Text: Anonymous, 9th century;
translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866)
Music: Sarum Plainsong, Mode IV
Tune name: CONDITOR ALME
This hymn is a translation and slight musical adaptation of a 7th-century Latin hymn, Conditor alme siderum. Not surprisingly — since this text refers to the stars of night and to the coming of the Savior into the world — this hymn was first sung in monasteries during Advent as part of Vespers (comparable to our Evening Prayer liturgy). The point of view presented in the hymn is clearly one anticipating the Second Advent in light of the history that led to and beyond Christ’s first coming.
The first five verses describe Creation, the Fall, the Annunciation and Nativity, the kingly rule of the ascended Christ, and a plea for Christ’s return in power and judgment. The sixth verse is a Doxology, directing laud, honor, might, and glory to the Trinity. Advent hope is situated in the context of who God is (Creator and Redeemer) and what history is (which can only be understood in reference to Christ).
Our Hymnal tells us three things about this tune: it is plainsong (or plainchant); it is from the Sarum Use; and it is Mode IV. The first of these is relatively easy: plainsong or plainchant refers both the a musical form (sung in unison with a single vocal line) and to the body of melodies bearing this form that developed over centuries in monasteries and churches. It’s what we typically (if a bit inaccurately) think of as “Gregorian chant.”
“Sarum” is a less familiar term. See this page for a fuller explanation.
Mode IV (to oversimplify) refers to the specific scale pattern evident in the melody. While modern music is typically either in a major key or a minor key, in medieval music there were eight different modes, each with a slightly different emotional quality.
This page features a recording of the original plainchant chanted by the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz. The page also includes links to ornate choral settings of the melody by six different composers.
In 2020, while our worship services were sadly free of singing, we asked Wallace Hornady to record as organ track for our choir to use in recording this hymn as part of our “Choir in Quarantine” project. Wallace graciously recorded two versions for us, to which you may want to sing this hymn. If you don’t have access to a Hymnal, you may download the hymn here.
Below Wallace’s two recordings is the recording of our choir singing the second one with him.
Here is a rendition of this hymn (with altered text) arranged by the late John Scott (1956-2015). It is sung by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha, conductor and organist: