The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Study and Critical Commentary

of Pi Cantiones

A Sixteenth-Century Song Collection



Eileen Hadidian

June 1978





     The song collection, Pi Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum (Pi Cantiones, pious church and school songs of the ancient bishops), is largely a medieval collection of songs. It has been designated at times as a cantio collection, at others as a school song collection.1 However, one must realize that these spiritual songs of the old bishops were used in church as well as in schools, without a strict line of demarcation as to their function.

     The early manuscripts of Pi Cantiones have almost completely disappeared from Scandinavia. The songs in the collection have been in use for centuries in Sweden and Finland, though most of the incentive for publication came from Finland.

     So far, less than half of the seventy-four songs of the first edition have been traced back to early sources in France, England, Germany and Bohemia. Finnish students enrolled in foreign universities were, to some extent, responsible for transmitting these songs.

     The Pi Cantiones collection differs from most sixteenth century song books primarily in that it contains both church and school songs. The contents of the 1582 edition consist of seventy-four items and come under eleven groups. The ecclesiastical songs (35), most of them Christmas carols, are grouped according to the ecclesiastical year: Christmas (24), Easter (9), Whitsuntide (1). There are also songs for the Holy Trinity (3), the Lord's Supper (2) and prayer hymns (4). The remaining songs in the collection are concerned with the transitoriness of earthly life and the misery of the human existence (14), the life of school children (10), the significance of unity (2), historical songs (3) and spring songs (2).

     Of these songs, sixty-two are monophonic. The remainder are polyphonic, entitled cantiones duarum, trium et quattuor vocum. There are seven two-part settings, three arranged for three voices, and two for a quartet. All have rhyming Latin texts, with a few alternative Swedish versions.

     The 1625 edition added thirteen more monophonic songs, plus several four-part settings of some of the songs from the first edition.

     The Pi Cantiones collection is the gradual accumulation of centuries: the songs range from the tenth century to the latter part of the sixteenth, and they are the product of various countries, the composition of many minds. Both text and music suggest a largely medieval heritage. The two-part songs in particular represent an extremely old tradition, even including two roundelays.2

     If some of the songs are of Swedo-Finnish origin, such as the splendid tune to Personet hodie, many are also to be found in ancient German pre-Reformation hymn books. A certain number come from Bohemia and Moravia, and are of Hussite parentage.3 The psalms are from Lutheran song books at lest two are indebted to Lucas Lossius of Lneberg, author of Psalmodia Sacra (1553-1579).4 A few go back to eleventh century Graduales.5

Theodoricus Petri

     The first edition of Pi Cantiones was published in 1582 at Greifswald, near Rostock, which was then in Swedish territory, through the efforts of the Finnish student Theodoricus Petri (Rutha). Son of a nobleman from Porvoo, Petri was born in 1560. He attended the cathedral school in bo, then went to study at the University of Rostock in 1580. He took his M.A. examinations there in 1584. In 1582, while still a student, he edited the collection of church and school songs entitled Pi Cantiones. Later, he served in the chancellery of King Johann III of Sweden. He was alive in 1625, for in that year he supervised the publication of a new and somewhat enlarged edition of Pi Cantiones. As far as is known, he died in exile in Danzig sometime thereafter, while in the service of King Sigismund of Poland.6

     The task which Petri set before himself was to rescue and preserve for future use some of the most beautiful psalms, hymns and school songs of the medieval church in Finland. Following is a paraphrase of Petri's preface, in which he states his reasons for compiling this collection.7

(Petri) is well aware of the value and effect of music, vocal and instrumental, in stirring up the wills, and in ordering and raising the affections of mankind. This was the teaching of the Fathers and Prophets, such as David, Nathan, and Gad in the Old Testament, and this is the advice of St. Paul to the Colossians and Ephesians in the New. This was fully recognized by the wise rulers and devout bishops of bygone generations, many of whom were to be found in his beloved country; men who employed music, no less than the other arts, for the worship of God. Even in the dark ages, when the Gospel light was obscured by sundry sophistries, superstitions and idolatrous customs, God raised up many godly persons who worshipped him aright. Witness this book of spiritual songs. Careless scribes and unskillful clerks are apt to make mistakes in copying old manuscripts. Hence certain errors had crept into the text of his cantiones, but these have been corrected. These cantiones are more like rhythmical verse than poetry. Often there occur traces of the old Latinity once in use in monasteries and schools. But these are of such a character that, on account of their old-world religious feelings, they seem to deserve our veneration, rather than to merit the ridicule and gainsaying of the scornful. The reader and admirer of Virgil and Horace has no need, on that account, to despise these works of old Ennius and Lucretius.

     As for the cantiones for two, three and four voices, because they differ in no small degree from the then existing rules of music, Petri says that he has entrusted them to the care of a certain person highly recommended for his knowledge and experience both in the theory and in the practice of music, to be examined and brought into confirmity with the rules of later musicians: so that, when published, they cannot fail to meet with the approbation of the greatest adepts of that art.

     Finally, in the belief that these cantiones will be of some profit to the church and schools of his beloved fatherland, Petri feels it his bounden duty to put forth this book, which he has caused to be printed in elegant type. With some grateful and respectful remarks concerning his patron, he dates his preface from Rostock, May 23rd, 1582.

     Petri speaks as a Renaissance man. Though he feels it his duty to preserve these old songs, he is also concerned in bringing some of them in keeping with contemporary musical practice. He sees himself as an enlightened man, capable of extracting these songs from the "dark ages", of "improving" or correcting some of their contents, and he asks his readers to accept the traces of "old Latinity" and "old-world religious feeling" as having historical value and worthy of respect, even though they are not of the same literary level as the classics, which every educated Renaissance man prided himself in knowing.

     The actual editor of the collection was Jaako Suomalainen or Finno (d. 1588), clergyman and pedagogue, who served as headmaster of the cathedral school of Turko (bo) and was the author of the first Finnish hymnal (1583).

     The texts of the first edition of Pi Cantiones reflect the views of its editors on the struggle of power between the Catholic and Protestant faiths: Petri's sympathies were Catholic, while Finno was a Protestant. This edition takes pains to avoid being "Catholic". Finno "corrected" mistakes in the text, which must have meant that he eliminated the strongest of expressions of the references to the Catholic spirit. He removed words of praise to the Virgin Mary and replaced them with words glorifying Christ. Many scholars have written at length about these changes, often made rather unskillfully.8 The changes in text were a compromise solution dictated by circumstances of faith. In order to make these pre-Reformation songs fall into line with expected Lutheran notions of Orthodoxy, Petri allowed them to be altered.

Editions of Pi Cantiones

     The first printing of Pi Cantiones appeared during the reign of King Johann III who was well-disposed towards Catholicism. His special interest was religious architecture; he was very fluent in the Latin language and was one of the most knowledgeable theologians of his time in Sweden. He was the author of the liturgical publication "Rda Bokan" (the Red Book) which appeared in  1576, in Latin and Swedish. The subtitle of the book, Liturgicae svecanae ecclesiae catholicae et orthodoxae conformis, already intimated that he was probably favorably disposed toward the publication of pre-Reformation Latin songs.

     This first edition included seventy-four songs, all in Latin.

     In 1616, the rector of the parish of Masku, Hemming Henriksson, published a Finnish translation of the Pi Cantiones texts, printed in Stockholm, under the title Vanhaim Suomen maan Pijspain/ja kircon Esimiesten Latinan kielised laulud (Latin songs of the ancient Finnish bishops and church superiors). Aarno Malin-Maliniemi, upon examining Hemming's translations, concludes that they depend to some extent on manuscripts not used for the compiling of the 1582 edition.9 It has some texts not included in the first collection, and omits certain popular Christmas songs such as Puer natus in Bethlehem, Resonet in laudibus and In dulci jubilo.

     In 1625 the second musical edition of Pi Cantiones appeared in Rostock, in Latin. The seventy-four songs of the first edition had been increased to ninety. The editors were Henricus Fattbuur, headmaster of the school in Viipuuri, and Matthias Tolja, later canon at the cathedral of Viipuuri, both of whom had studied at the universities in Wittenberg and Rostock. The musical advisor to the 1625 edition was the cantor of St. Mary's church in Rostock, Daniel Friderici, known and esteemed as a musician in his own day. He set to new music and expanded several three-part songs from the first edition: Cedit hyems (four-part), Aetas carmen melodiae (two- and four-part), Jucundare jugitur (four-part) and Puer natus in Bethlehem (four-part).

     The third Latin edition, Pi Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcorum, appeared in 1679 in Visingborg, Sweden, edited by Peter Brahe, the former Governor General of Finland. This edition contains nothing new, being based on the first edition. There is no musical notation, only blank staves above the text: the reason for the absence of music could be an economic one, as writing in the musical notes later would reduce printing costs considerably.

     The next Latin musical edition appeared in 1776, at the request of the musical director of the cathedral school at Turku, Johann Lindell, entitled Cantilenarum selectorum Edito nova (bo 1776). It is much reduced and contains only seventeen songs. All of them are monophonic, and the melodies, compared with the earlier editions, show so many variations, that they are likely to have been transmitted through an oral tradition.

     An even more reduced version, containing only ten songs in unison, was published in 1900 by Johann Inberg, entitled Carminalia selecta. These variants are based on the school song tradition of Pori, which was still alive in the nineteenth century. The words are in Latin, Finnish and Swedish.

     In countries outside Scandinavia, interest in the Pi Cantiones songs appeared first in Britain. In 1853 J. M. Neale and T. Helmore published their Carols for Christmas and Eastertide. Commissioned by the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, G. R. Woodward published in 1910 a revised edition of Pi Cantiones equipped with comments entitled Pi Cantiones, a Collection of Church and School Song. It contains all the songs of the first edition.

     Pi Cantiones songs have been included in the hymn collections of the Finnish Lutheran church. There are also variants of some of the tunes in the religious folk music in Finland. At the turn of the century, Jean Sibelius composed the first Pi Cantiones arrangement (Carminalia, 1900).

     The pioneer Finish student of Pi Cantiones, Heikki Klemetti, brought the songs to new life through his choral arrangements. He published the collection Pi Cantiones, Latinalaisai Koululauluja sekakuorolle (Piae Cantiones, Latin school songs for mixed chorus) which appeared in 1901, and again, in an enlarged edition, in 1923. A practical musician as well as scholar, he paved the way for Pi Cantiones research.

     In Finnish schools Pi Cantiones songs have experienced a revival since the turn of the century. In the school at Pori they have been part of the tradition through the centuries. Interest in the songs as an orally transmitted tradition is alive even today in Finland. In 1954 an old man named Hjalmar Kanervo in Turku was heard singing two Pi Cantiones melodies which he said he had learnt as a child.10

     In 1967 Timo Mkinen published a facsimile printing of the 1582 edition. Simultaneously, there appeared a modern transcription of the songs, entitled Pi Cantiones, vanhoja kirkko-ja koululauluja (Pi Cantiones, old church and school songs). Edited by Timo Mkinen and Harald Andersen, it includes all the songs numbering some eighty from the editions of 1582 and 1625 considered appropriate for present day usage.11 The original mensural notation has been adapted to modern notation. The words are in both Latin and Finnish.

     Several of the melodies contained in Pi Cantiones, though not necessarily taken from it, have in the course of time attracted the attention of many of the most prominent musicians in Europe. Composers such as J. Walther, S. Calsivius, Praetorius, Schein, Scheidt, Crger, Buxtehude, F. W. Zachau, Pachebel and J. S. Bach have contributed lovely settings of some of the carols. Among these tunes figure Dies est laetitiae, In dulci jubilo, Puer natus in Bethlehem, Resonet in laudibus, Jesus Christus nostra salus and Cedit hyems. 12


1. For a discussion of the cantio, see the chapter on musical and textual analysis. Return

2. See the chapter on analysis. Return

3. The Hussites were followers of John Huss (1373-1415), a Bohemian preacher and reformer who was convicted of heresy by the Council of Constance (1414-1418) and burnt alive. He is possibly the author of the song "Jesus Christus nostra salus" with its acrosticon JOHANNES. Return

4. See G. R. Woodward, Pi Cantiones (London: Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, 1910), p. 230, s.v. "Christus pro nobis passus". Return

5. Ibid., p. 256, s.v. "Jesus dulcis memoria". Return

6. Norlind, Latinska Skolsnger, pp. 50-51. Return

7. This translation is quoted from the preface to G. R. Woodward's Pi Cantiones , pp. xvii-xviii. Return

8. For textual restoration of the Piae Cantiones songs, see Guido Maria Dreves, Analecta Hymnica, Vols. 1 and XLVb. Return

9. Mkinen, Die aus frhen bhmischen Quellen, p. 12. Return

10. Ibid., p. 16. Return

11. Most of the sequences have been left out of this edition. Return

12. G. R. Woodward, Pi Cantiones, p. 205-266, gives detailed references to some of the principal choral and song books, organ and chorale-prelude works by the great masters of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, whether in vocal or instrumental arrangement. Return  


Return to Chapter II. The Latin Song Tradition in Swedish and Finnish Schools

Continue to Chapter IV. History of the Pi Cantiones Songs

Return to Pi Cantiones - Hadidian

Main page: Pi Cantiones: A Medieval Song Treasury

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