St Augustine described the musical structure of the hymn Deus creator omnium by St
Ambrose (c.337-397) in a section of his Confessiones when discussing how to measure the
passing of time. The poetic metre of the hymn is iambic dimeter in four-line stanzas. An
iamb is one type of poetic 'foot' in classical poetry: it comprises one short syllable followed by
one long syllable. Each line of Deus creator omnium comprises four such iambs, as shown.
♦ ▬ ♦ ▬ || ♦ ▬ ♦ ▬
De- us cre- a- tor om- ni- um
English translation: Philip Schaffe et al, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,
Series I, Vol I, Confessions, book XI, chapter XXVII, 1885.
from De musica, book VI, chapter II
English: Gregorian Rhythm in the Gregorian Centuries, Dom Gregory Murray OSB, 1957
Augustine did not refer to ratios of 9:8 or 5:4 or 4:3 or 3:2, but only a 2:1 ratio. He made no
mention of syllables being one a half times as long, or two and a half times as long, and
relies confidently on his own perception of single to double. It would be Guido d'Arezzo who
would eventually introduce such ratios into the historical record in relation to Latin chant,
ratios which would then be commented on and not related to the individual duration of single
syllables or notes.
Deus Creator omnium; this verse [recte:
line] of eight syllables alternates between
short and long syllables. The four short,
then, the first, third, fifth and seventh,
are single in respect of the four long, the
second, fourth, sixth, and eighth. Each
of these hath a double time to every one
of those. I pronounce them, report on
them, and thus it is, as is perceived by
common sense. By common sense, then, I
measure a long by a short syllable, and I
find that it has twice as much. ... Both
have sounded, have flown, have passed
away, and are no longer; and still I
measure, and I confidently answer (so far
as is trusted to a practised sense), that as
to space of time this syllable is single,
that double. Nor could I do this, unless
because they have passed, and are ended.
Therefore do I not measure themselves,
which now are not, but something in my
memory, which remains fixed.
Master ... When we pronounce the line
Deus creator omnium, where in your
opinion are the four iambs and the twelve
tempora of which it is composed? Are they
only in the sound we hear? Or also in the
ears of the hearer? Or also in the action of
the person who utters the words? Or, since
we already know the line, must we admit
that these rhythms are also in our memory?
Pupil: I think they are in all these things.
Deus creator omnium: versus iste octo
syllabarum brevibus et longis alternat
syllabis. Quattuor itaque breves,
prima, tertia, quinta, septima,
simplae sunt ad quattuor longas,
secundam, quartam, sextam,
octavam. hae singulae ad illas
singulas duplum habent temporis:
pronuntio et renuntio et ita est, quantum
sentitur sensu manifesto. quantum
sensus manifestus est, brevi syllaba
longam metior eamque sentio habere
bis tantum. ... Ambae sonuerunt,
avolaverunt, praeterierunt, iam non sunt.
et ego metior fidenterque respondeo,
quantum exercitato sensu fiditur, illam
simplam esse, illam duplam, in spatio
scilicet temporis. neque hoc possum,
nisi quia praeterierunt et finitae sunt.
non ergo ipsas quae iam non sunt, sed
aliquid in memoria mea metior, quod
M ... responde, si videtur, cum istum
versum pronuntiamus, Deus creator
omnium, istos quatuor iambos quibus
constat, et tempora duodecim ubinam
esse arbitreris, id est, in sono tantum qui
auditur, an etiam in sensu audientis qui
ad aures pertinet, an in actu etiam
pronuntiantis, an quia notus versus est,
in memoria quoque nostra hos numeros
esse fatendum est?
D. In his omnibus puto.