Breviary Hymns

I’ve had some thoughts on breviary hymns running around in my head the past few days. I’m teaching a class on the Church Year right now, so these issues are towards the front of my brain…

Anciently, hymns were something that appeared in the Daily Office—not in the Mass. Therefore they had a different dynamic than how we currently experience them. In our current church practice we would be shocked if a hymn that we had sung earlier in the season reappeared in that same season unless, perhaps, a hymn paraphrase were being used to replace a standard part of the liturgy like the Gloria. So—repetition is not a big part of our current understanding of hymns. Classically, however, repetition was the name of the game. The Little Hours of the Office—Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline—use the same hymns every day. (The exception is Compline—in some Benedictine systems there was a different Compline hymn for the Winter and Summer halves of the year.) The hymns of the major hours—Vigils, Lauds, and Vespers—changed to fit the season or the observance.

At Lauds and Vespers in particular, the hymn was the largest primary element that changed with the season. Overall, the structure of the Office doesn’t change with the change of seasons as the Mass does; we don’t drop out elements of the Office in the way that the Mass drops the Gloria or formerly moved to a Tract instead of a Gradual. Thus, the hymn became the central element in the Office that gave depth and character to the season. In fact, it’s a discursive transitional point that moves us into the depth of the season. Remember, the traditional Roman patterns for Lauds and Vespers begin with the same essential structure:

  1. opening versicles,
  2. psalmody—typically five psalms although that can get calculated in a variety of ways,
  3. the little chapter—a verse or two usually from Scripture that also changes with the season,
  4. the hymn with an attendant versicle and response, and
  5. the gospel canticle—the Benedictus (Song of Zechariah) at Lauds and the Magnificat (Song of Mary) at Vespers.

In terms of flow, these hours begin with the Old Testament prophecy (as the Church understands the Psalms) that repeats weekly through the year. Then, the little chapter gives you a passage to focus on that relates integrally to the season. Then the hymn clarifies what the little chapter has only hinted at. The text of the hymn lays out a tapestry of biblical citations, allusions, images, and doctrinal understandings to give you a big-picture view of the themes and concepts of the season. As you sing through it, the hymn invites you to discover the presence of these themes and concepts in the psalms that you’ve just completed. As the hymn draws to a close, you now have a body of prophecy experienced through a particular hermeneutical lens that has highlighted certain theological facets that lay latent in the psalms until they were brought to your attention by the direction of the hymn. Now moving into the Gospel Canticle—the hour’s major turn into the New Testament—the newly highlighted prophecies from the Old Testament give a depth and context for the canticles’ discussion of God’s faithful fulfillment of his promises.

Thus, the hymns operated as the hermeneutical lenses par excellence for the season. They taught the themes and concepts, identified key doctrines and more than that helped these images, themes, and doctrines become apparent in Holy Scripture. Because of their daily repetition, the whole Psalter was scanned with these liturgical lenses multiple times, enabling the praise of God to lead into contemplation of the mysteries of redemption hidden in the Scriptures.

One of the praiseworthy features of the ’82 Hymnal is that it has retained many of these classical breviary hymns. Many, in fact, appear twice using the same translation set to two different melodies: a plainchant tune and a later musical form. In our recovery of the Daily Office, these hymns are an invaluable asset to growing deeper into the meaning of the seasons.

The placement of the hymn in the Office has changed—following the rubrics of the ’79 BCP, the hymn now goes at the end of the Office. The prayers separate it from the psalmody and from the two lessons. As a result, using the hymn as a hermeneutical lens for finding the seasonally-connected mysteries of redemption in the Scriptures has to be a more self-conscious process—not impossible, of course, but just not as natural as in the past. It is, however, a process that we would do well to cultivate. As we head towards a new liturgical year and its seasons, I’d encourage you to look into the breviary hymns for the upcoming seasons and, even if you don’t use them daily, at least keep them within your Office rotation to keep contact with the classical meanings of our seasons.

A simplified listing of the breviary hymns from the post-Tridentine era can be found on the second page of this document (Anglo-Catholic Style Daily Office), including numbers for hymns that appear in the ’82 Hymnal. A tenth-century English Benedictine list appears here. At some point in the future I may consolidate these for ease of reference (perhaps in connection with scanning the Office Hymns used by the Order of Julian of Norwich) but time currently does not permit.

12 thoughts on “Breviary Hymns

  1. bls

    The hymns are indeed a wonderful (and central) aspect of the monastic Offices.

    In my experience they vary by day as well as by liturgical season and by feast. They are some of the most poetic of writings, too, and the most exploratory. Awhile ago, I wrote a post on one of Abelard’s Office Hymns; there is an entire website devoted to the hymns of all the offices of the liturgical year (in German and Latin, neither of which I’m very good at). Maybe you can tell me what it’s about; I’m presuming all this stuff is by Abelard himself. And this, I’m sure, is only one such site.

    The sad thing is, though, we don’t have the original music for most of these.

    Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that many of the Office Hymns are in a meter we only see rarely: 11 11 11 5 (sometimes 11 11 11 7). They’re very intense because of this, and the short ending verse is usually a powerful concluding statement. I think this might have been a meter for Feast, especially; there’s a really nice one for monastics, I know. (Here’s a Wikipedia article on all the various hymn meters; there are tons of them.)

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    They do vary in ordinary time–but they repeat weekly. In the major seasons they’re for the whole season. At least–that’s my experience; I could imagine some communities doing it differently.

    I don’t have any of my sources in front of me but IIRC, the hymns in that meter are referred to as the Ambrosian hymns and many of them do, in fact, go back to the pen of St Ambrose himself. (The Rule mentions at points singing an “Ambrosian hymn” in Benedict’s description of the hours.)

    I haven’t seen the site but I’d guess they’re Abelard’s hymns. With the addition of new feast days, hymns were one of the main outlets for liturgical creativity and some folks went to it with a passion. Speaking of, I’d love to see more of the hymns and poetry of Bede and Alcuin…

  3. Fr Chris

    Great article, Derek. Since I stopped using the AB, I haven’t done much to include the Office hymns. I have been trying harder as of late, though.

    Incidentally, it’s no longer true that the little hours have fixed hymnody in the Roman rite. Each hour now has two options (or more, if terce, sext, and none are mashed together, which is now allowed).

    So far I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen of the LOTH — but that little word “Vel” is annoying me. I’m not really one for random options. :-)

  4. Ron Steed


    Where might one go to get the english text of all the Anglo-catholic hymns you cite in the Daily Office Guide? Happy to see many of them are posted for duty in the hymnal, but I want ’em all!

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    Hi Ron,
    I don’t know about all of these but… I just took a walk on the wild side of M’s hymnal collecton. Poking through them I found a 1904 edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern (which I’m 99% sure was a gift from the Lutheran Zephyr). This was the edition that was roundly mocked at the time of its publication for its attempt to be too “historical.” (IIRC, Percy Dearmer was in on this edition but I don’t see the editors listed.)

    In any case, it has a table in the front labeled “Table of Ancient English Office Hymns” with the explanatory note: “Unless it is otherwise specified, the Hymns represent the Sarum use, and are translated in their original metres.” That last is one of the hallmarks of John Mason Neale’s translations. The full hyperlinked contents of this 1904 edition can be found here at Oremus. I don’t see the table there so I’ll probably reproduce and hyperlink it here.

    bls, I’m surprised to find I don’t have it linked already as it’s a site I’ve used many times…

  6. Ron Steed


    I know that “hymn” refers to text, but I am wondering if there is not an interesting, and traditional, side to the “tune” was well. Several in the Daily Office section of the hymnal come to mind: 4, 5, 15, 30, 33, 38. Knowing a few of these makes the Long Meter world more interesting…. Any other sources you might suggest for the lay-chanter? And is there the same sense of seasonal variation in tune?


  7. Derek the Ænglican

    I didn’t want to comment until I’d talked to M–she’s the music scholar of the house. She drew attention to several things. First, she cautions against swapping around texts and tunes willy-nilly—the tunes themselves have a theological meaning based in how they accent certain words or others. Now, the fact that these are *translations* messes things up a little but by and large she suggests that—particularly for the seasonal Office hymns—they shouldn’t be changed if you don’t have a musical background to know how your changes are effecting the theology.

    That having been said, the Hymnal ’82 has already done that with some. For instance, hymn 4 has a medieval tune for Verbum supernum prodiens matched with the text Iam lucis orto sidere. So, some mixing and matching has already happened.

    As far as seasonal variations go, I know that some medieval sources did change fixed texts by season. For instance, the tune for Te lucis, the Compline hymn, was changed seasonally in some traditions.

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