Many, many years ago now, when I was studying Music for the Intermediate Certificate (the Irish equivalent of O Levels, loosely speaking), we had a songbook containing 30 or so pieces. Some of those songs lodged in my adolescent head and haven’t been dislodged since. They remain among the tunes that come to me unbidden whenever I feel the urge to hum: The Trout by Schubert, a sea shanty called The Mermaid, Scots Wha Hae…
And then there was In Dulci Jubilo. This last one also provides me with a crystal clear memory of learning a new word for the first time: “macaronic”, used to describe a song lyric made up of fragments from different languages. “In dulci jubilo, now sing with hearts aglow” – and we did in our halting teenage-boyish way, carried along by the lilting rhythm.
The original version, though, was in Latin and German; and how it came to be is quite a tale.
Heinrich Seuse (Henry Suso in its anglicised form) was a 14th-century German friar of the Dominican order, a mystic and, by his own estimation, a “Servant (or Servitor) of Eternal Wisdom”. He was a leading light in the Friends of God – the Gottesfreunde – a fellowship of devout, ascetic Rhinelanders who made a stand for love, piety, devotion and holiness, and against the evils and corruption of the day.
For some of his life Seuse practised severe mortification of the flesh: think undergarments studded with brass nails, chastisement with a leather strap, fingers blackened by cold, a tongue cracked by lack of water.
He was prone to visions. The Virgin Mary appeared to him once in the form of a rose. And here is the account in Seuse’s Vita of what occurred on Christmas Eve 1326 (the translation is by the 19th-century convert and Oratorian, Fr Francis Knox):
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