Advent vespers hymn: Conditor alme siderum

At Vespers during Advent we priests recite (or ought to) a hymn entitled Conditor alme siderum. This is perhaps from the late 6th or early 7th c. In Pope Urban VIII’s revision of the hymns of the Roman Breviary in 1632, the Advent hymns were greatly altered and this hymn was no exception. The revised hymn, Creator alme siderum, is very different piece. In the Liturgia horarum original hymn has since been restored:

Conditor alme siderum,
aeterna lux credentium,
Christe, redemptor omnium,
exaudi preces supplicum.
Loving Creator of the stars,
eternal Light of believers,
O Christ, redeemer of all,
hear the prayers of supplicants.
Qui condolens interitu
mortis perire saeculum,
salvasti mundum languidum,
donans reis remedium,
You, greatly suffering with us
that the cosmos was perishing from the ruin of death,
saved the weakened world
giving a cure to the condemned,
Vergente mundi vespere,
uti sponsus de thalamo,
egressus honestissima
Virginis matris clausula.
while the evening of the world is verging toward us,
as a Bridegroom having come forth from the chamber, the most virtuous
enclosure of the Virgin Mother.
Cuius forti potentiae
genu curvantur omnia;
caelestia, terrestria
nutu fatentur subdita.
At whose powerful might
All things are bent down at the knee,
things celestial, things earthly,
things subdued making their profession with bowed head.
Te, Sancte, fide quaesumus,
venture iudex saeculi,
conserva nos in tempore
hostis a telo perfidi.
In faith we beg You, O Holy One,
You the Judge of the world about to come,
guard us in this era
from the weapon of the teacherous enemy.
Sit, Christe, rex piissime,
tibi Patrique gloria
cum Spiritu Paraclito,
in sempiterna saecula. Amen.
O Christ, most merciful King,
let there be glory to You,
and to the Father with the Consoler Spirit
forever and ever. Amen.

Here is one poetic translation for the restored, but ancient, text:

Creator of the starry height,
Thy people’s everlasting light,
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
Hear thou thy servants when they call.

Thou, sorrowing at the helpless cry
Of all creation doomed to die,
Didst save our lost and guilty race
By healing gifts of heavenly grace.

When earth was near its evening hour,
Thou didst, in love’s redeeming power,
Like bridegroom from his chamber, come
Forth from a Virgin-mother’s womb.

At thy great Name, exalted now,
All knees in lowly homage bow;
All things in heaven and earth adore,
And own Thee King for evermore.

To thee, O Holy One, we pray,
Our Judge in that tremendous day,
Ward off, while yet we dwell below,
The weapons of our crafty foe.

To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Praise, honor, might and glory be
From age to age eternally.

Alternate Third Verse:

Thou cam’st, the Bridegroom of the bride,
As drew the world to eventide;
Proceeding from a virgin shrine,
The spotless Virgin all divine.

Somewhere along the way, the Gregorian chant melodies for many hymns were adjusted, usually by French speakers, and you can hear the influence of French even on the melodies, for the syllabic emphasis shifted around. Today’s hymn is a good example. In the case of Conditor alme siderum, the melody was adjusted in such a way that the second syllable of Conditor receives an emphasis that it did not have before Vatican II.

"But Father! But Father! So what?!??" you say while drumming your fingers. "What difference could that make??? Aren’t you being too picky?"

Friends, where you place the syllabic emphasis changes the meaning. Perpend.

There are two verbs in Latin that can give us the word spelled Conditor: cóndo, cóndere results in cónditor while condio, condire produces condítor. The verb condo, cóndere, condidi, cónditum, “to bring, lay or put together” in the sense of “establish, build, construct, compose, describe” and, strangely, “hide” is never to be confused with condio, condíre, condivi, condítum: “to put fruit in vinegar, wine, spices, etc., to preserve, pickle”. Our English word “condiment” comes from condio. BEWARE! This gets confusing because since “to lay up”, as in to pickle or preserve, can also be expressed by condo! There is a connection between the words.

Incautious people might sing the Vespers hymn in such a way that we lift our hearts and minds to the merciful Pickler, rather than the merciful Creator. The inattentive singer of vespers sings us an image of a cosmic cook sealing stars into Ball jars or sprinkling fresh herbs through the heavens.

Let’s play with this a while. We can even learn something about how the ancients ate.

M. Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C. – the “Elder” or the “Censor” to distinguish him from his homonymous grandson), in his no nonsense work about running a farm called De agri cultura (called variously De re rustica), wrote: oleae conduntur [condo] vel virides in muria… (muria… think of Muriatic Acid) which means “green olives persevered/laid down in salt brine.” Remember, I said condo can hit from both sides of the plate.

Also in De agri cultura XVII we find the same Cato’s descriptive chapter entitled Oleae albae quo modo condiantur [condio]… “how light colored olives are to be preserved”. Important stuff in Italy even today. Moreover, in his Natural History, C. Plinius Secundus (A.D. 23-79 – who died perhaps from poisonous gases in Stabiae about 16 km from the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius while trying to get good and close… hah… never a good idea), also called Pliny “the Elder” (to distinguish him from his nephew C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus “the Younger” Pliny (A.D. 62-113) – who described early Christians and their liturgical worship in his letters to the Emperor Trajan and who actually wrote the description of Vesuvius’ eruption at the request of the historian C. Cornelius Tacitus) says: vitis ipsa quoque manditur decoctis caulibus summis, qui et condiuntur [condio] in aceto ac muria, describing the cooked tendrils of grapevines flavored with vinegar and salt brine. Yum.

We need to know all of this just in case during Advent we are called upon to sing the great hymn Cónditor Alme siderum…O Nourishing/Kind Maker of the Stars.

Anyway, here is a nourishing poetic translation:

Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people’s everlasting Light;
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
And hear thy servants when they call.

Thou, grieving that the ancient curse
Should doom to death an universe,
Hast found the med’cine, full of grace,
To save and heal a ruin’d race.

Thou cam’st, the Bridegroom of the Bride,
As drew the world to evening-tide;
Proceeding from a Virgin shrine,
The spotless Victim all divine.

At whose dread Name, majestic now,
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow
And things celestial thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.

O thou, whose coming is with dread
To judge and doom the quick and dead,
Preserve us, while we dwell below,
From ev’ry insult of the foe.

To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Laud, honour, might, and glory be
From age to age eternally. Amen.

I wonder sometimes if people have the slightest clue what has been lost to us, even on the level of literature and Western culture. Is it really possible to read classics of Western literature without a working knowledge of the Church’s mighty liturgical texts? I don’t think so. What would someone ignorant of the Church’s Latin liturgy make of this passage from Jean Jacques Rousseau‘s Confessions (Book 3 – 1728-1731)?

"I have always preserved an affection for a certain air of the Conditor alme Syderum, because one Sunday in Advent I heard that hymn sung on the steps of the cathedral (according to the custom of that place) as I lay in bed before daybreak. Mademoiselle Merceret, Madam de Warrens’ chambermaid, knew something of music; I shall never forget a little piece that M. le Maitre made me sing with her, and which her mistress listened to with great satisfaction. In a word, every particular, even down to the servant Perrine, whom the boys of the choir took such delight in teasing. The remembrance of these times of happiness and innocence frequently returning to my mind, both ravish and affect me.

A century earlier, during the rampant humanism of the Renaissance Pope Urban VIII (Barbarini) revised many hymns for the Breviarium Romanum in 1623, including this one, to the point that it is pretty much a different hymn. It seems this version didn’t make it to France for Rousseau to hear. Compare and contrast.

Creator alme siderum,
aeterna lux credentium,
Iesu, Redemptor omnium,
intende votis supplicum.

Qui daemonis ne fraudibus
periret orbis, impetu
amoris actus, languidi,
mundi medela factus es,

Commune qui mundi nefas
ut expiares, ad crucem
e Virginis sacrario
intacta prodis victima.

Cuius potestas gloriae,
Nomenque cum primum sonat,
et caelites et inferi
tremente curvantur genu.

Te, deprecamur ultimae
magnum diei Iudicem,
armis supernae gratiae
defende nos ab hostibus.

Virtus, honor, laus, gloria
Deo Patri cum Filio,
Sancto simul Paraclito,
in saeculorum saecula.

You don’t need much Latin to know that that is pretty different.

These hymns are pretty interesting, aren’t they?

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13 Responses to Advent vespers hymn: Conditor alme siderum

  1. I was introduced to Conditor Alme Siderum back in 6th grade by Mother St. George, C.N.D. What a discovery. I couldn’t get that ravishingly simple melody out of my head. Still can’t. Here is an Englishing of it that I did. Not a strict translation.

    O Light unconquered, Source of Light,
    Whose radiance kindles stars and sun,
    Shine tenderly on us this night;
    Creation groans until you come.

    Immense your grief to see our plight:
    When sin had shrouded all, you came.
    True Dayspring bursting death’s dark bands,
    Emmanuel, your saving name!

    Night weighed upon a weary world
    When silently you pitched your tent,
    Enclosed within the Virgin’s womb
    True man, true God from heaven sent.

    So to the darkened world in need,
    Eternal Word, you came as man.
    You came as Bridegroom, swift and strong,
    To claim the prize the course you ran.

    Until your glory fills the skies,
    Until the stars in welcome sing,
    Until you judge both small and great,
    From sin, protect us, Sovereign King.

    To God the Father, God the Son,
    To God the Spirit ever be
    Glad songs of praise throughout the night
    While faith adores the mystery. Amen.

  2. This was a hymn for Mass last weekend, and this, to teach it to the folks in my two parishes.

  3. Hard as it may be to believe in these days of impoverished Catholic music, school children routinely learned great Latin hymns like this back in the bad old days. When I printed this post to show my wife, she immediately sang all six verses of Father Z’s “nourishing poetic translation” from memory, not having sung it or heard it in well over a half century.

  4. Jeff says:

    Yes, the hymns are fascinating, Father!

    Would you be up for doing the same thing with “Corde Natus ex Parentis”?

  5. Kenjiro Shoda says:

    Dear Father,

    I only recently found your web, and find it very interesting , informative, and inspiring.
    However, I have one question. IN analyzing these prayers, and informing us your readers of their history, significance, and meaning I hope that these prayers are from the traditional Catholic liturgy….meaning the Tridentine Latin Mass, Tridentine Breviary, etc, etc.
    If they on the other hand are actually the prayers reformed by Vatican II, then they are spiritually bankrupt from the beginning, and it would be a waste of time to try to present them here in this web.

  6. Black Cassock says:

    Kenjiro, you just made a most puzzling assertion, which I think most readers of this blog will ignore. If Father has repeated and continually shown the prayers to be full of Catholic teaching, how can they be even “spiritually bankrupt”?

  7. Jeff says:

    Black Cassock:

    I think the stock response would be that nothing good can come out of Nazareth. But as they say in the Holy Land, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

  8. Jeff says:

    Black Cassock:

    For “Nazareth”, read “Bugnineth”. ;-)

  9. Pes says:

    I am astounded by Father’s post. Absolutely speechless.

  10. Ben D. says:

    Kenjiro Shoda,

    What exactly do you mean by “the prayers reformed by Vatican II”? The prayers Father Z. discusses in his WDTPRS series are indeed from the post-Vatican-II Roman Missal — hence the need for the series, because most people’s exposure to these prayers has only been by way of the deficient English translations done by ICEL.

    But in each article — or at least in each that I’ve read — Father Z. indicates the history and origin of the prayer under discussion, and you’ll find that many of the prayers of the modern Roman Missal are taken word-for-word from the pre-Vatican-II Missal.

    So it’s not an either/or thing, as in “either the prayers are from the pre-Vatican-II Missal, or the prayers are from the post-Vatican-II Missal” — because the Propers of each of these Missals have a lot in common.

    It would be interesting to know how many of the Proper prayers of the 1970 Missal were taken verbatim from the 1962 Missal, how many were revised, how many were composed from scratch, and how many (if any) were taken from other traditional sources. Father Z., could you say, offhand, what the percentages are?

  11. Ben D.: I don’t remember offhand. I have a book back in the USA at “The Sabine Farm” which I think delves into that. I am flying to the USA tomorrow and should be able to consult it… if I remember to. Perhaps post a follow up on, say, Thursday if someone doesn’t jump in.

  12. Clare Krishan says:

    I shall print this article out and keep a copy next to my glass pickle ornament to get a chuckle when I hang it on the tree on Christmas Eve! I love this hymn during Advent humming it to myself as I try to recreate the German Christmas cookies sold in the “conditorei” (baker’s shop) over there. German wiki tells us that the name Spekulatius for the variously shaped spiced wafers:
    “leitet sich von der lateinischen Bezeichnung für Bischof = speculator (Aufseher, Beobachter) her. Eine andere Ableitung bezieht sich auf lat. speculum = Spiegel, wegen der spiegelbildlichen Bilder, die in den Backformen eingeschnitten sind.”
    {derives from the Latin term for Bishop = speculator [overseer, observer]. Another derivation refers to the Latin speculum = Mirror, from the mirror-image images carved into the cookie mold).

    Perhaps “The Baker’s Mirror” would be a good name for an Advent mystery play based on the Pope’s penchant for Augustine in his message for peace, transmitting eternal truths in a popular format along the lines of JPII’s ‘The Jeweler’s Shop’?

  13. Ben D. says:

    Father, here’s my follow-up post to remind you to look up the numbers on the origins of the prayers in the 1970 Missal. If you can’t find the exact numbers, maybe you can just estimate roughly?