Monday, June 23, 2008

Ut Queant Laxis

Ut Queant Laxis is the First and Second Vespers hymn for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, celebrated on June 24, tomorrow.   It's a famous hymn in musical history- and we all know something about it, without knowing we know something about it: this hymn is where the names "Do-Re-Mi," etc., originated, when used to refer to the musical scale.

Here's a video of the first two stanzas, plus a doxology:

New Advent has a long piece about the hymn; here's an excerpt that explains the Do-Re-Mi connection:
The hymn is written in Sapphic stanzas, of which the first is famous in the history of music for the reason that the notes of the melody corresponding with the initial syllables of the six hemistichs are the first six notes of the diatonic scale of C. This fact led to the syllabic naming of the notes as Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, as may be shown by capitalizing the initial syllables of the hemistichs:
UT queant laxis REsonare fibris
MIra gestorum
FAmuli tuorum,
SOLve polluti LAbii reatum, Sancte Ioannes.

Guido of Arezzo showed his pupils an easier method of determining the sounds of the scale than by the use of the monochord. His method was that of comparison of a known melody with an unknown one which was to be learned, and for this purpose he frequently chose the well-known melody of the "Ut queant laxis" . Against a common view of musical writers, Dom Pothier contends that Guido did not actually give these syllabic names to the notes, did not invent the hexachordal system, etc., but that insensibly the comparison of the melodies led to the syllabic naming.

Here's a score that shows this ascending scale plainly, using only the first verse of the hymn:

Authorship of the hymn is generally credited to Paulus Diaconus, a Benedictine monk who lived in Lombardy during the 8th Cenutry. This is another example of a long hymn broken up into shorter ones for use at the various Office hours of a particular feast or season; the Ut queant laxis section (about the first third of the hymn) is used at Vespers; the Antra deserti teneris sub annis section is used at Matins; and the O nimis felix, meritique celsi section is used at Lauds.

This mp3 is the same recording as in the video above, as far as I can tell.   Below are all the words to the entire hymn, in Latin on the left, with English translation from the Hymner on the right:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes!

Nuntius celso veniens Olympo
te patri magnum fore nasciturum,
nomen et vitae seriem gerendae
ordine promit.

Ille promissi dubius superni
perdidit promptae modulos loquelae;
sed reformasti genitus peremptae
organa vocis.

Ventris abstruso positus cubili
senseras regem thalamo manentem,
hinc parens nati meritis uterque
abdita pandit.

Antra deserti teneris sub annis
civium turmas fugiens, petisti,
ne levi saltim maculare vitam
famine posses.

Praebuit hirtum tegimen camelus,
artubus sacris strofium bidentis,
cui latex haustum, sociata pastum
mella locustis.

Caeteri tantum cecinere vatum
corde praesago iubar adfuturum;
tu quidem mundi scelus auferentem
indice prodis.

Non fuit vasti spatium per orbis
sanctior quisquam genitus Iohanne,
qui nefas saecli meruit lavantem
tingere limphis.

O nimis felix meritique celsi
nesciens labem nivei pudoris,
prepotens martyr heremique cultor,
maxime vatum!

Serta ter denis alios coronant
aucta crementis, duplicata quosdam;
trina centeno cumulata fructu
te, sacer, ornant.

Nunc potens nostri meritis opimis
pectoris duros lapides repelle
asperum planans iter, et reflexos
dirige calles,

ut pius mundi sator et redemptor
mentibus pulsa luvione puris
rite dignetur veniens sacratos
ponere gressus.

Laudibus cives celebrant superni
te, deus simplex pariterque trine,
supplices ac nos veniam precamur:
parce redemptis!
O for thy Spirit, Holy John, to chasten,
Lips sin-polluted, fettered tongues to loosen,
So by thy children might thy deeds of wonder
Meetly be chaunted

Lo ! a swift herald, from the skies descending,
Bears to thy father promise of thy greatness ;
How he shall name thee, what thy future story,
Duly revealing.

Scarcely believing message so transcendent,
Him for a season power of speech forsaketh,
Till, at thy wondrous birth, again returneth
Voice to the voiceless.

Thou, in thy mother's womb all darkly cradled,
Knewest thy Monarch, biding in his chamber,
Whence the two parents, through their children's merits,
Mysteries utter'd.

Thou, in thy childhood, to the desert caverns
Fleddest for refuge from the cities' turmoil,
Where the world's slander might not dim thy lustre,
Lonely abiding.

Camel's hair raiment clothed thy saintly members ;
Leathern the girdle which thy loins encircled ;
Locusts and honey, with the fountain-water,
Daily sustain'd thee.

Oft in past ages, seers with hearts expectant,
Sang the far-distant advent of the Day-Star,
Thine was the glory, as the world's Redeemer,
First to proclaim him.

Far as the wide world reacheth, born of women,
Holier was there none than John the Baptist;
Meetly in water laving him who cleanseth
Man from pollution.

O More than blessed, merit high attaining,
Pure as the snow-drift, innocent of evil,
Child of the desert, mightiest of martyrs,
Greatest of prophets.

Thirty-fold increase some with glory crowneth ;
Sixty-fold fruitage prize for others winneth;
Hundred-fold measure, thrice repeated, decks thee,
Blest one, for guerdon.

O may the virtue of thine intercession,
All stony hardness from our hearts expelling,
Smooth the rough places, and the crooked straighten
Here in the desert.

Thus may our gracious Maker and Redeemer,
Seeking a station for his hallow'd footsteps,
Find, when he cometh, temples undefiled,
Meet to receive him.

Now as the Angels celebrate thy praises,
Godhead essential, Trinity co-equal ;
Spare thy redeem'd ones, as they bow before thee,
Pardon imploring. Amen.

As you can see, this hymn is in my favorite meter: 11 11 11 5, called the "Sapphic and Adonic meter," apparently. You can follow along with the square notes at this PDF offered on the St. Cecilia Schola Cantorum website, or using the image of that file below:

(FYI, Hymn melodies for the whole year provides different melodies than the one given above - but this one is quite famous and in fact uniquely interesting, for the reasons given above, so I'm concentrating on it instead.)

Here's the Medieval Music Database S. Joannis Baptistae page; all the antiphons, responsories, and hymns for the day are listed there.

And from Musica Sacra, here's the Ut Queant Laxis Mug.

Here is Leonardo DaVinci's Baptist; it's in the Louvre. Very Mona-Lisa-ish, don't you think? I've never seen it before, and I like it.

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