I have been a cantor for over 25 years and an organist for most of my life. Chanting with people at home and across the country is one of my greatest joys. I remember the days of staring at the section of our undergraduate music text thinking to myself "what are all those dots and WHY do I need to know about them?!" Now, 33 years later, I am so grateful that those "dots" have helped teach me many things about God and His love!
It is with great excitement that we look forward to Week 2 of year A in the 3-year liturgical cycle. WHY? What a seemingly random date!
This is the moment in the liturgical cycle that the extraordinary offertory Jubilate Deo, universa terra, appears in Ordinary Time. Mary Berry referred to this offertory as “the most wonderful piece-fantastic!” Truly, it is one of the finest examples in all of the Gregorian repertory of a joyous text released and exploded through sheer melodic curvature and development.
In 2007, several of our cantors had the extraordinary privilege of chanting and studying chant with Dr Berry in her home for the entire summer. Everyone had to present a “long term” project. at the end of the summer. Whoever presented the project had to ask another one of us to be the “guinea pig” cantor. I got to be that “guinea pig” for the cantor presenting the Jubilate Deo offertory. So, for 90 minutes straight, I chanted this offertory repeatedly, while Dr. Berry modified the presenter’s conducting. That was an experience never to be forgotten! Not only did both of us have the joy of learning the work in great detail, but by force of nature, learned it by heart. For any who have the chance, learn this work by heart – it will be an absolute treasure to you.
Tonight is our annual vow service. It is one of the most beautiful nights of the year. The church, still clothed in Epiphany garb, glows with the warmth of candle light. The vowed Community, robed with white scapulars, fill the seats on either side of the aisle the candidates will walk. And the candidates exude a light that comes with saying, “Yes.”
Everything about the service is moving, from the hymns, to the speaking of the vows, to the moment where the candidates prostrate him or herself at the foot of the altar in a moment of total vulnerability and surrender. It’s an event where the ever-moving stream of history is almost palpable and the unity with monastics across time and space is humbling to say the least. And it is a moment that reminds each of us of our own call.
One of the most beautiful moments is the chanting of the Suscipe — an ancient and traditional Gregorian chant for the final vows in a Benedictine community. The newly vowed sings it once on their own and then, in a chorus of support, the entire vowed community repeats it. It is as though, through the Latin text, we are pledging to stand with the newly professed, and they with us — a bond of obedience and dependence on God. And we sing it, knowing we will stumble, that sometimes we will want to quit, and that sometimes, we just need to stand still.
“Suscipe me Domine, secundum eloquium tuum et vivam; et non confundas me, ab expectatione mea.”
Uphold me, Lord, according to your word, and do not disappoint me in my hope.
Late last evening, I attended a schola rehearsal in which a men’s group was preparing the Alleluia for Epiphany (Vidimus Stellam). They worked in earnest but the rehearsal did not seem to progress. We put the rehearsal on “pause” to see what we could do to change the course of this practice session.
Almost without a breath, everyone realized they had not discussed and ingested the text enough to inspire them to truly grapple with the chant and its meaning. Within moments, multiple ideas were flying around the room concerning the story of the three ancient seers who had spent years in preparation for this one fantastic moment of seeing the Christ Child. Suddenly, the rehearsal sprang to life! Now we had the inspiration to do the work needed to bring this chant “off the page.”
This was a good reminder to all of us that chant is first and foremost, drawn from the very sounds of the words which it upholds. And, in order to truly understand the chant, we must first know its text intimately. It is that understanding which under-girds our chanting and gives us genuine inspiration.
We have seen his star in the East, and we have come with our gifts, to worship the Lord.
(from Matthew 2)
As many of us know, it is Great Advent! The week of O Antiphons. And tonight’s antiphon is O Clavis David — O Key of David. All week long, Paraclete Press is offering a beautiful, daily meditation on these Gregorian chant treasures, along with a sound clip, a coloring page, and a modern day interpretation from poet Regina Walton. We invite you to follow this link, and take a quiet moment to reflect on today’s words. To follow along for the rest of the week, “like” Paraclete Press on Facebook, and check your feed every morning for the next O Antiphon!
We had a very interesting talk in our schola rehearsal concerning the nature of the Advent II Propers for Eucharist. It seemed that the chants were not just gently speaking to us, but rather, yelling to us to pay attention! No matter whether it was the introit with its bold declamation of, “People of Sion, the Lord comes to save the Gentiles,” or the Communion antiphon Jerusalem surge with its musical command that Jerusalem should, “Stand up!”, the opening of each chant says it all:
Many of our chant schola members either have teenage children or have worked with them and everyone seemed to agree that these chants sounded like they were addressing “sleepy teens” who just didn’t quite want to get up for school!
Though it may sound funny, that imagery worked! Everyone immediately understood and the chant swept into an entirely new life and sound! Amazing it is that chant is so profound and simple that it can touch the most commonplace areas of everyday life while speaking of the God’s truth and love!
We often hear the phrase “chant is so peaceful.” Certainly, many chants do have an inherent sense of peace about them. But not all of them — sometimes the chant demands our attention, insisting that we stand up and listen!
Last week, the communion antiphon at the Church of the Transfiguration began with the text “Amen, dico vobis.” Translated, that means “So be it, I say to you.” These words of Jesus are not set to a gentle recitation but rather burst forth on a trumpet-like motive that leaves no room for doubt that we need to listen to Jesus’ words that follow.
All week, I found myself “hearing” that trumpet motive from other times of the church year. In fact that same sound occurs in the communion for Pentecost — “Factus est repente de caelo sonus” (A mighty sound came rushing out of Heaven); the introit for Christmas Day mass — “Puer natus est” (A boy is born unto us); the procession for Palm Sunday — “Hosanna, Filio David” (Hosanna to the Son of David), to name a few. In moments, I had been taken through much of the church year, reminded by a simple musical motive of the Kingship of Christ.
Last week, we experienced the final days and funeral mass of one of our beloved monastic community members. Amazing it was to have such a celebration right at the time of the Feast of All Saints!
However, what truly struck me was the chant that is part of the reception of the body just prior to the vigil service: “Suscipe me Domine” (Uphold me, O Lord).
This same “Suscipe” which is chanted prior to funeral vigils is also chanted at the service of monastic vows. So, the same prayer we offer at the beginning of our “monastic journey” is also offered at the time we conclude that journey here on earth. Its simple, syllabic melody highlights a statement of profound truth and consequence from Psalm 119 – a child-like request for God’s promised care. The sheer “tunefulness” of this chant is its most beautiful secret which allows us to easily learn it by heart. So in chanting this scripture, we join with others in taking their vows and, in the end, chant on their behalf, as well as our own, as they begin their new life in Heaven.
We have just experienced the most amazing of weeks in the liturgical year — Holy Week leading to Easter.
The chants composed for this week audibly take us through each of the various parts of the week. Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was heralded by one of the most famous of all chants, Hosanna, Filio David (Hail, Son of David!). Maundy Thursday, on which Christ gives “a new commandment,” was characterized by the chanting of Ubi Caritas (Where true love is, God himself is there.) > On Good Friday we had the ancient Gospel Passion chanted for the Veneration of the Cross. Holy Saturday opened with the well-known response Lumen Christi (Christ, Light of the World), followed by the Exultet in which the history of our salvation was chanted. Ultimately, we heard chanted the most famous Gregorian Hymn — Victimae Paschali Laudes (Christ, the Paschal Victim) to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection!
This is the richest time in the entire church year for which Gregorian chant does her most beautiful work of illuminating Christ’s life.
Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we entered into Holy Week, in which our greatest remembrance is the Passion of Christ. One of the most ancient of all chants — the chanted Passion according to St. John — reflects this remembrance. This gospel passion has been chanted for centuries on Good Friday, first being noted in the scriptures with nothing more than symbols indicating those parts chanted by Christ, those by other characters (such as the “turba” or crowd, or Pilate) and finally, a narrator.
Here is a perfect example of the ancient tradition of chanting scripture to “lift it up.” God’s word was meant to be sung in order to help reflect the depth of its meaning.
There is no other chant that carries more weight — more spiritual “gravitas” — than the chanted Passion narrative. It is perhaps one of the simplest chant recitations, yet it carries some of the greatest truths. I think that that is the real lesson inside of this particular chant: its sheer simplicity is the very thing that seems to let it bring forth the incredible beauty of the Good Friday Passion.
This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion. It carries incredible drama and meaning as it announces the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem, and sets the stage for all that happens in the ensuing days.
We will be heralded into the service by one of the most famous of all Gregorian chants — Hosanna Filio David! (Hosanna to the Son of David). This introit chant opens with the famous “trumpet call” motive which we have explored over the course of the past few months. In fact, it bears extraordinary resemblance to the chant which opens Christmas morning mass — Puer Natus est (A Boy is Born). The sound of the chant reminds us that Jesus is King. However, its liturgical placement reminds us that this King came as a child and was welcomed into Jerusalem by children as well as adults. I find myself amazed that this chant is able to give us such beautiful parallels, bringing to mind the innocence and humility of the King of Heaven.