This is the only non-biblical canticle in the English Prayer Book and is placed between the lessons from the Old and New Testaments in the Office of Mattins. It is of great antiquity, traditionally ascribed to Saint Ambrose but its origin is unknown. The first musical setting of it dates from the 5th century.
It is the great hymn of triumphant Praise in the Western Church. Some scholars detect similarity in part to the Apostles’ Creed but most see the first section as analogous to part of the Divine Liturgy. The origin of this form of worship is that of the Temple of the Old Testament in which there had been a tradition to invoke, to thank and to praise the Lord with music (1Chron.16.4). The Psalmist declared: “I will sing and make melody to the Lord” (Ps27.6); “Sing to him, sing praises to him” (Ps.105.2); “O Praise God in his holiness” (Ps150.1) and in many other places.
This is the Biblical background in which Cranmer undoubtedly regarded the Te Deum and saw his morning office in the tradition of the Levites whose first duty was “To invoke, to thank and to praise the Lord”. They made music when the Temple was consecrated singing “with one voice”, and then the presence of the Lord came; the cloud of the Glory of the Lord filled the temple (2Chron.5.11-14). The radiant Glory of the Presence of God was known as the Shekinah (‘the indwelling’). This was experienced on numerous occasions most notably in the seraphic visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel in which the thrice-holy hymn was heard. There are striking similarities to the Book of Revelation: the multitude around the heavenly throne singing ‘Holy Holy Holy’; the Lamb on the throne ‘standing as though it had been slain’ (Rev.5.6) etc. All this is depicted in the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ a copy of which rests in the North wall of the chancel of Colemere Church. This is still to be found in the ancient liturgies of the Eastern Church of which we know Cranmer had copies in Greek and Latin. This is followed by a great song of praise from apostles, prophets, martyrs and the whole Church to the Blessed Trinity after which Christ is addressed directly with a passage similar to the Apostles’ Creed. This great paean ends with prayer to God in Christ. The final verses are a later addition that seem to have originated as versicles and responses.
It is unclear as to who translated the version in the Book of Common Prayer whether Cranmer or Coverdale (the translator of the Psalms). There are, however, a couple of mistranslations of the Latin which slightly detract from the beauty of the original: “the noble army” (Te Mártyrum candidátus) should be “the radiant whiterobed army”, (Rev.6.9-11); v.16 should be “When for our deliverance Thou tookest on Thee the nature of man,” a clear declaration of the Incarnation.
In the Office of Mattins it provides the ideal link between the Lessons of the Old Testament and the New. Down the centuries the Te Deum has been used on many occasions, such as Coronations, often set to magnificent music, as the great festal expression of Christian Thanksgiving and Praise. One memorable occasion was the centenary of the Consecration of Welshampton Church in 1963 when at the conclusion of the service the congregation stood as the choir turned to face East and unforgettably rendered “We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord &c”.
If you ever have opportunity to attend Matins and sing the Te Deum, please do. It is a beautiful service, truly peaceful and quietly uplifting.
If you would like to listen to and follow the words of the Te Deum, we have provided a link below to William Walton’s “Coronation Te Deum”, as sung at the Coronation of King Charles III, 2023.
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Feature Image: ‘Ghent Altarpiece’