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. The Rev. J. Robert Wright explains:
The “Sarum Use” is the name applied to the particular rendering of divine worship in the English Church that was developed at Salisbury, in Wiltshire, from the early thirteenth century and then gradually spread to become at least by the fourteenth century the finest local expression of the Western or Roman Rite in England up to the Reformation. “Sarum” is the abbreviation for Sarisburium, the Latin word for Salisbury, which was and is both a city and a diocese in south central England. The Use of Sarum, then, was a rather exuberant, elaborate, beautiful, and especially well arranged adaptation of the Western or Roman Rite that was gradually adopted by most of the rest of England as well as much of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and even some places on the continent. Indeed, the first Sarum Missal to be printed was at Paris in 1487, then Basle 1489, Rouen 1492, Venice 1494, etc., and not at London until 1498.
So while this metrical melody may not have English origins, it was confirmed as part of the Church’s liturgical life by its use in English liturgical life.
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.
Here are the first four verses of this hymn (words slightly altered) as sung a cappella by the Harvard University Choir:
And 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: