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The opening words (used as a title) of the most celebrated of the four Breviary anthems of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is said from the First Vespers of Trinity Sunday until None of the Saturday before Advent. An exception is noted in Migne's "Dict. de liturgie" (s. v.), namely that the rite of Châlons-sur-Marne assigns it from the Purification B. M. V. until Holy Thursday. An other variation, peculiar to the cathedral of Speyer (where it is chanted solemnly every day "in honour of St. Bernard"), may have been based on either of two legends connecting the anthem with the saint of Clairvaux. One legend relates that, while the saint was acting as legate Apostolic in Germany, he entered ( Christmas Eve, 1146) the cathedral to the processional chanting of the anthem, and, as the words "O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria" were being sung, genuflected thrice. According to the more common narrative, however, the saint added the triple invocation for the first time, moved thereto by a sudden inspiration. "Plates of brass were laid down in the pavement of the church, to mark the footsteps of the man of God to posterity, and the places where he so touchingly implored the clemency, the mercy, and the sweetness of the Blessed Virgin Mary " (Ratisbonne, "Life and Times of St. Bernard", American ed., 1855, p. 381, where fuller details are given). It may be said in passing that the legend is rendered very doubtful for several reasons:

  • the narrative apparently originated in the sixteenth century, and relates a fact of the twelfth;
  • the silence of contemporaries and of the saint's companions is of some significance;
  • the musical argument suggests a single author of both the anthem and its concluding words.

The authorship is now generally ascribed to Hermann Contractus. Durandus, in his "Rationale", ascribed it to Petrus of Monsoro (d. about 1000), Bishop of Compostella. It has also been attributed to Adhémar, Bishop of Podium (Puy-en-Velay), whence it has been styled "Antiphona de Podio" (Anthem of Le Puy ). Adhémar was the first to ask permission to go on the crusade, and the first to receive the cross from Pope Urban II. "Before his departure, towards the end of October, 1096, he composed the war-song of the crusade, in which he asked the intercession of the Queen of Heaven, the Salve Regina" ( Migne, "Dict. des Croisades", s. v. Adhémar). He is said to have asked the monks of Cluny to admit it into their office, but no trace of its use in Cluny is known before the time of Peter the Venerable, who decreed (about 1135) that the anthem should be sung processionally on certain feasts. Perhaps stimulated by the example of Cluny, or because of St. Bernard's devotion to the Mother of God (the saint was diligent in spreading a love for the anthem, and many pilgrim-shrines claim him as founder of the devotion to it in their locality), it was introduced into Cîteaux in the middle of the twelfth century, and down to the seventeenth century was used as a solemn anthem for the Magnificat on the feasts of the Purification, Annunciation, and Nativity B. V. M., and for the Benedictus at Lauds of the Assumption. In 1218 the general chapter prescribed its daily processional chanting before the high altar after the Capitulum; in 1220 it enjoined its daily recitation on each of the monks ; in 1228 it ordered its singing "mediocri voce", together with seven psalms, etc. on every Friday "pro Domino Papa" ( Gregory IX had taken refuge in Perugia from Emperor Frederick II ), "pro pace Romanae Ecclesiae", etc. etc. -- the long list of "intentions" indicating how salutary was deemed this invocation of Our Lady. The use of the anthem at Compline was begun by the Dominicans about 1221, and was rapidly propagated by them. Before the middle of that century, it was incorporated with the other anthems of the Blessed Virgin in the "modernized" Franciscan Breviary, whence it entered into the Roman Breviary. Some scholars say that the anthem had been in use in that order (and probably from its foundation) before Gregory IX prescribed its universal use. The Carthusians sing it daily at Vespers (except the First Sunday of Advent to the Octave of Epiphany, and from Passion Sunday to Low Sunday ) as well as after every hour of the Little Office B. V. M. The Cistercians sang it after Compline from 1251 until the close of the fourteenth century, and have sung it from 1483 until the present day -- a daily devotion, except on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. the Carmelites say it after every hour of the Office. Pope Leo XIII prescribed its recitation (6 January, 1884) after every low Mass, together with other prayers -- a law still in force.

While the anthem is in sonorous prose, the chant melody divides it into members which, although of unequal syllabic length, were doubtless intended to close with the faint rhythmic effect noticeable when they are set down in divided form:

  • Salve Regina (Mater) misericordiae,
  • Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
  • Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae;
  • Ad te suspiramus gementes et flentes in hac lacrymarum valle.
  • Eia ergo advocata nostra, illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte.
  • Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
    O Clemens, O pia,
    O dulcis (Virgo) Maria.
Similarly, Notker Balbulus ended with the (Latin) sound of "E" all the verses of his sequence, "Laus tibi, Christe" ( Holy Innocents ). The word "Mater" in the first verse is found in no source, but is a late insertion of the sixteenth century. Similarly, the word "Virgo" in the last verse seems to date back only to the thirteenth century. Mone (Lateinische Hymnen des Mittelalters, II, 203-14) gives nine medieval hymns based on the anthem. Daniel (Thesaurus hymnologicus, II, 323) gives a tenth. The "Analecta hymnica" gives various transfusions and tropes (e.g. XXXII, 176, 191-92; XLVI, 139-43). The composers adopt curious forms for the introduction of the text, for example (fourteenth century):
Salve splendor praecipue
supernae claritatis,
Regina vincens strenue
scelus imietatis,
Misericordiae tuae
munus impende gratis, etc.

The poem has fourteen such stanzas. Another poem, of the fifteenth century, has forty-three four-line stanzas. Another, of the fifteenth century, is more condensed:

Salve nobilis regina
fons misericordiae, etc.

A feature of these is their apparent preference for the briefer formula, "O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Maria."

The anthem figured largely in the evening devotions of the confraternities and guilds which were formed in great numbers about the beginning of the thirteenth century. "In France, this service was commonly known as Salut , in the Low Countries as the Lof , in England and Germany simply as the Salve . Now it seems certain that our present Benediction service has resulted from the general adoption of this evening singing of canticles before the statue of Our Lady, enhanced as it often came to be in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament , which was employed at first only as an adjunct to lend it additional solemnity." (Father Thurston; see BENEDICTION OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT for some elaboration). Luther complained that the anthem was sung everywhere throughout the world, that the great bells of the churches were rung in its honour, etc. He objected especially to the words "Queen of mercy, our life, our sweetness, our hope "; but the language of devotion is not that of dogma, and some Protestants, unwilling that it should disappear from Lutheran churches, reconstructed it "evangelically" (e.g., a version in use at Erfurt in 1525: "Salve Rex aeternae misericordiae".) The Jansenists found a like difficulty, and sought to change the expression into "the sweetness and hope of our life" (Beissel, I, 126). While the anthem thus figured largely in liturgical and in general popular Catholic devotion, it was especially dear to sailors. Scholars give instances of the singing of Salve Regina by the sailors of Columbus and the Indians.

The exquisite plainsong has been attributed to Hermann Contractus. The Vatican Antiphonary (pp. 127-8) gives the revised official or "typical" form of the melody (first tone). The now unofficial "Ratisbon" edition gave the melody in an ornate and in a simple form, together with a setting which it described as being in the eleventh tone, and which is also very beautiful. An insistent echo of this last setting is found in the plainsong of Santeul's "Stupete gentes." There are many settings by polyphonic and modern composers. Pergolesi's (for one voice, with two violins, viola, and organ ) was written shortly before his death; it is placed among his "happiest inspirations", is deemed his "greatest triumph in the direction of Church music " and "unsurpassed in purity of style, and pathetic, touching expression."

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