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The Little Office

August 12, 2011

I have recently been reading the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in order to experience in some form all the different hours of the office as it is said by clergy or religious.  I wanted to know: is this feasible at all?  The Roman Office has to it eight times of prayer: Matins (mid-night or so), Lauds (dawn), Prime (6 am), Terce (9 am), Sext (12 pm), None (3 pm), Vespers (evening), and Compline (before retiring).  

Side note: the backbone of the full Roman Office is the entire psalter of 150 psalms, recited in the course of a week.  This practice dates back at least to St. Benedict (c. 500 A.D.), who notes in his rule that if the zealous hermits of old would recite the psalter in a day, the least his monks could do was do it in a week.  The modern liturgy of the hours, on the contrary, spreads the psalter out over a four week cycle.     

For the last year and a half-ish, I had been reading Compline, as can be found the Liber Usualis (or there is a book published to be user friendly complete with translations), but I had not tried to do any of the other hours of the office regularly on account of their not being readily available to me.  I also wanted whatever hours I was going to recite to have their music on hand as well, so that I could sing them, or become familiar with their musical elements.  Anyhow, partly because I knew we had the book for the Little Office lying around the house (and I had been looking into it when making my rosary booklet), and partly because I had been reading about the divine office in a book (pdf here) by Hungarian liturgical scholar/musician Laszlo Dobszay, I have been reading the Little Office since the beginning of August.  Perhaps at some point, I will try singing it.  If I wake in the middle of the night, I read matins, and it takes ~20 minutes.  Otherwise, I have been reading it on the way to 7am Mass, then Lauds on the way home, and Prime afterwards.  The other hours I do at the regular times.

The version of the Little Office I am using is that published by Baronius press, 2008, in conformity with the 1961 Roman Breviary (link here).  This is very nifty little book, as it has parallel Latin/English for everything, as well as all the music, and also a lot of informative information about the history, etc.  The disadvantages to it are that: the Latin has no accents; the psalms are not pointed to be sung; it is assumed you know your psalm melodies; the notation of the chants uses some atypical notes (I don’t know if they are a more modern notation, or what); there are no rhythmic markings, and all the chant is at the back of the book to make it convenient for one only reading the office.  End review. 

It really is a nice book, although I am thinking that perhaps I could make some singer-friendly booklets of parts of it.  The office stays the same every day, with one of three nocturnes for Matins according to the day of the week.  There are variants for Advent and Christmas, but I have not looked into these, as they are out of season right now.  Thus, the same psalms are recited every day for large periods of time, and one can become familiar with them approximately seven times faster than those used in the full office.

A points made by the Dobszay book which I had read was that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Roman Office was that the psalms were arranged partially to be said at appropriate times of the day, and partially to be said in strict numerical order (that is, following the order in which they appear in the Bible).  I therefore wanted to know the distribution of psalms in the Little Office, as it is throughout the year.  Here is a table of them, which I made: 

Matins: (Responsory: Ps. 94 with Ave Maria)

Nocturn I. (Sun./Mon./Thurs.)

      Ps. 8: Domine, Dominus noster

      Ps. 18: Caeli enarrant

      Ps. 23: Domini est terra

Nocturn II. (Tue./Fri.)

      Ps. 44: Eructavit cor meum

      Ps. 45: Deus noster refugium

      Ps. 86: Fundamenta ejus

Nocturn III. (Wed./Sat.)           

      Ps. 95: Cantate Domino

      Ps. 96: Dominus regnavit

      Ps. 97 Cantate Domino


      Ps. 92: Dominus regnavit

      Ps. 99: Jubilate Deo

      Ps. 62: Deus, Deus meus

      Canticle of the Three Children: Benedicite

      Ps. 148: Laudate Dominum


      Ps. 53: Deus in nomine tuo

      Ps. 84: Benedixisti Domine

      Ps. 116: Laudate Dominum


      Ps. 119: Ad Dominum

      Ps. 120: Levavi oculos

      Ps. 121: Laetatus sum in his


      Ps. 122: Ad te levavi

      Ps. 123: Nisi quia Dominus

      Ps. 124: Qui confidunt


      Ps. 125: In convertendo

      Ps. 126: Nisi Dominus

      Ps. 127: Beati omnes


      Ps. 109: Dixit Dominus

      Ps. 107: Laudate , pueri

      Ps. 121: Laetatus sum in his

      Ps. 126: Nisi Dominus

      Ps. 147: Lauda Jerusalem


      Ps. 128: Saepae expugnaverunt

      Ps. 129: De profundis

      Ps. 130: Domine, non est

From this may be seen several things, and I will make some remarks as well.  First, and most obvious, is that Terce, Sext, None, and Compline use psalms 119-130, in order.  Second, Lauds is the same as that given in the Liber for feasts, and Vespers is taken, antiphons and all, from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Psalms used in Lauds are rather suitable to morning; the same for those of Matins, at least for the first and third nocturnes.  The third nocturn, I am guessing, is centered around the psalm Eructavit, which is used frequently in the propers for Marian feasts.  About prime, I really do not know. 

Another interesting fact is that the antiphons for the psalms of Lauds are taken from vespers of the Assumption, Aug. 15.  The psalms for the little hours of Prime, Terce, Sext, and None are all said under one antiphon; these are repeats of antiphons 1, 2, 3, and 5 of Lauds.  

A final big interesting item are the hymns.  For Matins, Quem terra, pontus, sidera; for Lauds, O gloriosa virginum (as on Dec. 8, the Immaculate Conception); for Vespers, Ave maris stella; for the other hours Memento rerum conditor/Maria mater gratiae (a hymn I had always wondered what it was good for, as the first verse is usually not given when it appears under the title “Maria Mater Gratiae” and has only two verses.)  Except for Ave maris, all the other hymns go to the same melody, which has diverse other Marian lyrics to it for other feasts, etc. 

Also notable is that the antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis (canticle of Simeon) at Compline is Sub tuum praesidium, another chant I had always wondered about.

Thus concludeth my remarks about the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

From → Gregorian Chant

  1. Texican permalink

    Not sure if this is the user friendly edition of Compline to which you are refering; however if you are interested in chanting the prayers nightly, it is a great resource.

    Enjoy the blog!

  2. Actually, I meant this one, which is according to the 1960 Roman Breviary, and published by the FSSP:
    We had used it on Wednesdays after evening Mass at our church for a while.

  3. Texican permalink

    Nice, can’t beat it for the price. I’d be curious to see how they differ. Keep it up!

  4. The main difference seems to be that the one is for the Liturgy of the Hours version of Compline, and other for the Divine Office. English versions of the chants would, however, be interesting, as well as practical in some instances.

  5. Texican permalink

    I purchased this version precisely because it has Latin (with English on the opposite page) *and* gregorian notation. For me simply reading the prayers silently in English can all too easily become a repetitive operation. Chant helps me to pray in a way that is much more reflective and purposeful. Takes some practive, but what doesnt?

  6. Julie Ash permalink

    Thanks for posting this. I always wondered about the melody for Memento Rerum Conditor. Nice to know it’s the same as O Gloriosa Virginum! Thanks again.

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