Home History of Hymns: Italian mystic composes melodic "O Love Divine"

History of Hymns: Italian mystic composes melodic "O Love Divine"

C. Michael Hawn, May 26, 2011

“Come Down, O Love Divine”
Bianco of Siena; translated by Richard F. Littledale
UM Hymnal, No. 475

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Photo Courtesy Brittanica.com

Come down, O Love divine,
Seek thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

Bianco of Siena (c. 1345-c. 1412) was born in Anciolina, a small hamlet in Tuscany, Italy, but moved at a young age to Siena where he labored as a wood carver. We have little information about the life of this mystic; what we do know is due to the efforts of Feo Belcari (1410-1484), a poet and playwright from Florence, who reconstructed Bianco’s biography from his poetry.

According to Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia, edited by Christopher Kleinhenz, “Bianco joined the Gesuati, a lay order founded by Giovanni Colombini, and lived for a number of years in a monastery of the order in Cittè di Castello. He spent the last years of his life in Venice.”

Bianco composed in the laude form, a vernacular sacred song used outside of the medieval Catholic liturgy. Lauda spirituale were popular well into the 19th century. Most laude were composed in a melody-only form—though polyphonic, or multi-part, laude developed in Italy in the early 15th century.

Bianco’s more than 100 laude may be divided into two groups—doctrinal and mystical. In Dr. Kleinhenz’s volume, we gain insight into Bianco’s poetry: “Inspired by intense religious zeal, his poetry has its mystical roots in that of Jacopone da Todi, particularly in regard to the theme of divine madness. The immediacy of Bianco’s language and the unadorned simplicity of his statements enhanced the popular appeal of his poetry.”

“Come Down, O Love Divine” (“Discendi, amor santo”) is, according to UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton Young, “a translation of four of the original eight stanzas from Bianco’s ‘Laudi Spirituali del Bianco de Siena, Lucca, 1851.’”

Richard Littledale (1833-1890), an Irish scholar and minister, translated four of the stanzas that appeared in the People’s Hymnal (1867). The hymn’s popularity increased significantly after it appeared in the English Hymnal (1906), one of the most influential hymnals of the early 20th century, with a musical setting by the eminent English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Vaughan William’s tune DOWN AMPNEY carries the majesty and mystery of the text beautifully and is now the standard musical setting for this text.
Stanza three of the four English-language stanzas is omitted from most hymnals:

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

While the stanza starts out strongly, the translation seems strained and lacks the directness and beauty of the remaining three stanzas. Lutheran hymn writer Gracia Grindal notes that “the entire hymn is an invocation to the Holy Spirit [to] ‘kindle’ the heart so that it burns with the ardor of the Spirit.”

The text is intense—intensely personal and intensely passionate. The incipit (first line) invokes the Holy Spirit to “seek thou this soul of mine and visit it with thine own ardor glowing.” Classic images of Pentecost appear throughout the hymn, especially those that relate to fire. Stanza one mentions “ardor glowing” and “kindle . . . thy holy flame.” Stanza two continues the flame images with “freely burn,” “dust and ashes in its heat consuming.”

The final stanza is a powerful statement of total commitment to love, to “create a place/wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.”

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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