History of Hymns: '¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo!'
By Claire Ward and C. Michael Hawn
«¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo!»
by Reginald Heber, trans. Juan Bautista Cabrera
The United Methodist Hymnal, 65
Mil Voces para Celebrar, 4
¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo! Señor omnipotente,
siempre el labio mío loores te dará.
¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo! te adoro reverente,
Dios en tres personas, bendita Trinidad.
«¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo!» by Juan Bautista Cabrera Ivars (1837–1916) is a Spanish-language adaptation of “Holy, Holy, Holy” (1826) by Anglican bishop Reginald Heber (1783–1826). For the most part, Cabrera’s text is a straightforward translation of Heber’s hymn, although there are several textual subtleties. In many ways, all translations are a new and discrete work.
The original hymn, written by Heber for Trinity Sunday, was published posthumously in A Selection of Psalms and Hymns for the Parish Church Banbury (Third Ed., 1826). It describes the nature of the Holy Trinity while acknowledging that worshipers are incapable of fully understanding it. The text draws upon Isaiah 6:1–5 and Revelation 4:2–11(Watson, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” n.d.). Heber’s original text contains four stanzas and is in the unconventional meter of 126.96.36.199. The rhyme scheme is similarly uncommon, with each line of every stanza rhyming with “holy.”
The tune NICAEA by John Bacchus Dykes (1823–1876), one of the most prolific composers of Victorian hymn tunes, is paired with both texts. The tune was composed in 1861 and is characterized by its use of movement by thirds and repeated notes. Dykes produced over one hundred hymn tunes of varying degrees of popularity. Based on the records presented on Hymnary.org, none, aside from his ST. AGNES, appear as often as NICEA, a staggering 541 instances.
Like Heber, Cabrera would eventually become a bishop within the Anglican church. His journey to this role, however, was not usual. Cabrera was born into a pious Catholic family in Spain in April 1837. Catholicism, long the dominant faith tradition in Spain, became the official state religion with the Concordat of 1851. In accordance with his upbringing, Cabrera entered into the Orden de las Escuelas Pías, establishing himself as a scholar of languages (Greek, Hebrew, English, Italian) and devoting himself to the study of ancient Spanish liturgy. He was ordained as a deacon in 1861 and as a priest the following year (Sánchez, 2018, p. 159).
At this point, Cabrera began to experience conflicts between his faith and his duty, abandoning the Order in 1863 and fleeing to Gibraltar. He questioned the role of the saints and their basis in the gospel, orienting himself toward a Christocentric perspective. He also underwent struggles of conscience regarding the persecution of Protestants, writing a letter in 1866 to Manuel Matamoros (1834–1866), an imprisoned defender of Protestantism who is sometimes referred to as the founder of Spanish Protestantism: “This event deeply impressed me, showing in lively colours the cruelty of the Church on one hand, which persecuted in the name of the Gospel; and on the other hand the faith and valour of a few men who did not fear persecution in the defense and confession of the Gospel they had embraced. And these were Protestant” (Sánchez, 2018, p. 161). After the 1868 Revolution which secured freedom of religion in Spain (if only briefly), Cabrera returned from Gibraltar and worked to establish the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church. He was appointed the first bishop of the church in 1880. Since then, only four others have held this role, the last being appointed in 1995. Cabrera died in Madrid, Spain, in 1916.
Before analyzing Cabrera’s text in relation to Heber’s, it is important to acknowledge the complexities and nuances of hymn translation. When a text is tied closely to a tune, as is the case with “Holy, Holy, Holy” and NICEA, the melody, meter, and rhythm influence the translation. On the structural level, there are differences between the rhyme scheme and meter of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and «Santo, Santo, Santo». Unlike Heber’s rhyme scheme centered around the word “Holy,” Cabrera adheres to a more traditional ABAB pattern (cross rhyme). The Spanish-language poetic meter (188.8.131.52) differs from the English meter, although The United Methodist Hymnal still classifies it as 184.108.40.206. This is likely based on its tie to the hymn tune NICAEA, though no clear reason is given in The United Methodist Hymnal or hymnal companions. Small alterations to NICEA allow the melody to accommodate the change in meter from one language to another. Mil Voces para Celebrar (1996), the official United Methodist Spanish-language hymnal, correctly acknowledges the poetic meter as 220.127.116.11.
In stanza 1, Heber’s text alludes singing praise in the morning: “early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.” This is a reference to Psalm 5:3: “My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up” (KJV). Cabrera’s translation—«siempre el labio mío loores te dará»—broadens Heber’s statement: “My lip will always give you praise.” It is interesting that Cabrera chose «labio» (“lip”) rather than «labios» (“lips”). Raquel Martínez, editor of Mil Voces para Celebrar (MVPC) suggests that “Cabrera wanted to keep this [his praise] on a very personal level.” A more recent translation by Dimas Planas-Belfort (1934–1992) retains the morning reference: «De mañana el labio loores te dará» (my lip will give you praise in the morning). Martínez suggests that though this fits the original English meter better, it is also more impersonal. She also notes that Planas-Belfort’s translation is not as natural and idiomatic as Cabrera’s version.
Cabrera composes two Spanish stanzas to accommodate Heber’s stanza 2. Cabrera’s original stanza 2 does not appear in The United Methodist Hymnal. Mil Voces para Celebrar includes this stanza, however, capturing the essence of lines 1 and 2 of Heber’s original (a literal translation follows each line):
¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo! En numenoso coro,
Holy! Holy! Holy! In numerous chorus,
The reference to the “glassy sea” (Rev 4:6) does not appear in Cabrera’s Spanish translation. An alteration of line 2 in some hymnals reads as follows: «de tus redemidos te adoran con fervor» ([the chorus] of the redeemed adore you with fervor), a substitution of «redeemed» for «santos» (“redeemed” for “saints”), perhaps an indication of Cabrera’s rejection of saints.
Cabrera’s third stanza follows (the second half of Heber’s stanza 2) with a literal translation:
¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo! La imensa muchedumbre
Holy! Holy! Holy! The immense crowd
Heber’s “Cherubim and seraphim” are combined as “angeles” in Cabrera’s translation. The image «bañada de tu lumber» (bathed in your fire) does not appear in Heber’s original. This appears to capture images from Isaiah 6—smoke (v. 4) and tongs from the altar (v. 6) as well as a reference from Revelation 13:13: “And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men” (KJV).
The fourth stanza communicates the mystery of Heber’s original well:
¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo!
Holy! Holy! Holy!
The final stanza follows with a literal translation:
¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo!
Holy! Holy! Holy!
Mil Voces para Celebrar substitutes «La humanidad te honore» for «todo hombre», rendering this as a gender inclusive phrase. Omitted in Cabrera’s translation, however, is Heber’s “Merciful and mighty”—a sonorous alliteration in English that demonstrates two sides of God’s nature. Dimas Planas-Belfort maintains this distinction with the phrase «fuerte, mas clemente» (strong, more forgiving), though Heber’s exquisite alliteration is not reproduced.
Commenting on the significance of «¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo!» among Spanish-speakers, Raquel Martínez notes, “The theme of a personal relationship with God is a very important element in the Hispanic community. Therefore, when this hymn is sung in a Hispanic setting, there is this sense of addressing one’s own God directly, offering reverent worship, joyful praise, acknowledging the sanctity and power of the Triune God.
Also, in the Hispanic community, there is a deep awareness of the presence of the company of saints who have gone before us, who we join in praising God.”
Juan Bautista Cabrera was undoubtedly an influential figure in our Christian heritage, especially given his role in the Protestant reforms in Spain in the nineteenth century and his position as a founder of the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church. Beyond that, he had a profound impact on Christian hymnody, penning or translating nearly two hundred hymn texts. Mil Voces para Celebrar contains nine translations and two original hymns by Cabrera. In addition to «¡Santo! ¡Santo! ¡Santo!» his translations of Luther’s “A mighty fortress” («Castillo fuerte es nuestro Dios») and Wade’s “O come, all ye faithful” («Venid, fieles todos») are standards among Spanish-singing Christians. His translations are artful poetry in their own right and continue to bear witness to the faith.
“John Bacchus Dykes,” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/person/Dykes_John (accessed 8 April 2021).
“Juan Bautista Cabrera Ivars, Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/person/Cabrera_JB (accessed 8 April 2021).
“Manuel Matamoros García, El Basilisco: Diccionario filosófico (2006), http://www.filosofia.org/ave/001/a253.htm (accessed May 24, 2021).
Raquel Martínez, personal correspondence, May 29, 2021.
Stanton Nelson, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” History of Hymns: Discipleship Ministries (September 7, 2017), https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-holy-holy-holy-lord-god-almighty (accessed May 21, 2021).
Patrocinio Ríos Sánchez, “Juan Bautista Cabrera Ivars: Un Reformador Protestante En El Siglo XIX Español,” Hispania sacra 70, no. 141 (2018): 157–181, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/236014133.pdf (accessed May 21, 2021).
J. Richard Watson, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press. http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/holy,-holy,-holy!-lord-god-almighty (accessed May 21, 2021).
Claire Ward is a student in the Master of Sacred Music program, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where she studies hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.