Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

The first line of a hymn in honour of St. John the Baptist. The Roman Breviary divides it into three parts and assigns the first, "Ut queant laxis", etc., to Vespers, the second, "Antra deserti teneris sub annis", to Matins, the third, "O nimis felix, meritique celsi", to Lauds, of the feast of the Nativity of St. John (24 June). With hymnologists generally, Dreves ascribes the authorship to Paulus Diaconus aud expresses surprise at the doubt of Duemmler, for which he can see no reason. The hymn is written in Sapphic stanzas, of which the first is famous in the history of music for the reason that the notes of the melody corresponding with the initial syllables of the six hemistichs are the first six notes of the diatonic scale of C. This fact led to the syllabic naming of the notes as Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, as may be shown by capitalizing the initial syllables of the hemistichs:

UT queant laxis REsonare fibris
MIra gestorum
FAmuli tuorum,
SOLve polluti LAbii reatum, Sancte Ioannes.

Guido of Arezzo showed his pupils an easier method of determining the sounds of the scale than by the use of the monochord. His method was that of comparison of a known melody with an unknown one which was to be learned, and for this purpose he frequently chose the well-known melody of the "Ut queant laxis" . Against a common view of musical writers, Dom Pothier contends that Guido did not actually give these syllabic names to the notes, did not invent the hexachordal system, etc., but that insensibly the comparison of the melodies led to the syllabic naming. When a new name for the seventh, or leading, note of our octave was desired, Erich Van der Putten suggested, in 1599, the syllabic BI of "labii", but a vast majority of musical theorists supported the happier thought of the syllable SI, formed by the initial letters of the two words of the last line. UT has been generally replaced by DO because of the open sound of the latter. Durandus says that the hymn was composed by Paul the Deacon on a certain Holy Saturday when, having to chant the "Exsultet" for the blessing of the paschal candle, he found himself suffering from an unwonted hoarseness. Perhaps bethinking himself of the restoration of voice to the father of the Baptist, he implored a similar help in the first stanza. The melody has been found in a manuscript of the tenth century, applied to the words of Horace's Ode to Phyllis, "Est mihi nonum superantis annum" . The hymn offers exegetical difficulties in the stanza "Ventris obstruso", etc. Littledale's version, used in Bute's "The Roman Breviary", refers the "uterque parens" to Mary and Elizabeth:

"Pent in the closet of the womb, thy Saviour
Thou didst adore within His chamber shrined:
Thus did each parent in their unborn offspring
Mysteries find."

Caswall translates similarly: "What time Elizabeth and Mary sang." Pauly refers the two words to Zachary (for his canticle of the Benedictus ) and Elizabeth (for her address to Mary: "Blessed art thou among women ", etc.); and "uterque" would better support this view. Also, "Mysteries find" is a poor version of "Abdita pandit", since it conceals the allusion to the twofold "utterance" of the parents. Greater difficulty is found in the interpretation of the stanza "Serta ter denis", etc. A sufficiently close rendering would be:

"Some crowns with glory thirtyfold are shining;
Others, a double flower and fruit combining:
Thy trinal chaplet bears an intertwining
Hundredfold fruitage."

This is an evident allusion to the parable of the sower ( Matthew 13:8 ) whose seed fell upon good ground and brought forth fruit, "some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, and some thirtyfold"; but the composer of the hymn clearly adds the thought of a triple crown -- perhaps that of Precursor, Prophet, Martyr ; perhaps that of Prophet, Virgin, Martyr.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 6:10-20
10 Finally, grow strong in the Lord, with the strength of his ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 144:1, 2, 9-10
1 [Of David] Blessed be Yahweh, my rock, who trains my hands for war and ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 13:31-35
31 Just at this time some Pharisees came up. 'Go away,' they said. 'Leave ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 27th, 2016 Image

St. Frumentius
October 27: Called "Abuna" or "the fa¬≠ther' of Ethiopia, ... Read More