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.
This week Jim Jordan and Sr. Evangeline, two of our cantors, were invited to share about Gregorian Chant on a the EWTN radio program “Morning Glory”. They will be featured on radio programs on EWTN, speaking about Gregorian chant, all month long! Enjoy this clip from this week’s program.
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…
Over the past few weeks, we have been talking about the chants found in OrdinaryTime, from Monday after Epiphany to the day before Ash Wednesday and Monday after Pentecost to the day before the first Sunday of Advent. However, the word “ordinary” (which refers to “an ordering” in the liturgical definition) means something quite different to many of us when used in everyday language such as “commonplace” or even “humdrum.” We have certainly seen that the chants of Ordinary Time are anything but dull!
This morning, the term Ordinary Time took on a broader meaning to me. As I was watching our children’s Winter Percussion unit do their daily warm-up, I noted that the music to which they did their exercises was extraordinarily lovely. In fact, it was even strangely familiar! I began to listen more closely and realized that I was listening to a composition based on Dies Irae chant from the Requiem Mass married with the Eastern Orthodox chant Gloria Patri. I don’t know who the composer was for this particular orchestral arrangement, but it was both tastefully composed and moving to hear.
Here I was in an everyday, “ordinary” circumstance and what was I hearing but chant. It’s no revelation that chant has been a source of inspiration for centuries of composers, but it struck me that chant occurs not only in everyday time but everyday events. That realization is one which I will treasure. It reminds me that chant does not just impact our liturgies but also our daily lives.
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.
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.
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.