Piae cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum… and Neale & Helmore

Last night we received our first big snowfall of the year, and that means it’s time to talk about Piae cantiones!

Why should you become familiar with Piae cantiones? Only because it’s a incredibly rich source of medieval Christmas music, some of which you already know. And because it’s easy for modern musicians to read and understand. And because of its importance to the history of religious and school music in Scandinavia. And because what other medieval Finnish music do you know?

Piae cantiones

Piae cantiones, published in 1582, is a collection of songs that were sung at the Cathedral School in Turku, Finland. This school was founded in 1276 in the wall of the cathedral, and was meant to train boys to become clergymen. It’s still open today, though of course it has changed its mission since then. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it must have been a hotbed of progressive thought: Its headmaster in the 1540s, Mikael Agricola, was a Protestant reformer who wrote the first Finnish literature and literally determined how Finnish spelling would work. And a hundred years later, in 1640, the Royal Academy of Turku (now the University of Helsinki) was founded there.

There are 74 songs in the book. They are in Latin or a combination of Latin and Swedish. Most are for only one voice, but about 10-15 are for multiple voices (two to four). These songs come from many different countries (mostly in Central and Northern Europe), and they are old – they were already old by the time Piae cantiones was published. Only about half the songs are known from earlier sources, so this is a quite valuable book in terms of adding to our knowledge of the medieval repertoire.

Most of the pieces in Piae cantiones are religious – there are a lot of Christmas and Easter songs – but there are a few secular songs, too. Interestingly, although the religious songs are free of some of the Catholic influences we might expect, we also see a surprising number of Catholic ideas that were rejected by Protestants in other countries; for example, the influence of the cult of the Virgin Mary is evident in quite a few songs, such as “Ave Maris Stella“, “Ave Regina omnium“, and “Virgo Mater piissima“. This tells us something about the reformation in Finland, which generally demanded fewer changes to Catholic tradition than reformers did in other parts of Europe.

History of Publication

The songs were compiled by Jaakko Suomalainen, who was headmaster of the school at the time. The publisher was Theodoricus Petri of Nyland (born c. 1560; died probably before 1617). Theodoricus would eventually become a major music editor and an employee of King Sigismund of Sweden and Poland), but at the time he was a student at the University of Rostock in Germany. (At the time, Germany was part of Sweden.)

The book’s full title is Piae cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum, in inclyto regno sueciae passim usurpatae, nuper studio viri cuiusdam reverendissimi de ecclesia Dei et schola Aböensi in Finlandia optime meriti accurate a mendis correctae, et nunc typis commissae, opera Theodorici Petri Nylandensis: his adiecti sunt aliquot ex psalmis recentioribus. My Latin isn’t the greatest, but this approximately means: Pious ecclesiastical and scholastic songs of the ancient bishops, frequently sung in the famous kingdom of Sweden, recently studied by a certain revered man of the church of God and the school at Åbo in Finland, accurate and with all mistakes amended, and now trusted to be printed as a work of Theodoricus Petri of Nyland: and in addition there are some new songs from the Psalms. ((゚□゚;))

If you’d like to read the entire book, you can do so here. For a reader of modern Western musical notation, it is shockingly legible. There are a few rhythms that might make one pause (because of the mensuration), but in general, it’s amazing to me how little notation has changed in 435 years.

The Songs

In my study of medieval Christmas music, I’ve had the opportunity to translate several of the songs:

But there are others that you already know! I’ve written new, more accurate translations for “Personent hodie” and “Resonet in laudibus“, but you’ve heard them as “On This Day Earth Shall Ring” and “Christ Was Born on Christmas Day” or “Josef Liber, Josef Mein”. You might also know “Ecce, novum gaudium” (“Here Is Joy for Every Age”), “In Dulci Jubilo” (“Good Christian Men, Rejoice”), and “Verbum caro factum est de Virgine: In hoc anni circulo” (“In the Ending of the Year”). You may know the tune from “Divinum mysterium” with new words, as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”. And the melody you know for “Good King Wenceslas” is taken from “Tempus adest floridum”, a song celebrating spring.


Piae cantiones was a popular book. It was translated into Finnish in 1616 by by Hemminki of Masku (1550-1619), a Finnish priest, hymn writer, and translator – an important figure in the history of Finnish religious music. In 1625, it was republished with additional songs. Its songs were sung in Finnish music classes until the 19th century, and they are still sung by Finnish and Swedish choirs, as well as in the Finnish Lutheran Church.

In 1853, the British ambassador to Sweden, G. J. R. Gordon, got his hands on an original copy. He brought it home with him, intent on giving it to some of the first students of early music.

Which brings us to…

John Mason Neale

John Mason Neale was an Anglican priest and hymn-writer, and I think of him as something of a kindred spirit. The area of our work is similar, anyway: Neale was a lover of medieval music and determined to share it with others through the art of translation.

Neale was born in London in 1818, and eventually went to Trinity College, where he was the best classics scholar in his year but failed to earn an honors degree because he was terrible at math. As a clergyman, he was influenced by the Oxford Movement, a school of thought that argued that the Anglican Church should regain some older Christian traditions that it had abandoned, and have a closer relationship with the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. This was massively unpopular at the time, and Neale was routinely threatened with stoning or having his house burned down, and one time was even physically assaulted at a funeral. However, he was an extremely kind person – he even co-founded an order whose aim was to nurse the sick – so although his views were unpopular, people who actually got to know him liked him.

Since he was interested in returning to the ancient traditions of the Church, as well as building bridges with other denominations, one of Neale’s goals as a poet was to make 19th-century, English-speaking, Anglican churchgoers aware of the rich, complicated liturgical traditions of the Greek, Russian, and Syrian Churches, as well as the Latin-speaking Catholic Church. To that end, he wrote numerous singable translations for pieces from those repertoires. When he found lyrics without melodies, he set them to melodies from other medieval songs. Many of these translations, along with hymns of his own composition, were and still are included in Anglican hymnals.

Thomas Helmore

Neale’s collaborator was Thomas Helmore, born 1811, a clergyman and music teacher. Helmore ran the music program at the church at St. Mark’s College and trained other teachers to help reform church music. He wanted beautiful and complicated art music to be performed in all Anglican churches, not just cathedrals. Under Helmore’s direction, the church at St. Mark’s became famous for the gorgeous, unaccompanied choir music during its services: The entire student body sang the plainchant psalms and responses, and a choir of men and boys sang the anthems and services. Helmore knew the music of the Renaissance well, and his choir nearly always sang works by composers of the 16th and 17th centuries (Gibbons, Byrd, Palestrina, Vittoria, and others) – very unusual for 19th-century tastes.

Helmore was an expert in plainchant, and he believed that plainchant was the most suitable music for congregational singing. His manual, Primer on Plainsong (1877), was the standard work on the subject, and kids whose parents wanted them to study plainsong were told to “sing their Helmore”. He also edited a collection of plainchant melodies that he worked on with Neale. Neale wrote singable translations for the texts, and Helmore set them to the original melodies in a way that suited the accentuation of the words.

Neale & Helmore’s Piae cantiones

In 1853, Neale received a copy of Piae cantiones from Ambassador Gordon, and he immediately shared it with Helmore. In addition to his expertise in plainchant and Renaissance sacred choral music, Helmore was one of the few people at the time who could confidently read mensural notation.

Once Helmore transcribed the music into modern notation, Neale set to work writing singable translations. Often he wrote something he called a “free” translation – which is sort of “inspired by the true lyrics”. And sometimes, as with “Good King Wenceslas”, he wrote entirely new texts. Neale and Helmore published their Piae cantiones translations (and “translations”) in Carols for Christmastide (1853) and Carols for Eastertide (1854).

Neale and Helmore’s scholarship might not be considered acceptable today. Like other 19th-century academics, they often neglected to cite sources and felt free to “fix” things that medieval composers obviously got wrong. And sometimes, they were the ones to get things wrong, such as in “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”, their free translation of “In dulci jubilo”. Helmore misread the notation and added an extra two notes in the middle of the song.

I like to imagine they had a conversation something like this:

NEALE: What is this weird extra measure here?

HELMORE: I have no idea, medieval people are so unpredictable.

NEALE: But it doesn’t make any sense with the poetry.

NEALE: And it doesn’t make any sense with the musical phrase.

NEALE: And there are like literally no words to go with these two notes.

HELMORE: I guess I could have made a mistake. Do you think we should go back and check the manuscript again?

NEALE: No, obviously these medieval people left out some words when they printed it. I’ll just make up some extra ones.


I find their mistakes endearing and quite comforting, actually. ♥

In any case, their desire to share authentic medieval music with their contemporaries was genuine and passionate.

Some of the famous songs they translated from Piae cantiones include:

  • “Verbum caro factum est de Virgine: In hoc anni circulo” as “In the Ending of the Year” (translation)
  • “Ecce, novum gaudium” as “Here Is Joy for Every Age” (free translation)
  • “In dulci jubilo” as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” (free translation)
  • “Resonet in laudibus” as “Christ Was Born on Christmas Day” (free translation)
  • “Tempus adest floridum” as “Good King Wenceslas” (new lyrics)
  • “Divinum mysterium” as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (actually a translation of “Corde natus ex Parentis”, a poem by 4th-century poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius)

The two of them are also responsible for “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, which many people believe to be a medieval hymn – and it is, sort of. The lyrics are from an 8th century hymn whose tune has been lost, and the tune is from a 15th-century Latin piece. Helmore and Neale stated that the tune was medieval but neglected to mention where they’d gotten it from, so for a long time, scholars believed that they lied and that Helmore actually composed the tune himself. However, the piece was later re-discovered – it is indeed a genuinely medieval tune.

Key Facts

  • Date: 1582
  • Compiler: Jaakko Suomalainen
  • Manuscript: Piae cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum
  • Original Language: Latin, Swedish
  • Genre: hymn

(P.S. If you’re interested in holiday music, check out my extremely relevant blog post.)

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