Hymn for Saint Benedict’s Day

by Sister Fidelis

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.

A love song

by a Cantor

This next week’s communion antiphon – Gustate et videte – O taste and see that the Lord is good – is one of the most beloved and familiar of scripture texts and chants. In “Chants of the Vatican Gradual”, Dom Dominic Johner notes that this is the oldest communion chant to be found with its psalm in the liturgy of both eastern and western church. (as quoted by Jeffrey Tucker on The Chant Cafe).

The chant opens with a well-known and rather insistent incipit, with the repeated tristophas on the words videte quoniam on the pitch DO – see that – bringing our attention instantly to the word suavis – sweet! There are also teneres on quoniam which help heighten that focus. From that moment, the chant descends gently to a cadence on MI. The final phrase – Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord – has a melodic rise that moves up to LA as its “reciting” tone, again descending back down to MI. Here again, the composer was making a point. By making the chant rise to its highest point right at the beginning, there is no doubt that it is the Lord’s goodness receiving most emphasis and because of that, those who trust in Him are blessed.

Incline thine ear

by Cantor

The upcoming Communion antiphon Inclina aurem tuam (“Incline thine ear”) may indeed hold the title as the shortest Communion chant in the repertoire. I believe the brevity is quite intentional as the chant is a simple, decorated Mode IV recitation. The melody weaves continually between the pitches fa and la, giving a sense that the person praying may be rocking back and forth while making this supplication to the Lord. Perhaps the most touching moment is the way in which the composer highlighted the word accelera,  by placing a tenere over several of the notes thus purposefully slowing down the word which means to hurry! What a delightful way to underscore the prayer’s desire that the Lord hurry and listen.

 

 

Mass of the Angels

by Sister Fidelis

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.

The Immensity of God’s Throne

by Cantor

It is truly amazing what is both hidden but then revealed about scripture within chant. Often, we tend to look for such things only in the liturgical “seasons”, forgetting that Tempus Ordinario – “Ordered Time” – is in fact the longest of those seasons.
We find ourselves now entering the tenth week of Ordinary Time with the themes of the chant having to do with God’s protection, most beautifully said in the opening line of the introit “Dominus Illuminatio” – “The Lord is my light and my salvation; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 26:1-3) And it is this chant which sets the stage for the focus of this week’s blog – Alleluia, Deus, qui sedes super thronum – “Alleluia: The Lord who sits upon His throne.”

This Alleluia, a mode VII tune, opens briefly with a mode VIII intonation, but then quickly races further upward to the pitches re and fa, giving a sense of the mode VII intonation.This is intriguing, though it’s not particularly unusual as these two modes are closely related, as these sounds create a sense of “lift” before coming to rest on sol. The verse continues this same “lift” with both exact melodic repetition of the opening and then variation, climaxing in a melisma on the word thronum – “throne” – of no less than 74 notes! Equally astounding to its length is its range – a full 10th from bottom fa to upper la. There is no doubt remaining that this throne must belong to God who resides in height, depth, and everywhere in between!

It is fascinating to note that in this entire Alleluia, there are 95 notes prior to the referenced melisma and 103 pitches following. From just that quick glance, the melodic structure of the piece clarifies, revealing to the listener a most important symbol of the “most High” God. The final phrases are a melodic extension of the opening Alleluia Jubilus, carrying the text that it is this same God who is both just and the refuge of the poor. These phrases constitute one the longest and gentlest melodic descents in the chant repertoire, with no sudden turns – somewhat like a leaf gently falling to the ground on a cushion of undisturbed air. What better way to audibly reveal the justice and mercy of God.

Veni Sancte Spiritus

by Sister Fidelis

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.

The Three M’s

by Cantor

As we come to the Feast of Pentecost, the last of the principal liturgical feasts before returning to Ordinary Time, it seemed a good moment to reflect on the “Three M’s” of chant: Mode, Motive, and Meaning. As we have often discussed, mode and motive in chant marry for a primary purpose — illumination of scripture. A particularly potent example of this is the Pentecost Communion antiphon: Factus est repente (Suddenly, a sound from the sky).

Just as we heard at other liturgical times of heraldic entry (such as Puer natusest on Christmas Eve or Hosanna Filio David on Palm Sunday), Factus est repente opens with a resounding leap of a perfect 5th. In fact, it drops back down the same distance before leaping up that same 5th and then up another 3rd creating a composite leap of a 7th — a quick and striking way to grasp the entire range of this mode. What better way to speak of this “mighty rush of wind” hastily bridging the gap between Heaven and earth?! Then, the chant almost floats downward in conjunct flow, in strong contrast to the opening leaps. Perhaps this seemed the finest way of showing the descent of the Holy Spirit into the room where the disciples were sitting. In balance with the opening, a swirling melodic rise underpins the concluding scripture, “they all spoke in various tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The onomatopoetic sounds of this text describing the arrival of the Holy Spirit take on musical gestures, leaving almost indefinable imagery in our spirits.

 

Approaching Ascension

by Sister Fidelis

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!

“The most wonderful piece: Fantastic!”

by Cantor

You might wonder about the origin of the title for this week’s blog. It was actually a comment made by Mary Berry many years ago in reference to one of the most beautiful and virtuosic works in all of the chant repertory—the offertory for the fifth week of Easter:  Jubilate Deo!

The sheer length and range (an octave plus a 3rd!) of this chant tell us that this is a text of extraordinary importance. Falling within the Easter season just prior to the Feast of the Ascension, it is a full-throated outburst of praise. Twice, the opening text commands the entire world to praise the Lord. The chant follows suit, beginning in the lowest part of the mode, quickly swirling up a full octave. As the text repeats, the chant descends and rapidly rises again, this time surpassing the octave, rising an additional major 3rd. The third phrase, by comparison, is slightly truncated over the text, “Sing a psalm to His name,” though it follows the same melodic shape of the previous two, only slightly narrowed in range.

Quite suddenly, the chant leaps back up to its highest point at the text “Venite et audite et narrabo vobis” (Come and hear as I tell you what God has done). This phrase is constructed as a melodic mirror, perfectly balanced, highlighting the psalmists’ desire that everyone should hear of God’s goodness. A final melodic descent, dancing first around the note “la”  brings the chant to a gentle close as the psalmist offers one last statement of God’s goodness to his soul.

Now coming on ten years ago, I was privileged to stand and sing this chant for Mary Berry in an hour and a half of repetition, serving as “the choir” while one of my colleagues was critiqued on his conducting. That hour and a half was a true turning point in my life. I pray that you find equal blessing in this beautiful prayer.

Good Shepherd Sunday

by Sister Fidelis

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…