Text: St. Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604)
Music: Traditional French carol
Tune name: JESU DULCIS MEMORIA
Although the familiar form of liturgical singing bears his name, Pope Gregory I (in office from 590 to 604 A.D.) cannot really be credited with having devised or even consolidated what we know as Gregorian Chant. That development in the Church’s musical life happened in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Gregory’s reputation was such that a number of hymn texts have also been attributed to Gregory the Great, most of which were almost certainly not his work. But “Kind Maker of the world” has a greater likelihood of having been written by him than do most of the claimants.
Once a fixture in liturgical life during Lent, the hymn has almost disappeared from hymnals, despite the many translations (at least 22) into English. The hymn was long sung daily throughout Lent; our own parish’s habit has been to sing it to usher in Lent on Ash Wednesday, then reverently set it aside. Perhaps we should adjust that practice, as it serves as a reminder of the purpose of the season’s practices.
1. Kind Maker of the world, O hear
the fervent prayer, with many a tear
poured forth by all the penitent
who keep this holy fast of Lent!
2. Each heart is manifest to thee;
thou knowest our infirmity;
now we repent, and seek thy face;
grant unto us thy pard’ning grace.
3. Spare us, O Lord, who now confess
our sins and all our wickedness;
and, for the glory of thy Name,
our weaken’d souls to health reclaim.
4. Give us the self-control that springs
from abstinence in outward things;
that from each stain and spot of sin,
our souls may keep the fast within.
5. Grant, O thou blessèd Trinity;
grant, O unchanging Unity;
that this our fast of forty days
may work our profit and thy praise!
The name of this hymn’s tune — JESU DULCIS MEMORIA — is also the title of the poem by St. Bernard of Clairvaux from which the words to “Jesus, the very thought of thee” and “Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts” are taken. The tune was used in a 1608 German hymnal — the Catholische Geistliche Gesänge — to sing portions of St. Bernard’s mystical, ecstatic poem. Here is how we sing the tune during Lent with the text from St. Gregory, played on the piano by Andrew Remillard.
But long before the Germans got hold of it and attached it to St. Bernard’s poem, the tune was a traditional French carol, and was in print in a French collection of carols published in Lyons in 1535. The text sung in that carol dates back at least to the 15th century, and can imagine that it had been around since medieval time. The carol began “A la venue de Noel,” and the first stanza in English goes:
Upon the arrival of Christmas
Rejoice well one and all
For this is a new testament
That all the world should abide in.
This tune has long been a favorite melody on which composers would base a series of variations (especially French composers arranging material to be played on large cathedral organs). Here’s one example, a setting by Nicolas Lebègue (c. 1631-1702), played by Ton Koopman.