In uncritical ages, hymns, whether metrical or merely accentual, following the material form of those of St. Ambrose, were generally ascribed to him and were called "Ambrosiani". As now used, the term implies no attribution of authorship, but rather a poetical form or a liturgical use. Scholarship gives fourteen hymns certainly, three very probably, and one probably, to him.
The first actually to compose hymns was St. Hilary, who had spent in Asia Minor some years of exile from his see, and had thus become acquainted with the Syrian and Greek hymns of the Eastern Church. His Liber Hymnorum has not survived. Daniel, in his Thesaurus Hymnologicus mistakenly attributed seven hymns to Hilary, two of which were considered by hymnologists generally to have had good reason for the ascription, until Blume showed the error underlying the ascription. The two hymns have the metric and strophic cast peculiar to the authenticated hymns of St. Ambrose and to the hymns which were afterwards composed on the model.
Like St. Hilary, St. Ambrose was also a "Hammer of the Arians". Answering their complaints on this head, he says:
And St. Augustine speaks of the occasion when the hymns were introduced by Ambrose to be sung "according to the fashion of the East".
The rule of St. Benedict employed the term; and Walafridus Strabo notes that, while St. Benedict styled the hymns to be used in the canonical hours Ambrosianos, the term is to he understood as referring to hymns composed either by St. Ambrose or by others who followed his form; and, remarking further that many hymns were wrongly supposed to be his, thinks it incredible that he should have composed "some of them, which have no logical coherence and exhibit an awkwardness alien to the style of Ambrose". Daniel gives no less than ninety-two Ambrosiani, under the heading, however, of "S. Ambrosius et Ambrosiani", implying a distinction which for the present he cared not to specify more minutely.
The Maurists limited the number they would ascribe to St. Ambrose to twelve. Luigi Biraghi and Dreves raise the figure to eighteen. Kayser gives the four universally conceded to be authentic and two of the Ambrosiani which have claims to authenticity. Chevalier is criticised minutely and elaborately by Blume for his Ambrosian indications: twenty without reservation, seven "(S. Ambrosius)", two unbracketed but with a "?", seven with bracket and question-mark, and eight with a varied lot of brackets, question-marks, and simultaneous possible ascriptions to other hymnodists. We give here first of all the four hymns acknowledged universally as authentic:
With respect to the first three, St. Augustine quotes from them and directly credits their authorship to St. Ambrose. He appears also to refer to No. 4 (the third verse in whose fourth strophe is: Geminœ Gigas substantiœ) when he says: "This going forth of our Giant [Gigantis] is briefly and beautifully hymned by Blessed Ambrose ..." And Faustus, Bishop of Riez (A. D. 455), quotes from it and names the Saint as author, as does also Cassiodorus (died 575) in quoting the fourth strophe entire. Pope St. Celestine, in the council held at Rome in 430, also cites it as by St. Ambrose. Internal evidence for No. 1 is found in many verbal and phrasal correspondences between strophes 4-7 and the "Hexaëmeron" of the Saint. Of these four hymns, only No. 1 is now found in the Roman Breviary. It is sung at Lauds on Sunday from the Octave of the Epiphany to the first Sunday in Lent, and from the Sunday nearest to the first day of October until Advent. There are sixteen translations into English, of which that by Cardinal Newman is given in the Marquess of Bute's Breviary. No. 2 has eight English renderings; No. 3, two; No. 4, twenty-four.
The additional eight hymns credited to the Saint by the Benedictine editors are:
(5) "Illuminans altissimus"; (6) "Æterna Christi munera"; (7) "Splendor paternæ gloriæ"; (8) "Orabo mente Dominum"; (9) "Somno refectis artubus"; (10) "Consors paterni luminis"; (11) "O lux beata Trinitas"; (12) "Fit porta Christi pervia". The Roman Breviary parcels No. 6 out into two hymns: for Martyrs (beginning with a strophe not belonging to the hymn (Christo profusum sanguinem); and for Apostles (Æterna, Christi munera). The translations of the original text and of the two hymns formed from it amount to twenty-one in number. No. 7 is assigned in the Roman Breviary to Monday at Lauds, from the Octave of the Epiphany to the first Sunday in Lent and from the Octave of Pentecost to Advent. It has twenty-five translations in English. Nos. 9, 10, 11 are also in the Roman Breviary. (No. 11, however, being altered into "Jam sol recedit igneus". It has thirty-three translations into English, comprising those of the original text and of the adaptation.) Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12 have verbal or phrasal correspondences with acknowledged hymns by the Saint. Their translations into English are: No. 9, fifteen; No. 10, nine; No. 11, thirty-three; No. 12, two. No. 5 has three English translations; No. 6, one; No. 7, twenty-five. No. 8 remains to be considered. The Maurists give it to the Saint with some hesitation, because of its prosodial ruggedness, and because they knew it not to be a fragment (six verses) of a longer poem, and the (apparently) six-lined form of strophe puzzled them. Daniel pointed out (Thes., I, 23, 24; IV, 13) that it is a fragment of the longer hymn (in strophes of four lines), "Bis ternas horas explicans", and credits it without hesitation to the Saint. In addition to the four authentic ones already noted, Biraghi gives Nos. 5, 6, 7, and the following:
(8) "Nunc sancte nobis spiritus"; (9) "Rector potens, verax Deus"; (10) "Rerum Deus Tenax Vigor"; (11) "Amore Christi nobilis"; (12) "Agnes beatæ virginis"; (13) "Hic est dies verus Dei"; (14) "Victor Nabor, Felix pii"; (15) "Grates tibi Jesu novas"; (16) "Apostolorum passio"; (17) "Apostolorum supparem"; (18) "Jesu corona virginum".
This list receives the support of Dreves (1893) and of Blume (1901). The beautiful hymns Nos. 8, 9, 10 are those for Terce, Sext, None, respectively, in the Roman Breviary, which also assigns No. 18 to the office of Virgins. The Ambrosian strophe has four verses of iambic dimeters (eight syllables), e. g. —
Out of 150 hymns in the eleventh-century Benedictine hymnals, for example, not a dozen are in other metres; and the Ambrosian Breviary re-edited by Charles Borromeo in 1582 has its hymns in that metre almost exclusively. It should be said, however, that even in the days of St. Ambrose the classical metres were slowly giving place to accentual ones, as the work of the Saint occasionally shows; while in subsequent ages, down to the reform of the Breviary under Urban VIII, hymns were composed most largely by accented measure.