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.
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…
At Sunday Eucharist, the women’s chant group sang a lovely and unusual sounding Alleluia. It was the Alleluia for week six of Ordinary Time. We hear it every year but it is noticeably a-typical and, in fact, there are no ancient neumes to reference as an interpretive guide! This Alleluia did appear in three different early manuscripts which show only the text. So who really knows the composer or origin of this melody?
The piece opens with a leap of a 5th. That may not seem noteworthy, but if you look through the Gradual you will see that, in general, Alleluias never begin with an interval larger than a 3rd. It is even more common for them to begin with step-wise motion, so this sort of “trumpet call” really catches our attention! Following the leap is then a lovely descending pattern cascading right back to the starting pitch and dipping one step below it. A similar pattern repeats seven times throughout the piece in contrast with a small counter phrase which descends by a fourth. Typical of Mode I, the chant has a slightly “minor” sound mixed in with these open fifth “trumpet calls” causing it to sound ancient, alive and joyful!
Sometimes it’s just really nice to have Ordinary Time. Nothing special or elaborate, just the familiar and routine.
At these times in the Church year I really enjoy the routine of singing the psalmody with the regular antiphons and modes that we’ve sung for years and years. There’s something calming or reassuring about taking part in a tradition much bigger than yourself, and while of course that also includes special feasts and celebratory chant, it seems like the day-to-day repetition of these chants must give them a certain special strength and solid grounding. I think of monks and nuns over the centuries rising early in the morning, or in the middle of the night, or stopping in their workday and singing these very same Psalms with the very same antiphons and it’s kind of amazing! At our community we go through the rotation of Psalms in one month. Benedict’s community did this in one week, and certain desert fathers are said to have sung through all the Psalms every day!
We can take for example the Antiphon for Tuesday Lauds, “Salutare vultus mei Deus meus,” paired with Psalm 43. Here is a mode VI antiphon beginning on the very same pitches as the actual psalm intonation itself. A simple melody, it begins and ends on the home-tone, fa, and keeps to the very narrow range of a fifth. In a straightforward way it states its message: You are my Salvation, Lord my God. The antiphon marries perfectly in its melody and text with the Psalm that follows, and the “naturalness” of this chant allows us to easily move into a state of prayer and focus on the message. I think it is “little” chants just such as these that have kept the solid foundation over centuries.
Tomorrow, February 2, we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation. One of the best-known pieces from this feast is Lumen ad revelationem gentium, (“A light to enlighten the Gentiles”), a very simple mode VII antiphon, paired up with the verses of the Nunc dimittis.
This is one of my favorite Gregorian chant antiphons and brings back two very clear memories. My first introduction was in a class with Dr. Mary Berry at age 10. Dr. Berry herself created an indelible impression — a stately white-haired woman, arms gesturing, as she peered over her glasses and led us in song. We were caught up in the stories and history she told — a magical world to 10-year-olds. She had us all happily marching up and down the church, arms up and down in patterns of 2s and 3s, and the piece and the moment and the stories were all burned into our childhood memories….
Years later in a church in Italy some of our Brothers were asked to chant on the Feast of the Presentation. In a small ancient church in Tuscany we watched as they joined the procession of priests, deacons, acolytes, and various children, following the cross to the altar and chanting. The Brothers stood in their robes front of the altar with billows of incense rising around them…Lumen ad revelationem gentium…another moment out of time.
And then we come to the true moment for this piece and the story is even more wonderful — a man named Simeon and a prophetess meeting the Messiah and his parents in the temple. Ancient prophecies fulfilled and new prophesies spoken, mysteries, prayers, praises…
The simplicity of this music is interesting for such a special moment — a narrow range and almost completely syllabic. Sometimes it seems that mysteries bring us to a simple and childlike frame of mind. We come like a baby, simply being carried into this moment of God meeting man. May we each take a moment to remember our child-likeness on this Feast of the Presentation.
This week our women’s chant group has been practicing an Alleluia for next Sunday, Ordinary Week 4: Alleluia Adorabo ad templum sanctum tuum: et confitebor nomini tuo (I will adore [bow down to] you in the temple and praise your name).
We’ve done all sorts of exploration personally and as a group – everything from speaking the text aloud, singing it silently in our heads, to finding an image or vignette that brings it to life. It’s a wonderfully expressive Mode VII piece, peppered with leaps of 4ths and 3rds.
Right from the start we can visualize the story: Adorabo – I will adore – rises up and then cascades down like a person in prayer rising and falling in worship. The thought continues up and down like a prayer “in your holy temple.” The next phrase starts simply and low, and suddenly becomes the focus of the pieces as the composer uses no less than 57 notes to express the word, “Praise!” The word bubbles, turns, and twists with joy! (This of course takes work on our part to move it along with energy, unity and purpose in order to express it adequately.) And then the final part – “your name” – another beautiful melismatic rise and fall settles us back to the home tone at the end.
Many of us are familiar with “Gaudete Sunday” (the 3rdSunday of Advent) and the Introit for which the day was named: Gaudete in Domino semper, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” This Sunday has traditionally been a special day set apart specifically to celebrate God’s goodness in his coming.
Our Gregorian chant group has had a great time preparing this introit, including discussions about the meaning and how it is married with the melody. The entire piece is sprinkled with short melismas bubbling around in step-wise or small intervallic leaps. There is a sort of rippling energy which flows through the piece – Rejoice! Rejoice! It starts lower in the range, grows to a couple higher points, climaxing at “have no anxiety about anything,” and then closes with a slightly lower intimate tune as we sing “but in everything by prayer and petitions make your requests known to God.” A wonderful reminder that God comes to each of us in the midst of whatever dark or difficult moments we may be experiencing, bringing light to our darkness; our reason to rejoice!
I just returned from a weekend “Chant Retreat” in Barga, Italy — two days of sharing together, preparing for Advent. Once again we experienced the incredible way in which this prayer can unite us in spite of language or cultural barriers. The retreat was held in both English and Italian, but really since all the chanting was in Latin we shared that common ground.
We began by singing the Salve Regina. Everyone in Italy knows this piece by heart, and no matter what their current connection with God or the church, singing these words together seems to bring a feeling of family. After this we studied some basic points of Gregorian chant, learned the De Angelis Mass and a Vespers service. Another wonderful point of meeting was that so many in Italy still have this Mass in their childhood memory so when we sang it in church that Sunday, the priest and much of the congregation joined right in!
Unlike many of our retreats in the US, the Italians were more interested in being together than studying and in that way it was a nice time of community as we learned, explored, listened. One of the poignant moments was just listening to some chants about Mary and “coloring” as we listened. No heady brainwork — just letting it wash over us as prayer.
It seems we all came away from the time renewed in some way and though we gained some knowledge about chant, it seemed to be more about experiencing the life it can give as we spend time with it — a good thing to ponder as we begin Advent…
Don’t you love it when you open your book to the reading or psalm or devotional allotted for that day and it spells out just exactly what you were feeling that morning? It’s one of those “WOW” moments when you realize, “Only God could have known I needed to hear this!”
That’s how I felt when I opened to the Introit for this week: “Ego clamavi, quoniam exaudisti me, Deus: inclina aurem tuam, et exaudi verba mea…” (I have called for you have heard me, O God: incline your ear unto me, and hearken unto my words: keep me, O Lord, as the apple of an eye: hide me under the shadow of your wings.)
This introit in mode III not only employs this very strong text from Psalm 17 but the melody paints the picture as we go. “I have cried…” — the notes leap in large intervals from the bottom of the staff to the very top line, hovering around the top for a bit as we remind God, “for YOU WILL HEAR ME!” Moving on the the phrase “incline your ear” is a bit more tender as we ask God to bend near to us, but grows in strength quickly leading up in pitch and strength of text, “hear my speech”. The antiphon goes on in this manner settling finally and more peacefully at the end with “hide me under the shadow of your wings”.
What a great reminder to all of us as we start off this week.
Last week, two of us from our cantors group had a tremendous opportunity to talk about chant on Boston’s Catholic Television station. At the station’s request, we spent time talking about the the Gregorian chants associated with the Blessed Mother. Before the show began, the two hosts and the producer were incredibly gracious, putting us at ease with the sense that we were “just getting together for coffee with old friends.”
And, for six minutes, that is exactly what it was! Here we were, two cantors with two television hosts brought together by a mutual love for chant. When asked what types of chants they would find within these Marian chants, we answered that here were some of the most beloved, familiar chants — chants which many people would have known most of their lives — including all of us!
I think this is an experience worth recounting not because it was a television show, but because what drew us together was the chant. The entire reason for meeting, talking, and remembering was all because of chant in the life of the Church – particularly those in honor of Blessed Mary. In the end, the chant brought us new friendships which have the love of chant as their beginning. I cannot think of a better way to begin a friendship!
This past weekend I had the opportunity to co-lead a chant class for a group visiting on retreat. We reviewed various parts of the Sunday Lauds service. As we scanned through the pieces for the day, the canticle antiphon jumped out at me: Tres pueri iussu regis – an antiphon about the three boys in the fiery furnace.
This piece is one of those little gems — a small story backed up with scenery painted in neumes. The antiphon starts off simply like a recitation introducing the three boys, but then immediately leaps up and back down in two consecutive triads upon the introduction of the furnace (alarming thought!). Next we have a more sustained and solid scaler passage going down with the words “they did not fear the flames of fire” (they weren’t rattled!). And then the piece ends triumphantly with notes dancing up and back down as the boys said “Blessed be God!”
We all enjoyed spending a little time with this reminder of the goodness of God!