We are now in the holiest week of the year. Sunday was Palm Sunday, and we head into the Easter Tridium. I wanted to offer this beautiful Easter chant, Victimae paschali laudes, for your listening pleasure and hopefully inspire you to strive for greater holiness this coming weekend.
Of course I’ll have to provide some background. Victimae paschali laudes, literally “Praise to the Paschal Victim,” is sung in chant—monophonic and unaccompanied—with an evolving melody. It was written in the eleventh century and its authorship is in dispute, attributed to at least four people. Technically the chant is a sequence, which means it’s set as part of a liturgical celebration, in this case for Easter Sunday celebration. Apparently even some Protestant denominations, such as Lutherans, preserved it for their celebrations as well.
First listen to the hymn and I’ll go through the melody after.
Here are the lyrics, copied from Wikipedia.
(1) Victimae paschali laudes [8 syllables]
immolent Christiani. 
(2) Agnus redemit oves: 
Christus innocens Patri 
(3) Mors et vita duello 
conflixere mirando: 
dux vitae mortuus, 
regnat vivus. 
(4) Dic nobis Maria, [6+1]
quid vidisti in via? 
Sepulcrum Christi viventis, 
et gloriam vidi resurgentis: 
(5) Angelicos testes, [6+1]
sudarium, et vestes. 
Surrexit Christus spes mea: 
praecedet suos in Galilaeam. 
(6) [Credendum est magis soli 
Mariae veraci 
Quam Judaeorum Turbae fallaci.] 
(7) Scimus Christum surrexisse 
a mortuis vere: 
tu nobis, victor Rex, miserere. 
[Amen.] [Alleluia.] 
Let’s look at the construction of the hymn. This appears to be some dispute on how you arrange the stanzas when you look across the internet for the lyrics. I would arrange it as above into seven stanzas. First note that stanza six is in brackets because it is often eliminated from a performance. Also the “Amen” and “Alleluia” were added to the hymn later as part of its use in liturgy.
Each line of a stanza has four, six, seven, eight, or ten syllables. I’ve listed the number of syllables off to the right of each line. Setting aside the initial stanza for now, you can see that the stanzas two and three are a matching set, four and five match, and six and seven match. The two concluding lines of stanzas two and three both contain six and four syllables, which add up to ten, which matches the concluding lines of stanzas four, five, six. and seven. This means that all stanzas except the first end with ten syllables, whether from a single line or the sum of the last two. Stanzas two through five all have their first two lines with seven syllables. Four and five actually contain six syllables in their first lines but the melody adds an extra syllable by repeating the last in the line. All of this has the effect of creating unity, despite what appears to be several melodies throughout. More on the melodies further down.
The rhyme scheme is also interesting. Here’s how I map the ending rhymes, with the stanza number following in parentheses:
AB (Stanza 1), ABBA (2), CCDD (3), EEFF (4), AAGG (5), HHH (6), JJJ (7).
So stanzas two through five are quatrains, while the two concluding stanzas are triplets. If you take stanzas one and two together you have an interlocking rhyme scheme of As and Bs. Stanzas three, four, and five are quatrains of couplets, with the fifth stanza bringing back the A rhyme (“es”) from the beginning. So stanzas one through five also project a sense of interlocking. The final two stanzas of triplets provide a wonderful sense of conclusion.
So what does this mean to the musical melody? I hear the hymn as having three melodies, each varying on its predecessor, concluding in the climaxing triplets. First stanza serves as an introduction which leads into the first melody in stanzas two and three. Notice how the penultimate syllable is of a longer note in the lines of those stanzas. Stanzas four and five have a similar melody but subtly different because I think the lines are of different length. The third melody are formed from the triplets again being of different length. But are they of different length? The first line of eight syllables borrows one from the second line, so in effect they could be seen as two lines of seven syllables. And the last line of ten could be broken up into two lines of four and six, thereby matching stanzas two through five. It’s only because of the rhyme scheme that causes us to envision those stanzas as triplets.
All this creates a marvelous interconnecting sounds and line lengths to form a harmonious whole. My concluding thought is that the absence of accompaniment forces the composer to craft in such an elaborate fashion. I don’t think you see this very often in modern song writing.
It’s extraordinarily beautiful.