2 February 2019

Ante torum huius Virginis frequentate nobis dulcia cantica dramatis

Some years ago, Fr Sean (quondam Vallis Adurni notissimus Pastor nunc autem montis cultor) and I were trying to solve our mutual perplexities about this antiphon, which so many of you will have been singing with the last psalm of the first nocturn at Mattins of Candlemas. Here is the gist of what, with the help of some learned contributions on threads, we discovered.

Perhaps the easy bit is ante torum. Torus is a couch or bed, and usually means a marriage bed in the Vulgate. Frequentare did sometimes mean to repeat. No problem.

The odd bit is dramatis. It is very uncommon in Latin and does not occur in the Bible. S Anthony of Padua remarks in passing that drama means a rather active form of music, with gesticulatio and repraesentatio.  It does, presumably, come from the Greek drao (I do). It is clear that those who quote this antiphon felt a great need to give their readers some sort of account of the meaning of the word. There is a persistent tendency to link it with the Song of Solomon. S Aldhelm (d.708) refers to that Song as a sponsale drama. A writer who died in 1089 calls it cantica dramatis. A writer of the 1150s says that it is called drama "because it is a love song, which is sung by lovers without personae [named characters]; whence that song is called dramaticum where different characters are introduced but not named". Another medieval writer refers drama to the "change of character, as also in the Song of Solomon". An Assumption Day hymn desires all things earthly, and the stars, "to alternate a song of dramata before the bridal chamber of the Virgin".

I am convinced that this antiphon was already venerable when it entered the Divine Office (I have traced it in liturgical books as far back as about 860), and that it came from an already much older source and thus already had the status of a venerable tradition.

 The anonymous undated Pseudo-Ildephonsus (PL 96 coll 239 seqq) makes most use of this anthem. He relates it to Bethlehem and to the Dormition. "We are invited to the cradle of this Infancy, which the angels frequent (frequentant) ... For dramaton, my beloved ladies, is a type of song, in which type the Song of Solomon is said to be written. Lo! we are commanded, so that a more generous chanting may be commended, to repeat (frequentare), in honour of this Virgin, sweet songs in this genre, where [Angels, the star, magi, shepherds, are all busy doing it] ... before whose couch, I ask you again, that at her burial you should sing not dirges (threnos) of sorrow, not lamentations of weeping, but sweet songs to God, for today she has now, rejoicing, arrived at the King's bridal chamber ... where the choirs of Saints alternate wedding songs, where epithalamia of bride and groom are melodiously chanted ... she herself [the Virgin] sings with them [the heavenly host] a new song of drama, which nobody is able to sing except in that choir ... ."

I think the writer is enjoying, wallowing in, the deployment of an exotically alien word. The clerks of the Carolingian renascence rather liked this sort of game. Might that be its cultural background?

Perhaps a drily literal account of it would be:

Before the couch of this Virgin repeat for us sweet songs of alternating characters.


Grant Milburn said...

Sing for us again and again before this maiden's bed the tender idylls of the play.

...says divinum officium, for what it's worth.

Jesse said...

By a happy coincidence, Father, I was mysteriously moved this morning to lay aside my BCP and to take up my 1963 copy of the Breviarium Monasticum to say Matins and Lauds for the feast. There, this is the third antiphon of the first nocturn. It certainly caught my attention!

We might add Isidore of Seville to your list of authorities (Etymologiae 8.7.11):

"Apud poetas autem tres characteres sunt dicendi: unus in quo tantum poeta loquitur, ut est in libris Virgilii Georgicorum. Alius dramaticus, in quo nusquam poeta loquitur, ut est in comoediis et tragoediis. Tertius mistus, ut est in Aeneide. Nam poeta illic et introductae personae loquuntur."

According to this definition, the Canticum Canticorum would certainly count as "dramaticum". The antiphon seems odd in its present role as the introduction to a (not particularly "dramatic") psalm. I wonder if it originally had a quite different function. It reminds me somewhat of the many tropes and sequences that contain exhortations to sing.

Andreas Meszaros said...


Forcellini explains it likewise: "drama est actio vel poemata in quibus poetae persona non admiscetur sed soli actores colloquuntur."

(Drama is the action or a poem in which the poet does not participate but only the actors converse among themselves).

Jesse said...

Thanks again, Father, for this stimulating diversion. I discover that this antiphon is mentioned in an interesting article by Neil Moran: "A second medial mode Palestinian chant in Old Roman, Beneventan and Frankish sources," Plainsong and Medieval Music 19, no. 1 (April 2010): 1–19. Here we learn that Ante torum is one of a group of five antiphons whose melodies are based on the antiphon Crucem tuam. All five are found in the Metz Tonary, which, according to its editor (W. Lipphardt, Der karolingische Tonar von Metz [Münster, 1965]), was compiled around 830 (though the earliest MS dates from 878). The compiler of the tonary had difficulty with this melody type, sometimes calling it Mode 3 (deuterus authenticus), sometimes Mode 4 (deuterus plagalis).

The text and melody of Crucem tuam are, Moran argues, derived from a troparion for the veneration of the Cross in the the Jerusalem liturgy: Τον Σταυρόν σου προσκυνουµεν ("We adore thy cross, O Lord, and glorify thy holy resurrection"). Indeed, Crucem tuam, if one ignores an added line of text (which varies among the Western chant traditions), seems to have been made to match the Greek original syllable for syllable. Among the various Western chant traditions, it seems to be the "Old Roman" (attested in MSS only from the eleventh century) that best preserves the original Jerusalem melody.

This suggests to me that Ante torum may have been part of the "original repertory" (we don't say "archetype" any more) of Roman chants that was communicated to Frankish Gaul in the eighth century. (The use of a "medial mode" in the original would explain why the Franks had trouble categorizing it.) This would mean that it was Roman cantors who set the Ante torum text to the Crucem tuam melody. I wonder, could the Ante torum text also have been inspired by an Eastern source? And might that Eastern source have suggested the word dramatis?

Andreas: Many thanks. I so often forget to look in Forcellini!

Eric said...

I realize I'm a couple of years late on this but how about this translation: "Crowd together for us O sweet songs of drama before the belly of this Virgin."

The first meaning of 'torus' listed in Lewis and Short is for a fleshly bulge so I think that one might be able to assume that in this case it is the bulge of a pregnant woman i.e. Jesus Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

I like what the commenter Jesse said about the possibility of an eastern origin for this antiphon. It has that feel, especially if one takes 'torus' as 'belly' or 'fleshly bulge' as is the hyper literal sense of the word. The visceral and fleshly nature of the language might suggest some origin in the conflict with the Arians, whether during the original 4th century crisis or during a later incursion of the Gothic or Vandal tribes who subscribed to the Arian creed. Thank you for putting this up.