History, Reform, and Continuity in the Hymns of the Roman Breviary

By Andersen, Eric M. | Sacred Music, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

History, Reform, and Continuity in the Hymns of the Roman Breviary


Andersen, Eric M., Sacred Music


Hymnody is a beloved expression of popular Christian faith and devotion, yet aside from the Gloria and a few proper hymns used on specific feasts, there is no hymnody in the Mass. (1) While it is admissible for four hymns to be sung during the course of the Mass (a practice originating in the modern era with Pope Pius XII), hymns are not proper to the Mass. In the typical U.S. parish, however, they are commonly substituted for proper antiphonal chants and psalms. Hymns are proper, however, and integral, not to the Mass, but to the Divine Office. This distinction suggests that the Mass is not meant to be the only liturgy in which Catholics participate. Sacrosanctum Concilium, echoing Pius XII in Mediator Dei, assigned to pastors the task of celebrating Vespers in all parish churches on Sundays and solemn feasts. (2) In addition, the council encouraged the laity "to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually." (3) With this fuller liturgical life in mind, hymnody takes its place as an integral part of Catholic life, not in the Mass, but in the Divine Office. It is integral in that hymnody has developed, and sometimes even shaped, the theology for each hour of the day being prayed.

Historically, the hymn has been employed as a means of catechesis and theological formation. Traditionally, in the Divine Office, hymnody has served as man's response to the Word of God. More recently, the hymn has come to be seen as a means of setting the tone or giving color to a liturgical hour. A brief look at the history of hymnody will show how integral it is to the praying of the hours. This history will survey the development of such hymnody based upon the hymns in the current edition of the Liber Hymnarius (1998), the official liturgical book in Latin for the Roman Rite Liturgia Horarum (2000), the second typical edition of the Liturgy of the Hours. In this era of liturgical renewal, according to Benedict XVI's hermeneutic of continuity, the use of Latin hymns, either in plainchant or polyphony, in vernacular celebrations of the office is far more likely to be a consideration for parishes that answer this call. Understanding the hymns, their authors, and their history will hopefully inspire a new generation of Catholics not only zealously to guard this treasury of Catholic music but also to foster continued organic development of this art form.

Patristic Era

The history of Latin hymnody in the Divine Office "is intimately connected and interwoven with Christianity itself." (4) This hymnody has a surprisingly long and continuous genealogy reaching back to the Patristic era and continuing to the present day. It begins at least by the fourth century with St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (340-397). Nevertheless, mention should first be made of St. Hilary. Though St. Hilary of Poitiers (310-366) may rank as the first hymn writer in Western Christianity, his hymns were "intricate and obscure and so ill-suited to public singing," (5) that it is most probable none of his hymns have ever been sung in the Divine Office. He may be credited, however, with introducing hymns to the West. He was a strong opponent of Arianism, earning for himself "the title of Malleus Arianorum, the Hammer of the Arians" (6) and for this position he was exiled by the emperor Constantius to Phrygia in Asia Minor for three years where he was introduced to Greek Christian hymnody. When he returned to Gaul, he brought this tradition back with him and began composing his Liber Hymnorum. These hymns "were 'lost' almost as soon as they were written." (7)

St. Hilary said that the Gauls were not very clever in singing hymns, presumably in comparison with the East where he had heard hymns sung. But the Gauls might have retorted that their bishop was not very clever at writing hymns which they could sing. (8)

Adrian Fortescue commented that "As far as St. Hilary is concerned we must count the attempt to introduce Christian lyric poetry in the West as a failure. …

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