, (metrical), and Sequence Hymns (prose). The Sequence hymns developed around the chant for the Alleluia of the eucharistic propers as the chant became more and more elaborate. The musical notes of the elongated last syllable of the Alleluia were given additional words and these texts developed into the sequence hymns. St. Notker (c. 840-912), Abbot of St. Gall in Switzerland did much work to compile the sequences and introduce them into the liturgy.
This is the strain, the eternal strain, the Lord of all things loves, Alleluia! This is the song, the heavenly song, that Christ Himself approves, Alleluia! Wherefore we sing, both heart and voice awaking, Alleluia! And children’s voices echo, answer making, Alleluia! Now from all men be outpoured, Alleluia to the Lord: with Alleluia evermore the Son and Spirit we adore. Praise be done to the Three in One. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen!6
Although the Roman Catholic Church retained only five sequences after the Council of Trent (1545-7), additional sequences are also appropriate for our use (such as the one above for use on the last day the Alleluia is sung before Pre-Lent).
The pattern of Western hymnody was altered at the time of the Reformation as hymns in the vernacular were introduced at first to give the congregation something to do in their own language during the Latin Mass. This new style of hymnody developed from carols and other religious songs (either macaronic7 or in the vernacular). As in previous centuries, these hymns had both a devotional and educational purpose (which varied with the theological orientation of the hymn writer). Whereas hymns had previously been sung to plainsong melodies (Gregorian chant) unique to their religious purpose, new tunes were written at the time of the Reformation which often mirrored popular secular song. Other tunes included metrical paraphrases of plainsong melodies (e.g. the tune Christ is erstanden is a metrical paraphrase of the plainsong Victimae paschali). Before the Reformation virtually all hymns had been liturgical (prescribed by the liturgy or to accompany liturgical action, e.g. processions). From the Reformation onward hymns became almost entirely para-liturgical (except for the liturgical hymns of the Roman Catholic Mass and Office), and subject to choice and popularity.
The next several centuries saw a tremendous increase in hymn writing and we now have available to us the music of such composers as Thomas Tallis, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Likewise, hymn texts by Thomas Ken, the Wesleys, John Mason Neale, Robert Bridges and many others provide examples of the Holy Spirit continuing to inspire poets in their praises. The Oxford Movement in the Church of England (1833 and following) brought renewed concern for the teaching of the early Church. Translations of many Latin and Greek hymns by John Mason Neale (1818-66) and others have enriched subsequent hymnals of many denominations, making available the riches of the tradition of the undivided Church.
1. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. VII, s.v. “Hymnology,” by J. Szoverffy, p. 287.
2. Trans. by John Mason Neale, The Anglican Service Book, (Rosemont, PA: The Church of the Good Shepherd, 1991), p. 72.
3. Augustine, Confessions, IX, 7, trans by R.S Pine-Coffin, (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 191.
4. “Splendor Paternae”, Office Hymn for Monday Lauds, trans. by Robert Bridges, in Matthew Britt, ed., Hymns of the Breviary, (New York: Benzinger Bros., 1924), p. 55.
5. Henry Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1972), p. 164.
6. A portion of the Alleluyatic Sequence, by Godescalcus, 9th century, in J.M. Neale, ed. and trans., Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, (London: J. Masters, 1863).
7. Alternating between Latin and the vernacular.