Saturday, September 10, 2011

Christ, We Do All Adore Thee

Praise for the Lord #90

Words: Theodore Baker, 1899
Music: Théodore DuBois, 1867

"Christ, we do all adore Thee" comes down to us through an interesting chain of unexpected sources. It is actually the final movement from Les sept paroles du Christ ("The Seven Last Words of Christ"), an oratorio written in 1867 by Théodore Dubois.( Click here for the complete score, available from the International Music Score Library Project. The section in question is on the final two pages. The text, however, is a very old one, from the Roman Catholic liturgy:

Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi:
Quia per Crucem tuam redemisti mundum.

A search of the extensive CANTUS database, a primary research tool for study of the sources of Gregorian chant, reveals hundreds of instances of this text, usually as an antiphon (sung antiphonally by the choir) but occasionally as a responsory (begun by the priest and continued by the choir and congregation). The earliest I have found dates back to around the year 990, from the St. Gall monastery in Switzerland.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 391, p.64 (
Used by permission for non-commercial purpose.
The text begins on the lowest line (the preceding antiphon is a text adoring the cross itself). It includes several abbreviations, and the name "Christe" is written in Greek, but it is fairly decipherable. (Notice that the scribe ran out of room at the end of the line and put "mundum" in the space above, with a bracket to show that it belongs with the lower line!) The dots and squiggles above the words are the ancestors of our musical notation, and indicate roughly how the melody moves up and down.

Though "Adoramus te, Christe" was also sung at various Offices (prayer hours) for the days dedicated to the Exaltation of the Cross and the Finding of the Cross, it is by far best known as part of the Mass for Good Friday.(CANTUS) Dubois used this familiar text as a quiet but powerful climax to his dramatic musical setting of the seven statements of Christ on the cross, a work intended to be performed on that day. He modified the text slightly by repeating the first line and reprising it at the end:

Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi.
Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi:
Quia per Crucem tuam redemisti mundum.
Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi.
Adoramus te, Christe.

Our English translation is by Theodore Baker (1851-1934), one of the first generation of American musicologists and the founder of the popular Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. His other well-known hymn translations are "We gather together" and the lovely German Christmas carol, "Lo, how a rose e'er blooming."("Baker") His rendering is very nearly word-for-word:

Christ, we do all adore Thee,
And we do praise Thee forever;
Christ, we do all adore Thee,
And we do praise Thee forever;
For on the holy cross hast Thou
The world from sin redeemèd.
Christ, we do all adore Thee,
And we do praise Thee forever.
Christ, we do all adore Thee.

In fact, the only change of any significance is that "et benedicimus tibi" becomes "and we do praise Thee" instead of "and we do bless Thee," which in context means nearly the same thing. Baker also judiciously adds a word here and there--"praise Thee forever" and "holy cross"--to make the lines match up to the music. It is a simple but artful adaptation, especially when the line, "for on the holy cross hast Thou..." follows the wording and order of the Latin so exactly that the emotional climax is virtually identical.

It is hard to know what to say about such a simple and powerful text. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:19, "Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue." Less can be more, if it is well-chosen and carefully presented. This hymn contains only twelve words in the original language, and only two dozen words in English (Latin is much more economical). There has been a running joke recently about contemporary worship music with this kind of text--the "7-11 song," seven words repeated eleven times--but this hymn is proof that if you really know what you are doing, you can create a masterpiece.

Christ, we do all adore Thee,
And we do praise Thee forever.

"Adore" is a word we throw around casually today, if we use it at all. It is a little old-fashioned, even stilted; we might jokingly say that we "adore" a favorite food, but are not likely to say "I adore you" to a loved one and keep a straight face. As sometimes happens with words, it has lost its meaning over time. The old Oxford Universal Dictionary lists our current usage--"to regard with . . . affection"--as only the second meaning. The first and oldest definition is: "to make an act of the mind and will in acknowledgement of the infinite perfection of God; to make an outward reverence expressing such an act, e.g. a bow, genuflexion, etc."

This is certainly the meaning intended in the Latin text. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines "adoration" as follows: "Adoration differs from other acts of worship, such as supplication, confession of sin, etc., inasmuch as it formally consists in self-abasement before the Infinite, and in devout recognition of His transcendent excellence."("Adoration") It is something we do, as well as something we feel; it is an attitude of heart and mind, deliberately acknowledged and applied to its object. Christ is no less complete without our adoration, but we are less complete if we do not give it. Acknowledgment of Christ's perfection is His rightful due, and benefits us through putting us in a right attitude toward Him. The natural result, as the rest of the line says, is that "we do praise Thee forever."

What is the reason for this adoration and praise?

For on the holy cross hast Thou
The world from sin redeemèd.

The musical setting by Dubois puts particular emphasis on "Thou," in either language, because it all came down to Him. All God's plan for humanity's redemption, "foreknown before the foundation of the world,"(1 Peter 1:20) came down on the shoulders of a Man weeping in agony one night in a garden, and begging, "if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me."(Matthew 26:39) But He "humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross."(Philippians 2:8)

And when He finally bowed His weary, bloodied head and said, "It is finished,"(John 19:30) it was no statement of surrender or resignation, but of triumph and vindication. It was the completion of the scheme of redemption: "For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross."(Colossians 1:19-20)

The cross, an instrument of torture and humiliation, became that day the "holy cross" because of what happened on it. Jesus "endured the cross, despising the shame,"(Hebrews 12:2) and the power of that symbol is forever etched in the minds and hearts of those who follow Him. "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."(1 Corinthians 1:18)

About the music:

Théodore DuBois (1837-1924) was a prominent figure in late 19th-century French music, though he is little remembered today outside of his home country, and to some extent among church organists. He was a promising student at the Paris Conservatoire, winning the prestigious Prix de Rome competition in 1861. His first major professional position was as maître de chapelle (chapel-master, really the choir director) at the Sainte Clotilde church in Paris. It was in this capacity that he premiered his oratorio "Seven last words of Christ," on Good Friday, 1867.

He later served as maître de chapelle at La Madeleine (the church of Mary Magdalene), where the more famous composer Camille Saint-Saëns was organist, and succeeded him in that position. His career eventually brought him back to the Paris Conservatoire, this time as director, from 1896-1905. DuBois wrote a few operas and secular instrumental works, but the majority of his output was sacred, including five settings of the Mass, a Requiem, 71 motets, 5 oratorios, and numerous works for organ.(Mongrédien)

"Adoramus te, Christe" is an elegant miniature, and its dignified simplicity stands in contrast to the more elaborate music that precedes it in the original work. The entire musical interest is maintained by two elements, the contrasting motion of the outer voices and the choice of harmonies. In the first phrase of text, the soprano descends while the bass ascends, then the voices reverse their directions to close on the same notes on which they began. In the second phrase (repeating the first line of text), the soprano is almost identical to its part in the preceding phrase, but the bass moves instead by alternating steps and leaps. The harmony in the second phrase is all root position chords, emphasizing the different chord choices employed.

At the end of the second phrase, on the word "forever," the soprano turns upward to a D instead of staying on C as before, avoiding the cadence on the tonic chord and opening up the harmonic progression to further development. This sense of expansion and anticipation is heightened by the dramatic clash of the tenor's C against the soprano's D on the syllable "for-EV-er." This particular type of nonharmonic tone is called a "suspension," and in this case it creates "suspense" in service of the text; having stated our adoration of Christ, we are about to go into the second line of text, which explains the reason for our adoration.

The middle section, beginning with the line "for on the holy cross," contrasts the relatively static harmonies of the opening section with a driving chord progression based on the strongest of all chord-root movements, the perfect 5th. (A complete "circle of 5ths" progression in C major would be: C-F-b-e-a-d-G-C.) The cycle begins on E minor ("for on the"), moves to A minor ("holy"), then to D minor ("cross").

The next chord to be expected in this sequence is G major, the dominant (V chord) of C major, but Dubois throws a curve ball; on the word "Thou" ("tuam" in the Latin as well), he introduces a B-flat major chord. It isn't a chord that belongs in C major--it isn't native to the key signature, and has to be notated with an accidental, the only one found in the entire piece. The B-flat chord is an unexpected move, breaking the circle of 5ths by a chromatic third relationship (D,F,A to B-flat,D,F).

I am always hesitant to say that a composer did a certain thing for a certain reason, when it is really just my guesswork, but it is obvious he meant to emphasize this word. The B-flat chord is the moment that changes everything in the music, and it falls at the very middle of piece. Is it possible that the use of this striking, powerful chord, coming from outside the key, symbolizes musically the act of Christ's intervention from the heavenly realm into this sinful world? Following the introduction of this chord, the harmony turns in the opposite direction on the circle of 5ths (another moment of symbolism?), moving back from B-flat major to F major, then to C major and a cadence.

The final section of the piece repeats the opening line of text with the same music found in the opening four measures. Following this, at least in most hymnals I have used, is a measure of rest, and then the final phrase of text, "Christ, we do all adore Thee." I have long puzzled over this measure of rest; silence is a powerful part of music, but a fermata or grand pause would have accomplished the same thing. Looking at the score of Dubois's original work, though, I see the reason for this anomaly--the chorus has two measures of rest here while the organ and orchestra echo the preceding two measures just sung by the chorus.

Over the years, I have begun to simply treat this measure as a grand pause, instead of literally counting out four beats. As long as the song leader is clear about his intentions, and consistent in how he handles this spot, it really makes no difference. I was interested to hear, in the lovely a cappella performance by the Coral Valle de Aranguren in the video above, that the director chose to ignore this break almost entirely. I have also observed, after listening to several different performances, that most directors take the tempo quite a bit slower than I have usually heard in the singing of the Churches of Christ. Part of this, of course, is the more disciplined breath control required to sing it at a slower tempo; but it really seems as though it would be worth it.

I cannot leave a discussion of this music without mentioning the final cadence, an A minor chord to a C major chord. When I was in sophomore music theory at Oklahoma Christian, Dr. Harold Fletcher pointed out that it was the only such cadence he had ever observed, and that it did not really fit any of the cadence types defined in music theory textbooks. I have wondered about this ever since. (I can hear my former theory students shouting, "Who cares?," but it isn't really a pathological desire to label everything; it's a desire to understand how different things relate to each other, and why they work the way they do.) My best answer to this question so far is this: it's a kind of plagal cadence (IV-I, or the "A-men" cadence), but with an A minor chord as a mediant substitution for what could have been an F major chord. (The two chords, F major and A minor, share the notes A and C.) The effect of the cadence is certainly that sense of hushed repose that your hear in an "A-men" cadence.


"Christ, we do all adore Thee."


"Baker, Theodore." Cyberhymnal.

"Adore." Oxford Universal Dictionary, 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955, p. 26.

"Adoration." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1907-1912.

Mongrédien, Jean. "Dubois, Théodore." New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 20 v., ed. Stanley Sadie. London: MacMillan, 1980, v.5, p. 664.

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