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Notker's Sequences

Among the most complete and famous of these monasteries was that of St. Gall. In that lonely but sheltered spot on the lower slopes of the Alps, and not far from Lake Constance, which gave access to Southern Germany, there was cherished for centuries a sacred fire of true enthusiasm for learning, which spread its light by degrees into many a half-barbarous court and distant convent. Here the earliest and most strenuous efforts were made to tame the rough mother-tongue of the Germans, and teach it to express as far as might be the shades of thought and feeling which the languages of Greece and Rome had so marvellously embodied, and all that the Christian faith had to say besides. There exists in its archives a very ancient Latin and German dictionary traditionally ascribed to St. Gall himself (died 638), and many other glossaries, paraphrases, and interlinear translations from the Latin. Among those who thus occupied themselves in the ninth century was a monk named Notker, whom Walafrid, then Dean of St. Gall's, strongly urged to devote himself to sacred poetry. He wrote, however, in Latin, and his hymns therefore concern our subject only because he was the originator of a form of Latin hymnology, which when translated into German gave rise to the earliest German hymns, properly so called, with which we are acquainted. This was the Latin Sequence or Prose. It was customary in all cases where a Hallelujah was introduced to prolong the last syllable, and to sing on the vowel "ah" a series of elaborate passages intended to represent an outburst of jubilant feeling. These were termed Sequences, because they followed the Hallelujah and repeated its notes, 13 and were of course sung without words. What Notker did was to write words for them, and he tells us himself how he came to do it, in a letter addressed to Bishop Luitward, to whom he dedicated a volume of these compositions. "When I was yet young and could not always succeed in retaining in my memory the long-drawn melodies on the last syllable of the Hallelujah, I cast about in my mind for some method of making them easier to remember. Now it happened that a certain priest from Gimedia came to us who had an Antiphonarium, wherein were written some strophes to these melodies, but indeed by no means free from faults. This put it into my mind to compose others for myself after the same manner. I showed them to my teacher, Yso, whom they pleased on the whole, only he remarked, that as many notes as there were in the music, so many words must there be in the text. At this suggestion I went through my work again, and now Yso accepted it with full approbation, and gave the text to the boys to sing." These Sequences spread rapidly, for they supplied the want that was beginning to be felt of melodies in which sometimes the people could join, and words which could be adapted to special occasions beyond the ordinary service of the mass. They increased in number therefore more quickly than the hymns properly so called, and gradually assumed a strictly metrical form, which at first they did not possess. Notker himself composed thirty-five of them; and one which still finds a place in our own Burial Service, the "Media vita in morte," is traditionally ascribed to him, and said to have been written while watching some workmen building 14 the bridge of St. Martin at the peril of their lives. It cannot however be certainly traced beyond the eleventh century, but from that time onwards it was in use in the Latin, and afterwards in a German version as a battle-song, which was supposed to exert magical influences.

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