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Although the word is derived from canticulum , (diminutive of canticum , a song, from the Latin canere , to sing), it is used in the English Catholic translation of the Bible as the equivalent of the Vulgate canticum in most, but not all, of the uses of that word; for where canticum is used for a sacred song, as in the ten canticles found in the Breviary (as given below), it is always rendered "canticle", whilst in other connections (e.g. Genesis 31:27 , secular songs; Job 30:9 , song of derision; Isaiah 23:15 , "harlot's song") it is rendered "song". The Authorized Version does not make such a distinction, but regularly translates from the Hebrew and the Greek "song". From the Old Testament the Roman Breviary takes seven canticles for use at Lauds, as follows:
- On Sundays and Festivals, the "Canticle of the Three Children" (Dan., iii, 57).
- On Mondays, the "Canticle of Isaias the Prophet" ( Isaiah 12 ).
- On Tuesdays, the "Canticle of Ezechias" ( Isaiah 38:10-20 ).
- On Wednesdays, the "Canticle of Anna" ( 1 Samuel 2:1-10 ).
- On Thursdays, the "Canticle of Moses" ( Exodus 15:1-19 ).
- on Fridays the "Canticle of Habacuc" (Hab., iii 2-19).
- On Saturdays, the "Canticle of Moses" ( Deuteronomy 32:1-43 ).
- At Lauds, the "Canticle of Zachary" ( Luke 1:68-79 ), commonly referred to as the "Benedictus" (from its first word);
- At Vespers, the "Canticle of the Bl. Mary Virgin" ( Luke 1:46-55 ), commonly known as the "Magnificat" (from its first word).
- At Complin, the "Canticle of Simeon" ( Luke 2:29-32 ), commonly referred to as the "Nunc dimittis" (from the opening words).
The ten canticles so far mentioned do not exhaust the portions of Sacred Scripture which are styled "canticles". There are, so example, those of Debora and Barac, Judith, the "canticle of Canticles"; and many psalms (e.g. xvii, 1,"this canticle"; xxxviii,1, "canticle of David "; xliv,1, "canticle for the beloved"; and the first verse of Pss. 1xiv, 1xv, 1xvi, 1xvii, etc). In the first verse of some psalms the phrase psalmus cantici (the psalm of a canticle) is found, and in others the phrase canticum psalmi (a canticle of a psalm ). Cardinal Bona thinks that psalmus cantici indicated that the voice was to precede the instrumental accompaniment, while canticum psalmi indicated an instrumental prelude to the voice. This distinction follows from his view of a canticle as an unaccompanied vocal song, and of a psalm as an accompanied vocal song. It is not easy to distinguish satisfactorily the meanings of psalm, hymn, canticle, as referred to by St. Paul in two places (see CONGREGATIONAL SINGING). Canticum appears to be generic -- a song, whether sacred or secular; and there is reason to think that his admonition did not contemplate religious assemblies of the Christians, but their social gatherings. In these the Christians were to sing "spiritual songs", and not the profane or lascivious songs common amongst the pagans. These spiritual songs were not exactly psalms or hymns. The hymn may then be defined as a metrical or rhythmical praise of God ; and the psalm, accompanied sacred song or canticle, either taken from the Psalms or from some less authoritative source (St. Augustine declaring that a canticle may be without a psalm but not a psalm without a canticle).
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In addition to the ten canticles enumerated above the Roman Breviary places in its index, under the heading "Cantica", the "Te Deum" (at the end of Matins for Sundays and Festivals, but there styled "Hymnus SS. Ambrosii et Augustini") and the: "Quicumque vult salvus esse" (Sundays at Prime, but there styled "Symbolum S. Athanasii", the "Creed of St. Athanasius "). To these are sometimes added by writers the "Gloria in excelsis", the "Trisagion", and the "Gloria Patri" (the Lesser Doxology ). In the "Psalter and Canticles Pointed for chanting" (Philadelphia, 1901), for the use of the Evangelical Lutheran Congregations, occurs (p. 445) a "Table of canticles" embracing Nos. 1, 3, 8, 9, 10, besides certain psalms, and the "Te Deum" and "Venite" (Ps. xicv, used at the beginning of Matins in the Roman Breviary ). The word Canticles is thus seen to be somewhat elastic in its comprehension. On the one hand, while it is used in the common parlance in the Church of England to cover several of the enumerated canticles, the Prayer Book applies it only to the "Benedicite", while in its Calendar the word Canticles is applied to what is commonly known as the "Song of Solomon" (the Catholic "Canticle of Canticles", Vulgate, "Canticum canticorum").
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