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Although the word is derived from canticulum, (diminutive of canticum, a song, from the Latin canere, to sing), it is used in the English Catholic translation of the Bible as the equivalent of the Vulgate canticum in most, but not all, of the uses of that word; for where canticum is used for a sacred song, as in the ten canticles found in the Breviary (as given below), it is always rendered "canticle", whilst in other connections (e.g. Gen., xxxi, 27, secular songs; Job, xxx, 9, song of derision; Is., xxiii, 15, "harlot's song") it is rendered "song". The Authorized Version does not make such a distinction, but regularly translates from the Hebrew and the Greek "song". From the Old Testament the Roman Breviary takes seven canticles for use at Lauds, as follows:
These canticles take the place of a fourth psalm at Lauds. From the New Testament the Breviary takes the following:
These three canticles are sometimes referred to as the "evangelical canticles", as they are taken from the Gospel of St. Luke. They are sung every day (unlike those from the Old Testament which, as is, shown above, are only of weekly occurrence). They are placed not amongst the psalms (as are the seven from the Old Testament), but separated from them by the Chapter, the Hymn, the Versicle and Respouse, and thus come immediately before the Prayer (or before the preces, if these are to be said). They are thus given an importance and distinction elevating them into great prominence, which is further heightened by the rubric which requires the singers and congregations to stand while they are being sung (in honour of the mystery of the Incarnation, to which they refer). Further, while the "Magnificat" is being sung at Solemn Vespers, the altar is incensed as at Solemn Mass. [For variety of ceremonial and of usage, and explanations of the symbolism of its assignment to Vespers, see Migne, Encyclopedie theologique, VIII (Liturgie) 745-7.] All three canticles are in use in the Greek and Anglican churches. In the Breviary the above-named ten canticles are provided with antiphons and are sung in the same eight psalm-tones and in the same alternating manner as the psalms. To make the seven taken from the Old Testament suitable for this manner of singing, nos. 2-7 sometimes divide a verse of the Bible into two verses, thus increasing the number of Breviary verses. No. 1, however, goes much farther than this. It uses only a portion of the long canticle in Daniel, and condenses, expands, omits, and interverts verses and portions of verses. In the Breviary the canticle begins with verse 57, and ends with verse 56 (Dan., iii); and the penultimate verse is clearly an interpolation, "Benedicamus Patrem, et Filium . . .". In addition to their Breviary use some of the canticles are used in other connections in the liturgy; e.g. the "Nunc dimittis" as a tract at the Mass of the Feast of the Purification (when 2 February comes after Septuagesima); the "Benedictus" in the burial of the dead and in various processions. The use of the "Benedictus" and the "Benedicite" at the old Gallican Mass is interestingly described by Duchene (Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution, London, 1903, 191-196). In the Office of the Greek Church the canticles numbered 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 are used at Lauds, but are not assigned to the same days as in the Roman Breviary. Two others (Is., xxvi, 9-20, and Jonas, ii, 2-9) are added for Friday and Saturday respectively. The ten canticles so far mentioned do not exhaust the portions of Sacred Scripture which are styled "canticles". There are, so example, those of Debora and Barac, Judith, the "canticle of Canticles"; and many psalms (e.g. xvii, 1,"this canticle"; xxxviii,1, "canticle of David"; xliv,1, "canticle for the beloved"; and the first verse of Pss. 1xiv, 1xv, 1xvi, 1xvii, etc). In the first verse of some psalms the phrase psalmus cantici (the psalm of a canticle) is found, and in others the phrase canticum psalmi (a canticle of a psalm). Cardinal Bona thinks that psalmus cantici indicated that the voice was to precede the instrumental accompaniment, while canticum psalmi indicated an instrumental prelude to the voice. This distinction follows from his view of a canticle as an unaccompanied vocal song, and of a psalm as an accompanied vocal song. It is not easy to distinguish satisfactorily the meanings of psalm, hymn, canticle, as referred to by St. Paul in two places (see CONGREGATIONAL SINGING). Canticum appears to be generic -- a song, whether sacred or secular; and there is reason to think that his admonition did not contemplate religious assemblies of the Christians, but their social gatherings. In these the Christians were to sing "spiritual songs", and not the profane or lascivious songs common amongst the pagans. These spiritual songs were not exactly psalms or hymns. The hymn may then be defined as a metrical or rhythmical praise of God; and the psalm, accompanied sacred song or canticle, either taken from the Psalms or from some less authoritative source (St. Augustine declaring that a canticle may be without a psalm but not a psalm without a canticle).
In addition to the ten canticles enumerated above the Roman Breviary places in its index, under the heading "Cantica", the "Te Deum" (at the end of Matins for Sundays and Festivals, but there styled "Hymnus SS. Ambrosii et Augustini") and the: "Quicumque vult salvus esse" (Sundays at Prime, but there styled "Symbolum S. Athanasii", the "Creed of St. Athanasius"). To these are sometimes added by writers the "Gloria in excelsis", the "Trisagion", and the "Gloria Patri" (the Lesser Doxology). In the "Psalter and Canticles Pointed for chanting" (Philadelphia, 1901), for the use of the Evangelical Lutheran Congregations, occurs (p. 445) a "Table of canticles" embracing Nos. 1, 3, 8, 9, 10, besides certain psalms, and the "Te Deum" and "Venite" (Ps. xicv, used at the beginning of Matins in the Roman Breviary). The word Canticles is thus seen to be somewhat elastic in its comprehension. On the one hand, while it is used in the common parlance in the Church of England to cover several of the enumerated canticles, the Prayer Book applies it only to the "Benedicite", while in its Calendar the word Canticles is applied to what is commonly known as the "Song of Solomon" (the Catholic "Canticle of Canticles", Vulgate, "Canticum canticorum").