The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Study and Critical Commentary

of Piæ Cantiones

A Sixteenth-Century Song Collection



Eileen Hadidian

June 1978





     The title of the 1582 edition, Piæ Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum, in Inclyto Regno Svecie passim usurpate (Piæ Cantiones...used far and wide in the kingdom of Sweden) and that of the 1616 Finnish translation, which states that the songs have always been sung in Finnish schools, both show that the tradition of the songs reaches far into the past.

     Toivo Haapanen, the distinguished scholar of Finnish medieval music, says concerning the age of these songs:

Die Piæ Cantiones-Lieder, wenn sie auch erst gegen Ende des 16. Jahrhunderts veröffentlicht worden sind, reichen zum grossen Teil bis ins Mittelalter zurück. Diese geht u.a. aus den Texten hervor...Demnach können wir sie auch im Hinblick auf die Musik alsaufschussreich für unsere mittelalterliches Schullied betrachten. Die mehrstimmigen Lieder der Sammlung geben uns ferner Hinweise auf die Form des merhstimmigen Liedes, wie es im Mittelalter bei uns gesungen wurde. Vor allem in den zweistimmigen Liedern der Sammlung treten deutlich die Züge der altertümlichen Mehrstimmigkeit zutage, die bis ins 13. Jahrhundert zurückverfolgt werden können.1

The Piæ Cantiones songs, though they were first published toward the end of the sixteenth century, reach back to the Middle Ages for the most part. This is shown among other things by the texts themselves...Consequently we could consider both text and music informative concerning our medieval school song tradition. The polyphonic songs in the collection give us further indication about the form of polyphony we sang in the Middle Ages. In the two-part songs of the collection in particular, the characteristics of the ancient polyphony that can be traced back to the thirteenth century, clearly come to light.

     The ties between northern countries and the center of musical activity that was Paris were strong in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Almost from its inception in 1170, the University of Paris exerted a very definite influence upon the development of the art of music. Through its close affiliation with the cathedral of Notre Dame in medieval times, it not only played a leading role in the development of a new musical style — polyphony — but in the development as well of a corpus of musical theory to explain and interpret this multilinear music, such as a new system of notation suited to music in several parts, the establishment of a system of notation suited to music in several parts, the establishment of a system of rhythmic values not dependant upon the rhythmic modes, and the use of thirds and sixths as common intervals along with the fourth, fifth and octave. In the fourteenth century as well, the University of Paris was largely responsible for guiding musical composition and theory, chiefly through the writings and teachings of the mathematician and astronomer Jean de Muris, whose Musica speculativa was the accepted textbook in many continental universities up to the sixteenth century.2

     Since many Scandinavian students studied abroad, both at Paris and in central European universities in the fourteenth century, it is not improbable that they brought back with them examples of the new polyphonic forms.

     Among the oldest songs in the Piæ Cantiones collection are the Christmas sequence Grates nunc omnes (PC 1625) and Divinum mysterium, both from the tenth century. The hymn Jesu dulcis memoria by Bernard de Clairvaux (d. 1153), the French Christmas song Congaudeat turba fidelium and In hoc anni circulo (with the refrain Verbum caro factum est) can be traced back to the twelfth century. Some of the newer songs, such as Quando Christus ascenderat, are of German origin and go back to the beginning of the Reformation. However, most of the songs whose sources can be traced date back to the golden age of the cantio (c. 1350-1450).

     Research on the Piæ Cantiones songs divides them into two categories: a) songs whose sources so far have not been found — either in manuscript or in print — before the first (1582) or the second (1625) edition; b) songs whose sources are known.

     The sources that have been traced show great diversity: Germany, Austria, Tzechoslovakia, Switzerland, Spain, England, France, Italy, Poland, Sweden and Finland.

     A further classification of the songs, for purposes of research, groups them according to whether they are of Scandinavian origin only, or whether they are also found in continental sources.3

     The first edition, printed in Finland, and the two following printed on Finnish initiative, suggest that the songs had been in Finland for a long time — several hundred years perhaps — and that there was prior to the publication of Piæ Cantiones a live tradition of singing them.

     Aarno Malin Maliniemi has touched upon the question of the origins of the songs in the following statement:

Im allgemeinen hat man die Pc-Gesänge als schwedische bezeichnet, aber die bekannten Tatsachen über die äusseren Schicksale zeigen, das ihre eigentaliche Heimat — wenn auch oft nicht ursprüngliche, sondern vielmahr spätere — gerade Finland ist. Die Annahme, das ein beachtlicher Teil dieser mittelalterlichen Dichtung das Werk finnischer Männer sei, ist durchaus nicht zu kühn zu nennen. Unsere gelehrte Kultur im Mittelalter konnte sehr wohl eine solche Schöpfung hervorbringen. Es sei s.b. daran erinnert, dass es in der Diözese von Turku in den Jahren 1300-1450 etwas verhältnismässig und absolut mehr Männer gab, die an ausländischen Universitäten die Magisterwürde erworben hatten, als in irgendeiner schwedischen Diözese, nicht einmal in Uppsala.4

In general, the Piæ Cantiones songs have been called Swedish, but the information collected so far shows that their true homeland — although often not originally, but in later times — is really Finland. The assumption, that a considerable part of the medieval poetry is the work of Finns is by no means a bold one to make. Our culture in the Middle Age could very well have produced such a creation. It should be remembered that in the diocese of Turku, in the years 1300-1450, there were proportionately more men perhaps who had earned the title of Magister in foreign universities, than in any Swedish diocese, not even Uppsala.

     Finnish early sources are unfortunately almost completely absent, ravaged by countless fires and wars. The oldest manuscript of Finnish origin is the Christmas sequence Grates nunc omnes, and dates from the thirteenth century. In a mass book from Juva, dating from 1566-1577, the songs Cedit hyems eminus and Divinum mysterium are written on the edge of the pages of the text. In a school song book from Rauma the song Cedit hyems appears again, this time in two parts. This sparse information sheds little light upon the history of the Piæ Cantiones songs in Finland, except to show that they were sung long before the appearance of a printed edition.

     The text of several of the poems is of Nordic origin. The songs Ramus virens olivarum, dedicated to Henrik, archbishop of Uppsala in the twelfth century, the refrain makes direct reference to the Finnish people ("Ergo plebs Finnonica"). Other texts conceal in the form of acrosticons the name of Nordic authors and native saints, which points to the possibility that the poems could have been written by the people mentioned. However, their authorship cannot be determined with any certainty.

     The scholastic intentions of the Piæ Cantiones songs is evident not only in the simplicity of the settings, but also in the texts with their many references to school life: Psallat scholarium concio, O scholares discite, O scholares voce pares, Laetemur omnes socii and Scholares convenite which pokes fun at inept choristers who are ignorant of musical theory and grammar ("Vix sciunt G, ut, A, re, nec Musa declinare, nec curant studium").

     Several songs allude to the changing seasons of the year: In hoc anni circulo, Cedit hyems eminus and Tempus adest floridum. Another spring song, In vernali tempore, has a text of Danish origin, attributed to Morten Börup, rector of the Latin school at Aarhus (Denmark) at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Petri may have learnt these verses, and perhaps the tune also, from his Danish grandfather who had been a pupil in Börup's school.5

     Concerning the melodies, their origin is in most cases more difficult to determine. Where the text is of Nordic origin, the words could be set to an older, familiar tune, or the original melody could have been replaced by one in a newer, more rhythmic style. Heikki Klemetti, in his many years of research on Piæ Cantiones, has not yet been able to trace the older sources of the songs considered to be Scandinavian in origin. The number of melodies for which no early sources have been found (49) is proportionately large. Whereas most of the early sources are ecclesiastical songs, it is the school and historical songs in particular whose sources are unknown. This scarcity of early sources is at least partly explicable on practical grounds. Church songs were, no doubt, considered important; they were written down even in early times, whereas the school songs were largely dependant on oral tradition. Also, it may be presumed, in the safekeeping of monasteries and church archives, that the ecclesiastical songs would naturally be less exposed than the school songs to the ravages of war and fire.

     Ilmari Krohn, in an article which appeared in the third yearbook of the Finnish Church History Society, made the following comment:

Vor einigen Jahren erwähnte der Pfarrherr der hiesigen römisch-katolischen Gemeinde, Pastor Rodziewicz, mir gegenüber, das die PC-Sammlung auch jetzt noch (1913) in den katolischen Priester-seminaren in Polen benutzt würde.6

Several years ago, the rector of the local Roman Catholic parish brought to my notice the fact that the Piæ Cantiones collection was being used even today (1913) in Catholic seminaries in Poland.

     This comment is interesting, particularly since the connections between Poland and Sweden were especially close just at the time when Petri published Piæ Cantiones. He himself was in the service of King Sigismund of Poland a few years later. Guido Maria Dreves' research has shown that Bohemia was one of the richest areas for Piæ Cantiones sources. The University of Prague was founded in 1348. Modeled on the archetype of Paris, it was the first university to be erected in central Europe and the model for subsequent German and Scandinavian universities.7 Music had a regular place among the "ordinary" lectures of the arts faculty, and the Musica speculativa of Jean de Muris was the specified textbook, indicative of the close connections between this university and the Sorbonne. Many Finnish students attended the university from 1382 to 1404, and could have brought back to Finland a number of songs whose sources have not yet been discovered. So far twenty-four of the Piæ Cantiones melodies have been found in Bohemian sources.8

     Yet even when the early sources for a particular song are known, national characteristics are hardly to be expected considering the internationalism of the medieval clergy. During their stay at various universities, travelling clergy and students absorbed a number of different styles, which in turn became assimilated into their native culture.


1. Toivo Haapanen, Suomen Säveltaide (Helsinki 1940), p. 15. Quoted from Mäkinen, Die aus frühen böhmischen Quellen, p. 16. Return

2. Nan Cook Carpenter, Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities, pp. 330-331. Return

3. For a list of sources, see the Appendix. Return

4. Aarno Maliniemi, Eräitä lisiä suomalaisen Piæ Cantiones bibliogrefiaan (Helsinki 1920), p. 52. Quoted by Mäkinen, Die aus frühen böhmischen Quellen, p. 18. Return

5. John Horton, Scandinavian Music, p. 36 Return

6. Ilmari Krohn, Suomen kirkkomusiikin tutkimuksen saavuksista ja tehtävistä (Helsinki 1920), p. 68. Quoted by Mäkinen, Die aus frühen böhmischen Quellen, p. 21. Return

7. The University of Uppsala was not founded until the late fifteenth century, modeled after Paris, Leipzig and Rostock, the latter two themselves patterned after Prague. Certain manuscripts at the university library indicate that here too the Musica of Muris was the basis for lectures on music until the sixteenth century. Return

8. See Mäkinen, Die aus frühen böhmischen Quellen überlieferten Piæ Cantiones-Melodien. Return


Return to Chapter III. The Piæ Cantiones Collection

Continue to Chapter V. Textual and Musical Analysis

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Main page: Piæ Cantiones: A Medieval Song Treasury

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