2015-03-15 Notes from the Bench

“Tantum ergo” by Alexander Gretchaninov

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate



Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Præstet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.
Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.



Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

To the Everlasting Father,
And the Son Who reigns on high
With the Holy Ghost proceeding
Forth from Each eternally,
Be salvation, honour, blessing,
Might, and endless majesty.


The text, “Tantum ergo” is the final two verses of the longer Eucharistic hymn, “Pange Lingua, Gloriosi,” a Medieval-era Latin hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas (1125-1274) around 1264. “Pange Lingua, Gloriosi” is the sequence hymn for the Roman Catholic Feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for Body of Christ) that celebrates the belief of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This hymn is also sung during the Maundy Thursday liturgy when the Sacrament is brought in solemn procession to the Altar of Repose. An English translation of this text may be found in The Hymnal 1982, #329. “Tantum ergo” is frequently sung during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Numerous composers have written settings of this text, among them the Russian late-romantic era composer Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956). In addition to composing, Gretchaninov (also spelled Gretchaninoff) was a pianist, conductor, and musical ethnographer. He was introduced to music rather late in his childhood; his father was a successful businessman in Moscow and expected Alexander to take over the family firm. However, at the age of fourteen Gretchaninov begin studying music at the Moscow Conservatory, despite his father’s objections. He later moved to St. Petersburg to study with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Rimsky-Korsakov recognized the natural talent of Gretchaninov, mentored the young musician, and provided financial assistance.  In 1896, he returned to Moscow and became involved with theatre and opera productions. Over the course of his life, he wrote five symphonies, music for string quartets, numerous operas, choral works, and pieces for piano, violin, cello, clarinet, and the balalaika, a Russian folk instrument that is similar to the guitar. Gretchaninov enjoyed great success in Russia, and was recognized as a composer of distinction by the Tsar who granted him an annual stipend. Gretchaninov left Russia in 1925, eight years after the revolution and the rise of Soviet power in the country, first immigrating to France and then in 1939 to the United States. He eventually became an American citizen and remained in this country until his death.

Gretchaninov composed sacred choral music for the Russian Orthodox Church, writing settings of the liturgy, hymn cycles, motets, and various other shorter works. He worked with other composers of the era such as Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944) who were associated with the Moscow Synodal School, an organization that taught music for the Church in Russia, which influenced Gretchaninov’s writing style. Gretchaninov’s works utilize chant-like melodies and the rich palette of choral textures that are commonly associated with Russian choral music; music that ranges from stark unisons to the “choral symphonism” style written with eight and twelve diverse parts.

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