I am 46 years old, and have been a Sister at the Community of Jesus for 26 years. Having grown up here, I have been singing Gregorian chant since I was 10! I was very blessed to study Gregorian chant with Dr. Mary Berry in Cambridge, England and here at home. Recently, I have been able to do some radio and tv interviews, sharing about the blessings of Gregorian chant. I love leading chant workshops, and have been able to do that in the US and abroad.
A group of Cantors at our community have been researching the history and roots of Gregorian Chant: a broad subject full of variety and many interesting angles. In reviewing this project I am reminded about the real purpose behind the centuries-old tradition and what has kept it alive and pertinent even today. I think we all know but sometimes forget the simple answer: to proclaim the Word.
It is easy to get caught up in minutia, rhetoric, and opinions and turn the subject of this form of worship into some sort of heady, scientific study. There is much to delve into in the learning of Gregorian chant, but in doing so let’s not forget its Life and simple purpose! This is really why it captures our hearts and has endured the test of time.
To share a few quotes from some of the Masters…
Chant is a question of bringing forth the music which the words already contain. —Dom Jacques Hourlier (1910-1984, Solesmes monk)
The predominance of vocal music as a tool grew out of the attitude of using music to convey ideas. The vocal song of the Temple drew from folksongs of the day. People would learn the melodies and text and bring them back to their homes (thus spreading the word). —A.Z. Idelsohn (1882-1938, Jewish musicologist and composer)
Gregorian chant presents itself as an art which continually undergoes change because it is alive.
—Dom Eugene Cardine (1905-1988, Solesmes monk & Gregorian chant specialist)
Chant is like a garden….you visit it dozens of times, but always see something new and fresh!
—Dr. Mary Berry (1917-2008, Augustinian canoness regular, choral conductor & musicologist)
Today we celebrate the Solemn Feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Here in our Community, one from the Benedictine monastic tradition, this is an especially significant day. We begin Vespers with a beautiful hymn written by Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072 AD), Benedictine reformer, and Doctor of the Church. Found in the Breviarum Monasticum, the hymn is written in Mode I and has a lovely lyrical tune which sets off the stunning poetry. Damian uses phrases such as “precious jewel of the heavenly king”, “your heart fixed on the stars,” and “you work through the narrow beginnings of a strict life” as he recounts the life of Benedict.
Each verse begins with a stepwise melody in the lower range, blossoms in the middle with leaps of 4ths and 5ths, and then settles back to a repeat of the opening phrase. It sticks to the typical features of Mode I – beginning and ending on Re and at points hovering around La. The clarity and simplicity are the perfect backdrop for the hymn text and a beautiful tribute to a man who influenced monasticism and thereby chant in such a significant way.
Missa De Angelis, or Mass VIII, is one of the best known Gregorian Chant Masses today. As with most of these Mass units the various pieces, Kyrie, Gloria, etc. were not composed together but rather grouped at a certain point in history, assigned a number and title. This particular Mass seems to have been gathered together in the 18th century, though the Kyrie is likely a 15th century Norman composition, the Gloria from the 16th century, the Sanctus again from Normandy in the 11th or 12th century and the Agnus Dei, 15th century, from the Rouen area of N. France. Most Masses are named for a “trope” that was sung before or after the mass, but this is one is unique and takes its name from the tradition of celebrating a Mass in honor of the Holy Angels on Mondays. This was a devotion especially practiced by the Franciscans.
It is interesting to see the characteristics of the various pieces here. The Kyrie and Gloria in Mode V and the Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Mode IV. The Kyrie and Sanctus, melismatic in style with the Gloria and Agnus Dei less so. And really with the exception of the Gloria it is not a “simple” mass so it is interesting that it has become one of the well-known favorites in many churches, not to mention one of the standard Masses used in the Vatican. Having been assigned as a “Festive Mass” I think there is a certain feeling of celebration attached to it and certainly we see that reflected in the chant throughout. For example the 12-note jubilus at the outset of the Kyrie, the continuous rise and fall of smaller melismas and repeated notes in the Sanctus, and the many torculae in the Agnus Dei. In celebration of the anniversary of the dedication of our church we sang this Mass on Sunday and it brought a real sense of joy to the morning.
This last week in preparation for Pentecost we practiced “Veni Sancte Spiritus” at our weekly chant class. By now this sequence is familiar to everyone in our Community and feels like an essential part of the celebration. Sometimes called the “Golden Sequence”, the text dates back to the 13th century and has been attributed to Pope Leo III, or maybe more likely Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1228.
While the poetry of this hymn is quite developed, with an interesting rhythmic and rhyming pattern, the music is quite simple, enhancing the text. There are 5 different musical phrases, each repeated twice. The piece covers a large range (more than an octave), with many of the phrases moving in scalar motion from top to bottom or bottom to top. For the most part we see syllabic writing with a few duple or triple neume patterns which gives a feeling of strength matching the powerful message: Come, Holy Spirit!
The overall visual shows a constant rise and fall to the extremes of the range in long phrases, and we also see large leaps of a sixth or even an octave at several of the cadence points. The prayer unfolds in a similar way: the rise and fall of a prayer calling to the Father, Son, and Spirit to console, refresh, cleanse, bend, melt, guide, all leading toward heavenly joy.
Looking at the Propers for Week VI of Easter, we see a shift in message this week as we approach Ascension and Pentecost. To this point we’ve heard texts such as: “Christ has arisen,” “I am the vine and you are the branches”, and “I am the Good Shepherd” — a focus on the joy of Easter and the presence of Jesus here with us. This Sunday we open the service with a text from Isaiah, hearkening back to Advent and Christmas: “With the voice of joy make this heard; publish to the utmost bounds of the earth that the Lord has freed his people.”
Let’s spend a moment with this introit, Vocem iucunditatis. At first glance we see a strong pattern of rising and falling — five phrases in all. The long sweeping lines lend themselves perfectly to the message “publish to the utmost bounds.…” And from start to finish we feel a certain energy — the “voice of joy” — rippling throughout with numerous torculi and qualismae. The piece, typical of mode III, hovers between do and ti, but in this case settles more on ti, giving us the feeling of confidence in this message. The alleluias, flying up and down at the end add a particular zest as they circle, leap and finally land on the home tone. It’s a sense excitement that seems forward looking as we approach the feast of Christ’s Ascension!
There is something comforting about the thought of the Good Shepherd, and this Sunday morning at the Church of the Transfiguration his presence seemed to be everywhere! Variations on the text from John 10 appeared in the Lauds the Gospel Antiphon, option B for the Alleluia, the Communion piece, and of course the Gospel reading at Eucharist. As we worked on the Communion piece in preparation for the service it seemed to embody all the best qualities of this story – a simple tune, a light and joyful sounding melody, and little outbursts of thanksgiving as the word Alleluia punctuated the end of each phrase.
A mode II piece, we see here the typical FA clef and a melody circling around FA at the opening and RE at the end. The use of liquesents throughout adds a kind of lilting quality, and the porrecti and torculi also give us a kind of bubbling and carefree sense. The composer seems to be telling us – don’t worry little sheep – we have a good shepherd and he’ll take care of everything! This is a thought I’d like to remember through the week…
It’s Eastertide! And along with the return of Alleluia we find some other changes in the repertoire for this season: an unexpected simplicity that makes us take notice. Looking through the various elements of liturgies we find many pieces in Mode VI during this season, for example the brief responses and various antiphons and Mass Propers. Mode VI has some typical characteristics: in general a narrow range and a very simple melodic form. This week we have two Propers in Mode VI: the Introit, Quasi modo geniti infantes, and the Communion, Mitte manum tuam.
It’s interesting that we find this simplicity introduced at such a “high” feast in our church year. What is our take-away? As we chanted these pieces on Sunday I experienced the perfect marriage of texts and scriptures—a theme of peace and reassurance. In the Communion piece Mitte manum, we hear the story of Jesus telling Thomas to touch him and see that he is real. It is set to a melody that is so simple it is almost recitative. The tune gives us a feeling of calm, peace, and forgiveness as Jesus says, “Reach out your hand and know the place of the nails, and do not doubt but believe, alleluia.” Typical of Mode VI the piece begins and ends on Fa. The piece begins with a phrase which is largely repetition on Fa balanced with a responding phrase in scalar syllabic writing, both offset with slightly ornamented Alleluias at the ends. A very clear narrative pointing out to us the message that Jesus is with us and we need not fear!
Today, we reach the 4th week of Lent which begins with the celebration of “Laetare Sunday.” This tradition dates back more than 1,000 years and is honored as a break from the penitential season on which people may take a day off from their “fasts” or other Lenten observances. The piece that gives the day its title is the introit Laetare Jerusalem (Rejoice, Jerusalem).
As I listened to the chanting of this piece this morning, I found much to enjoy and ponder. This Mode V introit has some unique and beautiful qualities. It does not open with the typical and triumphant major triad but rather with a porrectus – leaping a 4th and circling around sol – giving a slightly warmer feeling. This is followed by step-wise passages descending and ascending as we hear “rejoice Jerusalem.” Then the melody bubbles at the top of the range as the words continue with “come together.” From there the piece flows melismatically up and down with the text – many joyful torculae and porrectae (3 and 4 note neumes) expressing the words! We hear the flatted seventh (tau) throughout – an unusual quality, which seems to give depth and sweetness to the piece and helps us embrace the meaning.
The text calls to “all who love Jerusalem” and to “anyone who has been in sorrow” to “take up the song of rejoicing and be filled with consolation.” As we turn toward the rest of Lent and Holy Week may we keep this thought in our hearts!
Now that we are midway through Lent my mind is turning towards Holy Week and the Triduum. One of the real gems found in these liturgies is Ubi Caritas, chanted on Maundy Thursday, and often used to accompany the foot-washing ceremony.
The directions for this piece printed in the Graduale Romanum are lengthy and specific, suggesting alternating cantors, and choir responses. Typical of Mode VI it is simple in nature and it is that simplicity which so beautifully illuminates the text. Written by an unknown Italian author in the 9th-10th century, this hymnody-style poem about God’s love and charity between brethren provides the perfect backdrop to the memorial of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and the institution of the last supper.
The clip attached here is from Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola.
As we approach Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent this week, I’ve been looking at Mass XVIII – Missa pro defunctis, which we use during the Lenten season. While this is one of the “simpler” masses, it is also very beautiful and has been borrowed or expounded upon by composers over the ages – maybe one of the best known being Fauré in his Requiem.
It is interesting that although the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, were not composed together – not even within the same century, they have several similar qualities. For one, the narrow range is noteable. The Kyrie covers the distance of a 7th, the Sanctus a 5th and the Agnus Dei a mere 3rd! Looking through the entire repertoire of ordinary Masses we don’t find any other Mass with such a narrow range. We also see in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei almost entirely syllabic writing – adding to the feeling of humble simplicity.
Then we find a motive – a repeated pitch followed by a whole step – which appears both in the “eleison” of the Kyrie throughout, and twice at the start of the Sanctus. The reverse of that same motive is the intonation of the Agnus Dei – two repeated pitches followed by a whole step upwards! There is something comforting and calm about the way in which this motive weaves in and out and in the way the overall compositions seem to rise and fall. What is it about this music that lends itself so well to the season of Lent? Could it be connected to the thought of narrowing our focus or simplifying our lives? Maybe the chant itself will inform us of something in these next weeks…