that this may have been the series of Psalms called Hallel (cxiii to cxviii of the Authorised Version), which was used, in the Second Temple, at all great festivals, and consequently at that of the Passover; and it has been supposed—though the circumstance does not admit of proof—that the melody to which the most characteristic of these Psalms, In exitu Israel, was originally sung, is the germ of that with which it has been associated, in the Christian Church, from time immemorial—the Tonus Peregrinus.
In early times, any act of praise to God was called a Hymn, provided only that it was sung. Afterwards, the use of the term became more restricted. The Psalms were eliminated from the category, and Hymns, properly so called, formed into a distinct class by themselves. φῶς ἱλαρόν, a composition attributed to Athenagenes, and still constantly sung in the Offices of the Eastern Church, is supposed to be the oldest Hymn of this description now in use. Little less venerable, in point of antiquity, is the 'Angelic Hymn,' Gloria in excelsis Deo, of which special mention is made in the Apostolic Constitutions. It was not, however, until the latter half of the 4th century, that the immense importance of the Hymn, as an element of Christian Worship, became fully understood. S. Ephrem of Edessa made many valuable contributions to the store of Hymns already in use at that period. S. Chrysostom zealously carried on the work at Constantinople, and S. Ambrose at Milan. The noblest Latin Hymn we possess—Te Deum laudamus—was long believed to be the joint production of S. Ambrose and S. Augustine. To S. Ambrose, also, is due the honour of having first introduced the true Metrical Hymn into the services of the Western Church—for the rhythm of the older examples was very distinct from actual metre. His favourite species of verse was Iambic Dimeter—the 'Long Measure' of English Hymnology—which was long regarded as the normal metre of the Latin Hymn. S. Gregory the Great first introduced Sapphics; as in Nocte surgentes vigilemus omnes. Prudentius wrote, with great effect, Trochaic Tetrameter Catalectic—Corde natus ex Parentis ante mundi exordium; and also used Iambic Trimeter—O Nazarene, lux Bethlem, verbum Patris; and Iambic Dimeter Catalectic—Cultor Dei memento. One of the earliest instances of Elegiac Verse is found in the
'Crux benedicta nitet, Dominus qua carne pependit,
of Venantius Fortunatus. Other metres came into use from time to time: but, about the beginning of the 10th century, most of these were forsaken in favour of 'prose'; that is to say—paradoxical as the explanation may seem to the uninitiated—a style consisting of regular lines, containing an equal number of syllables, and often carefully rhymed, but governed, as to their rhythm, by accent instead of quantity, and therefore setting the laws of classical prosody at defiance. Many of the finest mediæval Hymns are written in this beautiful though barbarous 'Monkish Latin,' especially those intended to be sung at Mass after the Gradual and Tract: insomuch that the terms Sequence and Prose have almost come to be regarded as synonymous. [See Sequentia; Prosa.] [App. p.684 omits Prosa from reference.]
The authorship of the Plain Chaunt melodies to which these Hymns were sung is very uncertain. It seems probable, that, in many cases, the writer of the words was also the composer of the music to which they were adapted. A rich collection of such original tunes will be found in the Vesperale Romanum, and other similar Office Books. Probably the purest forms now attainable are those given in the last edition of the Vesperal published by Messrs. Pustet, of Ratisbon; but the discarded Office Books once used in particular Dioceses contain some priceless treasures: for instance, the Sarum Tune to Sanctorum meritis is one of the most perfect Mixolydian melodies in existence. [See Plain Chaunt.] [App. p.684 "At end of second paragraph for Plain Chaunt read Plain Song."]
After the invention of Discant, these venerable Hymn Tunes, or phrases selected from them, were constantly used as Canti fermi for Masses and Motets. In the year 1589 Palestrina turned them to still better account in his great work entitled Hymni Totius Anni— a collection of Hymns for every Festival throughout the Ecclesiastical Year, admirably treated, in the polyphonic style, for three, four, five, and six voices, and bearing traces of the great composer's best manner on every page. From a fine tall copy of the original Roman edition of this work of Palestrina's, preserved in the British Museum, we transcribe a portion of the Hymn for Passion Sunday—Vexilla regis prodeunt—the well-known melody of which is combined, throughout, with contrapuntal treatment of the most masterly description, involving clever imitations, and closely-interwoven fugal points, so carefully concealed beneath the expressive harmonies which result from them that their ingenuity is quite forgotten in the indescribable beauty of the general effect.
- See 'The Hymnal Noted,' by the Rev. T. Helmore (Novello).
- Sung also, as a Processional Hymn, on the morning of Good Friday. See Improperia.