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Musical Musings: Prayers and Liturgical Texts

The Te Deum


This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.

While this article is taken from a volume written well before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it is still relevant from an historical perspective, allowing us to study the history of the Te Deum.

An abbreviated title commonly given both to the original Latin text and the translations of a hymn in rhythmical prose, of which the opening words, Te Deum laudamus, formed its earliest known title (namely in the Rule of Saint Caesarius for monks, written probably when he was Abbot of Lérins, before AD 502). This longer title is used in the "Rules for Virgins" composed by Saint Caesarius while Archbishop of Arles, and by his second successor in the same see, Saint Aurelian, also in the Rule of Saint Benedict; and generally in earlier literature. The hymn is also sometimes styled Hymnus Ambrosianus, the "Ambrosian Hymn"; and in the Roman Breviary it is still entitled, at the end of Matins for Sunday, Hymnus SS. Ambrosii et Augustini. It is interesting to note that the title has been changed to Hymnus Ambrosianus in the Psalterium of the new Roman Breviary of Pius X. This Psalterium has been printed (1912), but became obligatory only from January 1, 1913. The Te Deum is found in the first part of the Psalterium Ordinarium, etc. The tradition that it was spontaneously composed and sung alternately by these saints on the night of Saint Augustine's baptism (AD 387) can be traced back to the end of the eighth century, and is referred to in the middle of the ninth century by Hinemar of Reims (ut a majoribus nostris audivimus) in his second work, De praedestinatione (PL CXXV 290), and in an elaborated form in a Milanese chronicle attributed to Datius, Bishop of Milan (d. 552), but really dating only from the eleventh century (thus Mabillon, Muratori, Merati, etc.). This tradition is now generally rejected by scholars.

(a) It should naturally have held, from earliest times, a prominent place in Milan; but of the earlier manuscripts of the Te Deum which refer to the tradition in their titles, none has any connection with Milan, while the Milan Cathedral Breviary text (eleventh century) has no title whatever.

(b) The tradition ascribing the authorship to the two saints is not unique. Another tradition is represented by the remark of Abbo of Fleury (AD 985) in his Quaestiones grammaticales (PL CXXXIX 532 #19) concerning the erroneous substitution of "suscepisti" for "suscepturus" in the verse "Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem..." in what he styles "Dei palinodia quam composuit Hilarius Pictaviensis episcopus." It may be added that an eighth or ninth century manuscript of the hymn, now at Munich, refers it to Saint Hilary.

(c) But neither to Hilary nor to Ambrose may the hymn be prudently ascribed, because although both composed hymns, the Te Deum is in rhythmical prose, and not in the classical metres of the hymns known to have been written by them. While, from the ninth century down to the present day, there is no century and no country of Western Europe that has not given its witness to the traditional ascription, the earliest manuscripts, the Bangor Antiphonary (seventh century) gives as title merely Hymnum in die dominica, while other early manuscripts make no reference to the authorship, either giving no titles or contenting themselves with such general ones as Laudatio Dei (manuscript of eighth century), Laus angelica (twelfth century), Hymnus matutinalis, Hymnus die dominico, Hymnum dominicale, etc. Other manuscripts ascribe the hymn variously to Saint Nicetus, Vicetus (obviously a slip of the pen for Nicetus), Nicetius, Nicetes, Neceta (all of these being thought identical with Niceta or Nicetas, Bishop of Remesiana), to Saint Hilarius, Saint Abundius, Saint Sisebutus, Saint Ambrose, or Saint Augustine.

(d) The importance of the occasion to which the legend assigns the composition of the hymn (the baptism of Saint Augustine) and the comparatively late appearance of the ascription to the two saints are additional arguments against the tradition. Merati thinks the legend may have been based on the words of a spurious sermon, given as no. 92 in an edition of the works of Saint Ambrose (Paris 1549), De Augustini baptismo: "In quo una vobiscum cum divino instinctu Hymnum cantavimus de Christi fide." It may be added that the Maurists omitted the Te Deum from their edition of Saint Ambrose; that Batiffol (Hist. du Brev. Romain, Paris 1893, p.98; authorized and corrected tr, London 1898 p.110) writes: "No one thinks now of attributing this cento either to Saint Ambrose or to Saint Augustine"; that Father Burton, in his Life of Saint Augustine: An Historical Study (Dublin 3rd ed. 1897) does not even mention the legend about the dual authorship and the baptism of Saint Augustine; and finally that Portalie remarks: "The tradition maintaining that the Te Deum was sung on that occasion by the bishop and the neophyte alternately is groundless."
The other names mentioned above not being favoured by scholars, the question of authorship remained open. In 1894 Dom Morin put forward Nicetas of Remesiana for the honour of authorship. His suggestion has been adopted by Zahn, Kattenbusch, Kirsch (in Germany); Frere, Burn (in England), while the Anglican Bishop of Salisbury considers Morin's conjecture "very plausible"; and in France, by Batiffol. The reasons for this view are:
  1. Ten manuscripts (the earliest of the tenth century), mostly of Irish origin, name Nicetas (with variant spellings and identifications, however); and Ireland remote from the continent of Europe, could easily keep until the tenth century a tradition of the fifth.
  2. The probable date of composition of the hymn corresponds with that of the literary activity of Nicetas.
  3. Saint Paulinus of Nola praises (Carmina, xvii, xxvii) the poetic and hymnodal gifts of his friend Nicetas.
  4. Gennadius speaks of the neat and simple style of his prose, and Cassiodorus commends his conciseness. These critical appreciations are thought applicable to the style of the Te Deum, which depends for its effect mostly on the nobility of the theme and the simplicity and directness of the expression.
  5. The authorship of the treatises De psalmodiae bono and De vigiliis servorum Dei was formerly ascribed to Nicetas of Trier, but is now attributed with greatest probability to Nicetas of Remesiana. Their "internal evidence proves that Nicetas felt the need of such a hymn as the Te Deum, and, so to speak, lived in the same sphere of religious thought" (Burn, cii), while parallel passages from his writings (given by Burn, ciii-civ), although offering no direct quotation, exhibit similarity of thought and diction.
The authorship of Saint Nicetas is questioned by some scholars (Cagin, P. Wagner, Agaesse, Koestlin, Blume). Among the passages cited to indicate a much earlier origin perhaps the most notable one is that from the De mortalitate (xxvi) of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, written during the plague in 252: "Illic apostolorum gloriosus chorus; illic prophetarum exsultantium numerus; illic martyrum innumerabilis populus ob certaminis et passionis gloriam coronatus; triumphantes virgines, quae concupiscentiam carnis et corporis continentiae robore subegerunt; remunerati misericordes" There is an obvious similarity between this and the verses of the Te Deum: "Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus; te prophetarum laudabilis numerus; te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus. [verses 7-9] Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis gloria munerari [verse 21]." Perhaps the "remunerati" of Saint Cyprian and the "munerari" of the oldest texts of the Te Deum are a mere coincidence; but the rest of the similar passages cannot be an accident. Which was the earlier - the Te Deum or the text of Saint Cyprian? It is contended that, however well known and highly esteemed the works of the saint, there is little in this particular passage to strike the fancy of a hymn-writer, while it would be a very natural thing for a prose writer to borrow some expressions from such a widely-sung hymn as the Te Deum may have been. Moreover, if the hymn was borrowed from Saint Cyprian, why did it not include the "virgines" instead of stopping with "martyrum"? Additional argument for a very early origin of at least the first ten verses of the hymn is found in comparisons between these and the texts and melody of the Prefaces, in the structure of the Gloria in excelsis, in the rhythmic and melodic character of the Te Deum, in the Greek translations.

This archaeological argument cannot be stated intelligibly in a few words, but some of its bases may be mentioned:

(a) If the Te Deum were composed in the latter years of the fourth century, it would be a unique exception to the hymnology of that time, which was all fashioned in the regular strophic and metric manner introduced and popularized by Saint Ambrose.

(b) From the point of view of melody, the hymn has three divisions: verses 1-13, 14-20, 21 to the end. The first melody (1-13) is apparently older than the others.

(c) From the point of view of rhythm, there are also three divisions: verses 14-21 exhibit perfect conformity with the laws of the cursus, or rhythmic closes, which date from the fourth century, verses 1-10, however, have only five (4, 6 and 8-10) verses closed with the rhythmical cursus, and these five are supposed to be the result of accident; verses 22 to the end belong to a wholly different category, being taken mostly from the Psalms (27:9; 144:2; 122:3; 32:22; 30:2). It is argued that, judged by melody and rhythm, the first ten verses form a complete hymn (verses 11-13 having been added subsequently as a doxology) to God the Father, while verses 14-21 form a hymn (added in the fourth century) to Christ. As noted above, the first ten verses offer (vv.7-9) the parallelism with the words of Saint Cyprian, and are, for the various reasons outlined, supposed to antedate the year 252. Speculation ascribes their authorship to Pope Saint Anicletus (d. about AD 168).
Three textual points may be noted here.

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What Three Points?!?

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