O quanta qualia

All Saints’ Day

‘O qvanta qvalia’ is one of a collection of hymns written by Peter Abelard, the brilliant but troubled theologian and teacher. He wrote these hymns for the convent he established for his wife, Heloise, at the ‘Paraclete’, the retreat and oratory which his students had built him: thus the name Hymnarius Paraclitensis.

Abelard wrote not only hymns but many forms of liturgical text, including a complete Holy Week Office – and what is more, he seems to have written musical settings for them. As Heloise wrote to him,

Two special gifts you had, two special gifts whereby to attract straight way the heart of any woman whomsoever: the beauty of your songs and your singing... Sung again and yet again for utter charm of word as well as tune, they kept your name continually on the lips of everyone: the very sweetness of the melodies ensured that even the unlettered would not forget you.

Nevertheless, for a long time the only Abelard tune known to be recoverable (because it had subsequently been transcribed from staffless neumes into staff notation) was that for ‘O quanta qualia’. Since the 1980s, however, a number of others have been identified. The tune may be seen here and heard here.

John Mason Neale, the brilliant nineteenth-century Anglican priest, classical and liturgical scholar, prolific writer, and translator, rendered ‘O quanta qualia’ as ‘O what their joy and their glory must be’ in the second volume of his Hymnal Noted (1854). Though he kept the dactylic rhythm of the original, he truncated the final foot of the line, changing the metre from 12 12. 12 12 to 10 10. 10 10 (a line arguably more suited to English prosody, in which final accented syllables and monosyllables are quite common). If this is perhaps not one of Neale’s very finest English texts, it is nevertheless a very good translation, hewing closely enough to the (admittedly not particularly abstruse) original while feeling free, for example, to introduce the ‘shore’/‘strand’ image to help contrast ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Babylon’. Perhaps the most notable change, in image if not in effect, is from the idea of one Sabbath following another (‘ex sabbato succedet sabbatum’) to that of one uninterrupted Sabbath (‘There dawns no Sabbath, – no Sabbath is o’er; / those Sabbath-keepers have one, and no more’).

Neale’s text was set by the music editor of the Hymnal Noted, Thomas Helmore, to two tunes, the now familiar one being a simplification of a seventeenth-century French ‘church melody’*†. With some alterations, this hymn, with this tune, found its way into Hymns Ancient and Modern (1868) and then into the Hymnal of the Episcopal Church (1892). This text and tune also form the basis of a substantial choral setting by William Harris (oddly not included in any list of his works that I have seen).

The hymn was written not for the annual feast of All Saints, but for the weekly feast of the Resurrection. Intended to be sung at First Vespers of Sunday (i.e., on the evening of Saturday, Sabbatum in medieval Latin), the hymn marks the transition from the old, finite, earthly, seventh-day Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, a prefiguration of and participation in the new, eternal, heavenly, eighth-day Sabbath.‡ Addressing as it does the denizens of ‘that country’, however, it is also fitting for the celebration of the saints and the coming end of the Church’s year.

As two of Neale’s stanzas have been omitted in the Hymnal since 1940 and others have seen some alterations, I reproduce here Neale’s full original translation, followed by Abelard’s original text.

O what their joy and their glory must be, –
those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see!
crown for the valiant: to weary ones rest:
God shall be all, and in all ever blest.

What are the Monarch, His court, and His throne?
What are the peace and the joy that they own?
Tell us, ye blest ones, that in it have share,
if what ye feel ye can fully declare.

Truly ‘Jerusalem’ name we that shore,
‘Vision of Peace’ that brings joy evermore!
Wish and fulfilment can sever’d be ne’er,
nor the thing pray’d for come short of the pray’r.

We, where no trouble distraction can bring,
safely the anthems of Sion shall sing:
while for Thy grace, Lord, their voices of praise
thy blessed people shall evermore raise.

There dawns no Sabbath, – no Sabbath is o’er;
those Sabbath-keepers have one, and no more;
one and unending is that triumph-song
which to the Angels and us shall belong.

Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
we for that country must yearn and must sigh:
seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

Low before Him with our praises we fall,
of Whom, and in Whom, and through Whom are all:
of Whom, – the Father; and in whom, – the Son;
through Whom, – the Spirit, with These ever One.

O quanta, qualia sunt illa sabbata
quae semper celebrat superna curia,
Quae fessis requies, quae merces fortibus,
cum erit omnia Deus in omnibus.

Vere Ierusalem est illa civitas,
cuius pax iugis est, summa iucunditas,
ubi non praevenit rem desiderium,
nec desiderio minus est praemium.

Quis rex, quae curia, quale palatium,
quae pax, quae requies, quod illud gaudium,
huius participes exponant gloriae
si, quantum sentiunt, possint exprimere.

Nostrum est interim mentem erigere
et totis patriam votis appetere,
et ad Ierusalem a Babylonia
post longa regredi tandem exilia.

Illic molestiis finitis omnibus
securi cantica Sion cantabimus,
et iuges gratias de donis gratiae
beata referet plebs tibi, Domine.

Illic ex sabbato succedet sabbatum,
perpes laetitia sabbatizantium,
nec ineffabiles cessabunt iubili,
quos decantabimus et nos et angeli.

Perenni Domini perpes sit gloria,
ex quo sunt, per quem sunt, in quo sunt omnia;
ex quo sunt, Pater est; per quem sunt, Filius;
in quo sunt, Patris et Filii Spiritus.

*  The name now given to a sort of neo-chant genre found throughout the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century liturgical books of the somewhat independently minded French Church, and known to us particularly through Helmore’s efforts, whence they entered the stream of English-language, and particularly Anglican, hymnody. Other typical examples in the Hymnal are ‘Christe sanctorum’ and ‘Caelites plaudant’.

†  The other tune was not Abelard’s, but the ‘melody of “Germine nobilis Eulalia” from a Toledo Hymnal’; I do not know whether the original melody was unknown to Helmore, or whether he considered the change in metre to obviate its use; Abelard’s tune is in fact neumatic and flexible enough to admit of adaptation to Neale’s text, and as fine a match as Helmore’s reworked French tune is, bestowing a stately and triumphant, if not quite a military, air, Abelard’s Mode I melody, at least to modern ears, gives the text an altogether more mysterious and perhaps plaintive effect (Abelard also wrote a set of planctus). The one leads us to celebrate the triumph of Christ as already shown forth in His saints, the other to ‘yearn and sigh’ for our ‘dear native land’.

‡  Interestingly, though the editors of the Hymnal 1982 felt the need to substantially alter Bp Wordsworth’s ‘O day of rest and gladness’ ‘because of confusion created by the poet in the association of biblical events of the first day of the week with those of the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath’ [Hymnal 1982 Companion], by recategorizing ‘O quanta qualia’ from an Office hymn or a Sunday hymn (the Hymnal 1916 suggested it for Sundays after Trinity and Processions on Holy Days) to a hymn on ‘the Church Triumphant’ they have removed this potential objection in this case.