Eye-watering, but not tears: Fernand Laloux – O salutaris hostia, Tantum ergo

by 5:4

i’m an occasional listener to BBC Radio 3’s broadcasts of Choral Evensong. Only occasional because Evensong, it seems, has got itself stuck – or is deliberately kept – in a rut, where it has languished for at least 50 years (this suspicion was proved some time ago, when a 50-year old recording of Choral Evensong was broadcast, the music being identical to that typical of today’s broadcasts). It’s not just that the choices of music are predictably dull, the music itself is often so weak, that i tend only to tune in when a more discerning taste is being demonstrated. Or – despite my reservations – when the broadcast comes from a Catholic cathedral, when the standard and selection of music is usually exceptional. As it was in September 1999, when the broadcast came from the Brompton Oratory in London, celebrating Second Vespers for the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The service was extraordinary, including music by Dupré, Poulenc, Pärt and Tournemire, with the Benediction hymns, O salutaris hostia and Tantum ergo, by a composer named Laloux. These settings were remarkably beautiful, but the name was new to me, and a quick search through various musical dictionaries proved fruitless. Keen to explore the pieces with a church choir i was directing at the time, i telephoned the Oratory’s director of music, Patrick Russill, to find out more about this mysterious composer. i forget exactly what he told me, but the essence of it was that this music had only recently come to light, and hadn’t even been properly published yet, hence the lack of information. Russill claimed that, at that time, only the Oratory had permission to perform the music, so i was unable to get hold of any scores. Fortunately, however, i had recorded the broadcast and so, inspired by Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere in similar circumstances, i was able to transcribe the Tantum ergo completely (not, sadly, enough of the O salutaris hostia, due to insufficient clarity of the inner voices), which we performed on a number of occasions. In the intervening years, Belgian composer Fernand Laloux has begun to become more widely known, his scores are now more generally available, and Patrick Russill has recorded the pieces with the Oratory choir.

From that original service, here are the hymns O salutaris hostia and Tantum ergo; i assume, if Patrick Russill’s story is to be believed, that they must have been among the first ever performances of these pieces. There was a fair bit of interference during the recording, but i’ve managed to remove the worst of it; also, being part of a service, the noises of the thurifer can be heard at times. Both hymns, for the most part, treat the choir as a homophonic unit, though with a lightness of touch that is particularly effective. Both, too, are imbued with the rich harmonic palette beloved of the French, particularly the Tantum ergo, which features a second verse descant causing the harmonies to become eye-wateringly lovely. Watering eyes may be common in Holy Week, but this time, they’re not tears.

O salutaris hostia

O salutaris hostia
quae caeli pandis ostium,
bella premunt hostilia:
da robur, fer auxilium

Uni trinoque Domino
sit sempiterna gloria,
qui vitam sine termino
nobis donet in patria.

O saving victim
who opens the gate of heaven,
hostile wars press on us:
give strength, bring aid.

To the Lord, three in one,
be everlasting glory,
for life without end
he gives us in (his) Kingdom.

Tantum ergo

Tantum ergo sacramentum
veneremur cernui,
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui;
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui.

Genitori Genitoque
laus et iubilatio,
salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio;
procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio.

Therefore so great a Sacrament
Let us fall down and worship,
And let the old law
Give way to a new rite,
And let faith stand forward
To make good the defects of sense.

To the Father and the Son
Be praise and joy,
Health, honour and virtue
And blessing,
And to him proceeding from both
Be equal praise.

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Paul Inwood

I have just come across your blog post from 2008. Some of Fernand Laloux’s music, including the pieces you review, have been published by my imprint, Magnificat Music. The broadcast you heard was not the earliest performances of these pieces by far, and i can tell you the story behind how they came to be sung by the Oratory Choir at all if you are interested.

Click here to respond and leave a commentx