Adam of Saint-Victor

Adam of St. Victor († ca. 1146)
– musician and poet
– precentor of the Cathedral Notre-Dame (Paris)
– monk at the Abbey of St. Victor (Augustinians) just outside Paris .

Monks, singing a sequence

Nota praevia: In 1984 Margot E. Fassler published her epochal study: Who was Adam of St. Victor?’ (Journal of the American Musicological Society 37/ 2 (Summer, 1984), pp. 233-269), making alle previous biographies obsolete.

Short biography

Adam of Saint-Victor, ‘to my mind the greatest Latin poet, not only of medieval, but of all ages.’ (J.M. Neale). This is a little bit over the top, but telling: J.M. Neale was a connoisseur of Latin poetry and a renowned translator. That Adam as a poet (and his poetry) almost fell into oblivion is partly due to a decision made by liturgical reformers after the Council of Trent to remove almost all sequences from the Roman Catholic liturgy. Only four (Victimae Paschali Laudes, Veni Creator Spiritus, Dies Irae, and Lauda Sion Salvatorum) remained in the Gradual; Stabat Mater survived as a hymn; a few were retained in the liturgies of the religious orders. But tens of thousands of sequences (= a large portion of the Roman Catholic musical tradition) were simply discarded and – hence – forgotten.

In recent years Adam is rehabilitated and his biography rewritten (newly written, see above). He not only was a poet and a monk, but he was a musician first, working at the Notre-Dame de Paris (‘Adam Precentor‘, precentor being a high ranked church official, responsible for the organisation of liturgical music). In 1133 he donated his prebend to the Abbey of Saint-Victor (because of a conflict ? This remains unclear) and afterwards (1140?) he retired to the Abbey and became a canonical friar. He probably died ca. 1146. One often reads 1192 as the year of his death. This is based on conflation with Adam Brito (who has a tombstone at St. Victor’s).

As a tribute to Adam Precentor, 100% a poet 100% a musician, I transcribed (+ translations) two of his sequences and published them on my personal website: 1. his wonderful Easter sequence Mundi Renovatio and 2. an intricate text for Pentecost (or more precise: Trinitatis): Lux Jucunda, lux insignis

BTW, The number of hymns (sequences) attributed to him is lowered significantly compared to the early 20th century (now: 37, or with more leniency 47-50 poems). Still impressive. For this, see: Jean Grosfillier, Les séquences d’Adam de Saint-Victor: Étude littéraire (poétique et rhétorique), Brepols 2008.