Text: Jean Mauburn (c.1460-1503)
Music: Hohenfurth Ms., 1410
Tune name: DIES EST LAETITIAE
The author of this text, Jean Mauburn, was an Augustinian canon of various French abbeys. In 1491 Mauburn published Rosetum exercitiorum spiritualium (“Spiritual Exercises for the Confraternity of the Rosary”). These exercises were for the laity, and included a long poem (thirteen stanzas of ten lines each) on the birth of Christ. which began Eia mea anima, Bethlehem eamus (Now, my soul, to Bethlehem).
Our hymn includes three of the stanzas and takes the unusual form of a dialogue between an individual believer, vicariously standing before the infant Jesus, and the Lord speaking — not as the baby being addressed but, as it were, from the standpoint of eternity. In stanza 1, the believer questions why the Creator-King has come to earth in such impoverished conditions: “Naught but need and penury.” The next stanza contains the answer: for love “came I unto woe. By this lowly birth of mine, sinner, riches shall be thine.” The third stanza is a grateful response of praise.
In his manuscript, Mauburn suggested that his poem be sung to the Latin song, “Dies est laetitiae” (This is the joyful day), which probably dates back to before the fifteenth century. That tune sustained several different Christmas texts, including the one from which it takes its name. Here is a paraphrase of first verse from that hymn (which our choir has sung in Christmas services):
Earth with joy this day doth ring, Songs of praise devising;
From a maid comes forth our King Like a bright star rising.
What seductive infancy! All delectability,
Grace in every gesture;
But no human eye may see His concealed divinity,
God in human vesture.
Here is the tune sung as a simple plainchant:
Dies est laetitiae with the original words — not Mauburn’s Nativity dialogue — has been extremely popular in German-speaking countries; Martin Luther praised it in his sermons, calling it “a work of the Holy Spirit.”
Here is a setting of Dies est laetitiae in German — Ein Kindelein so löbelich — set by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), sung by Das Peñalosa-Ensemble.