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Ut queant laxis : for SATB chorus (divisi) and organ

by Elliott Gyger (2003)

Audio Sample

From the CD Choral music

Choral music


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Choral music : live recordings 1987-2004 / Elliott Gyger.

Library shelf no. CD 1518 [Available for loan]

Ut queant laxis


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Ut queant laxis : for SATB chorus (divisi) and organ / Elliott Gyger.

Library shelf no. 782.5527/GYG 1 [Available for loan]

Work Overview

The plainchant hymn for the feast of John the Baptist, Ut queant laxis, sets one of the finest examples of early Medieval Latin sacred poetry. The whole poem runs to 13 or 14 verses, recounting John's entire life, although only the five verses set here (dealing with the events preceding and surrounding his birth) are included in the liturgy for the feast.

For completely different reasons, the chant itself is of particular interest to music theorists and historians. The melody has the unusual feature that the first notes of each of the first six phrases outline a scale in ascending order. Guido of Arezzo in the 11th century exploited this property, using the corresponding syllables as a mnemonic for the notes in teaching music: this gives the sequence UT-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA, which provided the basis for the solfège system still in use today (UT having later been replaced by DO, and SI or TI added for the seventh note of the scale). It is possible that Guido may actually have written the melody himself to serve this purpose. In any case, it seems appropriate that a hymn whose opening verse is, in effect, a prayer for the ability to sing should come to play such an important role in musical instruction.

My setting explores both the musical and textual associations of the hymn. As the altos sing the first verse of the chant, each note of the rising scale is sustained by the organ; scales, both ascending and descending, come to play as prominent a role in the work as the actual chant melody. The idea of voice recurs as a motif throughout the text, most dramatically in the third verse, dealing with the loss and restoration of Zachariah's powers of speech. At this point I have introduced lines in English from the Canticle of Zachariah (Luke 1:68-79), the song of praise he utters immediately after his voice returns. From here on the English and Latin texts run in parallel, sometimes alternating, sometimes superimposed. During the final verse, the organ pedals complete a slow-motion descending scale which has underpinned most of the piece, while the manuals play constant scalic ascents, relatively rapid at first but climbing slowly into the stratosphere at the very end.

UT queant laxis REsonare fibris So that your servants may, with unfettered voices,
MIra gestorum FAmuli tuorum, Make the wonders of your deeds resound,
SOlve polluti LAbii reatum, Cleanse the guilt of their polluted lips,
Sancte Ioannes. O Saint John.

Nuntius celso veniens Olympo The messenger from high Heaven disclosed
Te patri magnum fore nasciturum, To your father the great one who was to be born,
Nomen et vitæ seriem gerendæ Your name and the events of your life
Ordine promit. In order.

Ille promissi dubius superni He, doubtful of the heavenly promise,
Perdidit promptæ modulos loquelæ: Lost his powers of fluent speech:
Sed reformasti genitus peremptæ But with your birth you remade
Organa vocis. The instrument of his destroyed voice.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty Saviour for us in the house of his servant David,
As he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.

Ventris obstruso recubans cubili Lying in the dark bed of the womb
Senseras Regem thalamo manentem; You had sensed the King concealed in his chamber;
Hinc parens nati meritis uterque Thus each of your parents, by the merits of their child,
Abdita pandit. Revealed hidden things.

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
To give light to those in darkness and in the shadow of death,
And guide our feet into the way of peace.
(Lk 1:68-70, 76, 78-79)

Laudibus cives celebrent superni Let the citizens of Heaven celebrate you with praises,
Te, Deus simplex pariterque trine; O God, equally one and three;
Supplices ac nos veniam precamur, We your suppliants also pray for mercy,
Parce redemptis. Amen. Spare those you have redeemed. Amen
(?Paul the Deacon: Hymn for the feast of St John the Baptist)

Work Details

Year: 2003

Instrumentation: SATB choir (with soloists), organ.

Duration: 7 min.

Difficulty: Advanced

First performance: by Jennifer Lester, Seraphim Singers — 14 Nov 04. St Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Text from Paul the Deacon; and from the Bible: Luke I: 68-70, 76, 78-79.


  • In the form/style of: Hymns

Performances of this work

14 Nov 04: St Paul Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.. Featuring Jennifer Lester, Seraphim Singers.

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