Wednesday, 19 October 2016

On whether we can really classify the Murbacher Hymnen (810-817 AD) as hymns

Plenty of questions may come to mind when we read the Murbacher Hymnen (c.810-817 AD), a collection of 26 Ambrosian hymns formatted with interlinear Latin-German versions, some of the original Latin hymns having been written by Ambrosius, Bishop of Milan (c.340-397), and others by imitators. Principal among such questions is whether the Hymnen are really hymns. This seems at first glance a self-evident question: the Murbacher Hymnen are - rather obviously - very definitely demarcated as ‘hymns’, in both the name by which they have come to be referred, but also in their Latin ‘Ueberschrift’, which reads ‘INCIPIUNT HYMNI CANENDAE PER CIRCULU ANNI’. The relevant part is ‘hymni canendae’: hymns whose purpose it is to be sung. Whoever gathered this collection could not have been more explicit about its stated purpose: liturgical music.
What this attempt at clarification reveals, however, is a raft of questions about whether song-writing constitutes literature and how we are to differentiate between hymns and songs, between songs and poems, or between hymns and poems. The Western tradition of hymnody - which is all that we are concerned with in the context of the Murbacher Hymnen - begins with the Homeric Hymns of the 7th century BC, in praise of ancient Greek deities, and eventually becomes subsumed into the Christian tradition, originally modelled on psalms and canticles but developing into a variety of forms over the centuries; the subdivisions of psalms, hymns, songs and prayers meant to be sung remain difficult to keep fully distinct. We could try to classify hymns as songs praising God: St Augustine called them “praise to God with song/Hymni laudes sunt Dei, cum cantico[1], and Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying “hymnus est laus Dei cum cantico[2]. Many of the Murbacher Hymnen would fit this rubric: Hymne II (Deus, qui celi lumen es) begins in the Old High German (OHG) “cot du der himiles leoht pist”, a clear expression of praise - and occasionally it is yet more explicit, as in Hymne XXVI (Te deum laudamus), which begins “thih cot lobomes”. Yet since some hymns written since Augustine’s day are addressed to saints and even secular hymns have been composed, that definition would not appear to be comprehensive. The Greek ὕμνος (hymnos) means “a song of praise”, granted, which tightens our grip on the meaning somewhat, but the existence of hymns which are more like meditation, or prayer, or even mourning, than praise itself, muddies the waters yet again. In short, there is no straightforward, provable definition of a hymn with which we can begin.
The Hymnen, of course, have an additional difficulty which makes them hard to categorise: while the Latin originals of Ambrosian hymns are written in four verses of iambic dimeters, with a regular eight syllables to a line, the OHG equivalents have been constructed without rigorously keeping to the same metre - in the words of Gerhard Köbler, “sie [die althochdeutsche Interlinearversion] überträgt mechanisch Wort für Wort ohne Rücksicht auf den deutschen Satzbau”[3]. There is nothing obviously poetic about the OHG stanzas, which also avoid attempts at rhyme scheme which the Latin (usually inconsistently) has applied. For instance, Stanzas 3, 4, and 6 of Hymne III (Splendor paternę glorię) display this perfectly: where Stanza 3 lines 2-3 rhyme ‘glorię’ and ‘gratię’ in the Latin, the OHG words used are ‘tiurida’ and ‘hensti’; where Stanza 4 rhymes ‘strinuos’ and ‘asperos’ in lines 1 and 3, the OHG is ‘kambaro’ and ‘sarfę’; and the OHG ‘muas’ and ‘keistes’ do not chime in accordance with the Latin of Stanza 6 lines 1 and 4, ‘cybus’ and ‘spiritus’. Are the Latin originals poems, perhaps, while the German transliterations are not? Might the Latin originals be both poems and hymns, while the German transliterations are neither?
Let us turn to the stance of Walther Bulst: “nun sind Hymnen zwar, als Texte betrachtet, Dichtungen, - unter ihnen die bedeutendsten der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters, von unvergleichlich größerer Wichtigkeit für das Mittelalter selbst und ebendaher auch für seine Erkenntnis als Waltharius, Ruodlieb, Archipoeta[4] (my italics). In other words, if we look at hymns as words on the page, then there is little to distinguish them from poetry: a clear assertion about the poetic worth of the Murbacher Hymnen, as the “bedeutendsten der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters”. They would seem to fit the definition of the hymn as “a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshipper's attitude toward God or God's purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it”[5]. The unfussy enjambment with which the first two strophes of Hymne III flow together to form one sentence is indicative of this simple, direct quality - as one commentator sees it, “after being accustomed to the softer and richer strains of the later Christian poets, it is some little while before one returns with a hearty consent and liking to the almost austere simplicity which characterizes the hymns of St. Ambrose. Only after a while does one learn to feel the grandeur of this unadorned metre…”[6] Here, Ambrosius’ hymns are not just compared to the work of “later Christian poets” but they are specifically praised for their qualities as poetry: their “unadorned metre”. The Venerable Bede similarly took Augustine’s “cum cantico” comment to include metre[7]. The fluid rhythm of pieces such as Hymne IV (Aeterne lucis conditor), leading to pleasing juxtapositions like “dies/noctem” over lines 2-3 of the first stanza, is clear, metrically regular, and easy to read aloud or memorize. Indeed, this was part of their appeal: that they could lodge in minds like well-known verse. In the era of a mere handful of manuscript copies, memorability was essential.
Yet such a classification proves deficient: “it is quite possible to read and study Latin hymns solely as poetry, but in that case, a vital part of the hymn is ignored… At least a bowing acquaintance with medieval music, both from the historical aspect and through familiarity with the melodies employed, is needed by every student of this subject”[8]. Pure poems they are not, and it is disigenuous to pretend this is the case. Bulst goes on to write: jedoch sind sie nicht bloße Lese-Dichtung, wofür wir aus modernen Verhältnissen immer wieder unwillkürlich und unbewußt alle Dichtung zu nehmen versucht sind. Sie sind aber auch nicht wie Volkslieder nach Regungen und Bedürfnissen des Gemütes zur beliebiger Zeit und an beliebigen Orten zu singen freigestellt”[9] (my italics). That is to say, these poem-like constructions are definitively not poems, not simply to be read to oneself or even aloud to others. Nor are they like folk-ballads, ditties which one may hum as and when one is minded to, in the ale-house or at manual labour. There is a specific and ritualistic sense of occasion bound up with the idea of the hymn, and it is that which most significantly distinguishes it from its fellow verse forms of song or poem. To ignore this dimension is to fail to engage critically with the paratext of the Murbacher Hymnen, with the clear indicators that these were ‘hymni canendae’, that they were made to be sung. This is “nicht eine bloße Sammlung von Hymnen, sondern, wenigstens dem Anspruch nach, ein Hymnar”[10]: there is a clear purpose in mind, and it is not just reading. Hymne XXVI (Te deum laudamus) makes it obvious that, as the song is being sung, a ritual or act of worship is being carried out, and sets this in a kind of worldwide ecclesiastical context (“te per orbem terrarium/sancta confidetur ecclesia”; “thih thuruh umbiuuft erdono/uuihiu gihit samanunga”). As Holbrook says, “the hymn is a part of the paraphernalia of the ritual”[11], and it is so in a manner that poems and songs never quite fulfil.
Question as to the fluidity of this categorisation show no signs of having been resolved, as some reactions to the awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”[12] have most recently displayed. The awarding of the prize precipitated frenzied online debate about what does or does not constitute literature, poetry, song-writing, or any combination of the three. It may seem insignificant, and certainly does not appear to have troubled Dylan, but if categories are to have any serious meaning, these are questions worth asking: given that Homer’s Iliad, Ambrosian hymns, German courtly love poetry and 1960s protest anthems were all written to be performed, how do we differentiate poetry and song? What are the distinctions to be drawn between hymns and religious poems? For that matter, can a prayer be poetry, can a hymn be a prayer? Is George Herbert’s Prayer - “the land of spices; something understood” - more prayer than poem, or more poem than prayer? Do these classifications only ever depend on the spirit of the moment in which the text is read aloud, or sung, or said, or prayed, and if so does that make the words which comprise the text capable of being adapted into a variety of media, whichever the situation requires? Perhaps the last question gets closest at the truth: that is to say that without committing ourselves to value judgments or notions of quality, we can distinguish between hymns and other verse-forms such as songs or poems as between the ritual drinking of communion wine within the context of a service and the regular consumption of wine with Sunday lunch. Specific liturgical purpose and a shared knowledge of the past use of these words for communal, sung worship define hymns in a way that poems could not be defined, and that the Murbacher Hymnen would certainly fit this model would seem to suggest that they are indeed hymns. We might close, ironically enough, with a definition of hymns as suggested in a poem:

thereafter came
Songs to my lips, but not the songs we hear
In spring, when some beloved earthly name
Forms sweet refrains to greet the rising year.
Too feeble these to speak such matchless grace.
Henceforth there echoed only in my mind
Hymns learned long since in some forgotten place,
In whose high, stately cadence I could find
The fit expression of a love more true
Than all the vanished churchmen ever knew.[13]

Bibliography.
  1. Bertau, Karl, Deutsche Literatur im europäischen Mittelalter: Band I, C.H. Beck, 1972.
  2. Braune, Wilhelm (ed.), Althochdeutsches Lesebuch, Max Niemeyer, 1994.
  3. Bulst, Walther, “Zu den Murbacher Hymnen”, in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 80. Bd., H. 3/4, S. Hirzel Verlag, 1944.
  4. Holbrook, David, “Hymns as Poetry”, in The Musical Times Vol. 103, No. 1432, Musical Times Publications Ltd., 1962.
  5. Köbler, Gerhard, Sammlung kleinerer althochdeutscher Sprachdenkmäler, Arbeiten zur Rechts- und Sprachwissenschaft Verlag, 1986.
  6. Messenger, Ruth Ellis, “Whence the Ninth Century Hymnal?” in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol 69, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1938.
  7. Müller, Stephan (ed.), Althochdeutsche Literatur: Eine kommentierte Anthologie (Zweisprachig), Reclam, 2007.
  8. Palmer, Roundell, 1st Earl of Selbourne, Hymns: Their History and Development in the Greek and Latin Churches, Germany, and Great Britain, Adam & Charles Black, 1892.
  9. Sievers, Eduard (ed.), Die Murbacher Hymnen, Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, 1874.
  10. Sonderegger, Stefan, Althochdeutsche Sprache und Literatur (3. Auflage), de Gruyter, 2003.




[1]Saint Augustine of Hippo, in Expositions of the Psalms 51-72 (ed. John E. Augustine, John E. Rotelle, Maria Boulding), New City Press, 2001.
[2]Aquinas, Thomas, “St Thomas’ Introduction to his Exposition of the Psalms of David”, online as part of the Aquinas Translation Project, translated into English by Hugh Macdonald. The Latin text is according to the Venice edition of 1776. http://hosted.desales.edu/w4/philtheo/loughlin/ATP/Proemium.html
[3]Köbler, Gerhard, Sammlung kleinerer althochdeutscher Sprachdenkmäler, Arbeiten zur Rechts- und Sprachwissenschaft Verlag, 1986.
[4]Bulst, Walther, “Zu den Murbacher Hymnen”, in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 80. Bd., H. 3/4, S. Hirzel Verlag, 1944.
[5]Eskew, Harry and McElrath, Hugh T., Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology, Genevox, 1995.
[6]Trench, Richard Chevenix, Sacred Latin Poetry, Macmillan, 1874.
[7]Palmer, Roundell, 1st Earl of Selbourne, Hymns: Their History and Development in the Greek and Latin Churches, Germany, and Great Britain, Adam & Charles Black, 1892.
[8]Messenger, Ruth Ellis, “Whence the Ninth Century Hymnal?” in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol 69, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1938.
[9]Bulst, Walther, “Zu den Murbacher Hymnen”, in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 80. Bd., H. 3/4, S. Hirzel Verlag, 1944.
[10]Ibid.
[11]Holbrook, David, “Hymns as Poetry”, in The Musical Times Vol. 103, No. 1432, Musical Times Publications Ltd., 1962.
[12]Press Release from the Svenska Akademien’s Permanent Secretary, October 2016, retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/press.html
[13]Smith, Catherine Ruth, “Hymnology,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 17, No. 1, University of Nebraska Press, 1943.

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