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…

A Groundswell of “Alleluia”

by Cantor

Cognoverunt Discipuli (“The disciples recognized the Lord”) is the Alleluia text for Week III of the Easter season. Occurring on the Sunday of the “Walk to Emmaus“, this Alleluia is defined by a melody which starts as a swirl in the bottom part of the mode before quickly shooting upwards. Equally colorful is the moment at which this same “swirl” occurs in the verse. In this very narrative piece one can almost hear (and see!) Jesus lifting His arms to break the loaf of bread. These melodic curves are not just gentle waves but rather huge, sweeping swells, created by quick succession of patterns rising or falling the distance of a perfect 4th. The setting of the word “fractionis” with its melodic repetition draws out the alliterative nature of the word, the sounds of “fr” and “ct”, giving us the sounds crackling of breaking dry bread. In addition to the emotional excitement of this chant, it is an excellent example of the process of “centonization” – the process of composing a chant – with repetition of patterns based on text meaning.

Here again, right in the middle of the Easter season, we find ourselves chanting a piece with all the excitement of Easter morning itself. Again, we find in the chant an unexpected  gem which offers to us that same recognition of Jesus as the disciples experienced.

Simple Trust

by Sister Fidelis

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!

 

 

 

Victory Chant!

by Cantor

The title of this week’s blog might lead you to believe we might be talking about the explosive cheers following the winning of a sports championship.
 

In its own way, the Easter chant sequence hymn, Victimae Paschali Laudes, is exactly that! And why not? Christ himself fought with all his might against those enemies which would destroy us–and He won!
 

Thought to have been penned by Wipo of Burgundy somewhere around 1048, this is one of our most ancient chants still in such wide spread usage. Its extraordinary range and “march-like” character give it the same verve as an early American camp hymn, expressing both faith questioned and faith reborn. Perhaps for these reasons this chant has had more influence and impact than any other in the last thousand years of western music, finding its way into works from Josquin, to Mathias. Most recently, it was the subject of an organ improvisation by Daniel Roth, the organist of St. Sulpice in Paris, following in the great tradition of French organ improvisation.

What better way to celebrate Easter than with a true chant of victory that has united us through so many centuries of celebration of Christ’s Resurrection!

The Passion Narrative

by Cantor

The chanted Passion of St. John is among the most ancient chants for Good Friday, in which are recounted Jesus’s final steps before offering His greatest gift of love. As together we enter the Paschal Triduum, please accept this as our gift to you for a blessed Triduum and Easter!

The Entry of the King

By Cantor

This coming Sunday, we celebrate Palm Sunday, remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The traditional chant which opens the celebration is  one of the most famous in the repertoire: Hosanna, filio David — Hosanna to the Son of David! The opening upward sweep of this chant is unique, suggesting a celebratory call announcing an event of great importance and impact:

HosannaFilioDavid

We heard that same upward sweep not long ago on Christmas in Puer natus est nobis — A boy is born to us:

puer natus

Here we see — or rather, hear — one of the most extraordinary qualities of chant: its ability to teach by simply offering a sound in relationship to a particular text. Just as the Palm Sunday chant gives musical depiction to the “entry of the King”, so the Christmas chant tells us the same, the entry of the “infant King” Jesus into this world. What an elegant manner in which to teach such a basic and simple truth, that this man on the donkey is the same person born 33 years earlier in Bethlehem.

Laetare Sunday

by Sister Fidelis

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!

LaetareJerusalemSkitch

Ubi Caritas

By Sister Fidelis

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.