Saturday, December 07, 2019

More about Veni Redemptor Gentium ("Come, Savior of the Nations")

This beautiful hymn was appointed for First Vespers of Christmas in the Sarum Breviary (although sung to a different melody), and is today used in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours at the Office of Readings from December 17 through December 24, which puts it on the same schedule at the Great O Antiphons at Vespers.  (It was not used in the Roman Breviary, however.)

The hymn text is very old:  from the fourth century and attributed to St. Ambrose.  Here's a sung arrangement of the hymn accompanied by soprano saxophone; as you will hear, the chant choir sings two different and distinct melodies for the various verses:

All of this is a good intro to something I've wondered about since first posting on it years ago!  The  first melody is a straightforward Gregorian chant tune; the second is a tune from a 16th-century German Chorale ("Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" - essentially the same phrase in German translation) written, possibly, by Martin Luther (or possibly by Johann Walter, his collaborator).

The question is:  where did the second melody come from, and how is it related to the first, Gregorian chant tune?  I had for a long time thought that the two tunes were simply two versions of the original Gregorian melody - or else that one was an Ambrosian tune and the other was Gregorian.  But the reality is apparently otherwise.

To start: here is the Gregorian chant score; this is the first melody sung by the choir:

And this is the second melody, as written out by Martin Luther or his editors ("Martin Luther und andere") for the Erfurt Enchiridion, the second Lutheran hymnal published in 1524:

Here's the Bach Cantata website on the Chorale melody (as used by Bach in various of his works):
This melody is first documented as a Roman Catholic Latin hymn based upon Gregorian chant in manuscript form in Einsiedeln (Schwyz) around 1120. The same melody source served as a basis for three important chorale melodies: “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”, ‘Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” (Luther’s CT based upon the antiphon ‘Da pacem Domine”) and Martin Luther’s CT,“Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort”.

>>The Lutheran Reformation in the early 16th century led to the creation of a new repertory of sacred music based on the chorale. Chorales were initially sung by the congregation in unison and unaccompanied. Most were adapted from chant, from German devotional songs (many of which were themselves reworkings of chant) and from secular songs, or were composed using conventional melodic types and formulae. Techniques of adaptation ranged from simple contrafactum to ingenious reworkings, such as Luther's reshaping of the Gregorian hymn Veni Redemptor gentium as the chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.<<

J. Peter Burkholder in Grove Music Online, ©Oxford University Press 2006, acc. 5/26/06
Burkholder presents examples of the Gregorian chant and “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” in close proximity so that the similarities and differences can become apparent:

(I have searched online for the Einsiedeln manuscript, but haven't been successful in finding a scored version of the hymn so far; I am still looking for it, though, and will post it if I find one.  However, this snippet from the Bach Cantata website clearly implies that the chant melody is directly related to the chorale melody.)

Then there is this, from the Encyclopedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation, Volume 2. edited by Mark A. Lamport:
Luther translated the seven stanzas of Ambrose's “Veni, Redemptor, gentium” fairly literally, characteristically adding a doxology, but he changed the meter from basically Long Meter (8888, sometimes with lines of 9) to 7777 (with some elisions).
The same source continues in re: the melody:
The Tune

Luther altered the tune that went with the Latin text. He thought that simply to transfer chant tunes associated with Latin texts to German translations would create a faulty imitation that would not sing well. He wanted a hymn's tune to grow out of the language one was using and to reflect its particular accents and inflections. Text and tune were to form an organic whole. A tune that worked for a Latin text might not work for a German one, which meant that some revisions might have to be made.

Luther left the melodic contour of this tune as it was, but changed other things. First, the five melismas in the chant tune were reduced in the German version to two unobtrusive ones that sing easily. The tune became more syllabic. Second, Luther gave the second phrase a more decisive cadence. Third, the upward leap of a third in the first line was turned into a fourth. These alterations propelled the tune forward with a more proclamatory push and made it both easier to learn and more congregational.

A fourth alteration may seem subtle and not even recognized at first, but it is telling: the first line was repeated as the last. This move reflected the meaning of the text and its structure. The hymn made a turn forward and back at stanzas 4 and 5. After marveling at the wonder of it all and preparing the way for Christ's coming in the first stanzas, stanzas 4 and 5 led from God to humanity and then back to God as a result of the victory Christ wins. Luther's alterations not only moved the tune from meditatively prayerful to more vigorously proclamatory and made the tune's musical exegesis into a bold chorale that joyfully celebrates the grace of God; they also mirrored the meaning of the text by matching its structure.

And finally there's this analysis from The Tradition of Western Music, by Gerald Abraham:
The melody whose adventures I want to follow in some detail belongs to a much later period. The words of the Advent hymn ‘Veni, redemptor gentium' go back to the fourth century but the melody seems to be no older than the early twelfth. All the same, it has come down to us in several minor variant forms: for instance, the word 'ostende' is sung in one version to three repeated notes, in another to three notes ascending scalewise. But it was a much loved melody, particularly in Germany; it is significant that the two oldest manuscripts in which it is found are both German, and four centuries later the German Protestants lost no time in providing it with German words. The Protestant extremist Thomas Müntzer published in 1524 a translation which begins:
O Herr, Erlöser alles Volks,
komm, zeig uns die Geburt deins Sohns,
es wundern sich all Creaturen
dass Christ also ist Mensch worden.
In 1531 it appeared in one of the German song-books of the Bohemian Brethren, Michael Weisse's Ein Nem Gesengbuchlen, with a completely new text. Both these German texts were fitted to the plainsong with only minimal changes in the actual notes, though even the fitting of different vowels and consonants to plainsong produces a certain change of character. Here are (a) the plainsong in probably its earliest surviving form,* (b) the version with Müntzer's words:

Luther went farther than this. In the same year as Müntzer, 1524, he printed in his so-called Achtliederbuch not only the translation which is sung to this day, 'Nun komm der Heiden Heiland', but a metrical modification of the melody which removes it from the sphere of plainsong to that of German song. This version was not meant to be sung by a monastic choir, as the plainsong was, nor by a little sectarian body such as a congregation of Bohemian Brethren. We know fairly well how the early Lutheran hymns were sung: not harmonized or by a trained choir or supported by an organ, but by the whole congregration in unison led by a choir of schoolboys who had had the hymns drilled into them by rote. The boys were sometimes scattered among the adult congregation; sometimes the cantor himself stood in the middle of the church. In these conditions the flexibility of plainsong was impossible; something firm, steady, and square-cut like German secular song of the time was needed. (Why German secular song tended to be square-cut is a matter that will have to be dealt with later.) The first note of a hymn-tune is often written as a long one, presumably to give the congregation a moment to pick up the pitch sounded by the cantor and his boys; the phrase are separated by pauses. But Luther's substitution of firmly stressed, rhyming heptasyllables for the smooth octosyllabic Latin verse necessitated changes in the melody itself.

This last article goes into quite a lot of detail, and IMO is very worth reading in its entirety.

From all this, a couple of things seem very clear:
  • This hymn melody is not as old as I had thought.  One source says it's from twelfth-century  Einsiedeln; another says fourteenth century.  (These two researchers could have been looking at two versions of the same chant manuscript, separated by two centuries; this might account for the difference.)
  • There were never two different chant melodies, but only one!  Luther (or Walter) reworked a chant, changing the meter so that it would work well with a German translation of the text.  And that is quite interesting, because on first (or tenth!) hearing, the two tunes do not seem very alike, or in fact in any way related.

Interestingly, a contemporary composer, Andrew Smith, has set this hymn in a similar way.  He has used the two different melodies as sung in the video above - and added his own composition as well, using Luther's tune for the verses sung in English.  It's sung here beautifully by the wonderful New York Polyphony.

For the record:  the Sarum Breviary used a different melody altogether.  From this blog's Sarum Christmas Office page.
LLPB offers this mp3 for Veni, Redemptor Gentium, which it calls "The first hymn for the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord." The translation from Oremus is by J.M. Neale:
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin birth:
let every age adoring fall;
such birth befits the God of all.

Begotten of no human will,
but of the Spirit, thou art still
the Word of God in flesh arrayed,
the promised fruit to man displayed.

The virgin womb that burden gained
with virgin honor all unstained;
the banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
that royal home of purity,
a giant in twofold substance one,
rejoicing now his course to run.

From God the Father he proceeds,
to God the Father back he speeds;
his course he runs to death and hell,
returning on God's throne to dwell.

O equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
the weakness of our mortal state
with deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light,
where endless faith shall shine serene,
and twilight never intervene.

All laud to God the Father be,
all praise, eternal Son, to thee;
all glory, as is ever meet,
to God the Holy Paraclete.

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