Over the past few weeks, we have been talking about the chants found in Ordinary Time, 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!
By Sister Fidelis
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!
by Sister Fidelis
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.
by Sister Fidelis
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.
Tonight is our annual vow service. It is one of the most beautiful nights of the year. The church, still clothed in Epiphany garb, glows with the warmth of candle light. The vowed Community, robed with white scapulars, fill the seats on either side of the aisle the candidates will walk. And the candidates exude a light that comes with saying, “Yes.”
Everything about the service is moving, from the hymns, to the speaking of the vows, to the moment where the candidates prostrate him or herself at the foot of the altar in a moment of total vulnerability and surrender. It’s an event where the ever-moving stream of history is almost palpable and the unity with monastics across time and space is humbling to say the least. And it is a moment that reminds each of us of our own call.
One of the most beautiful moments is the chanting of the Suscipe — an ancient and traditional Gregorian chant for the final vows in a Benedictine community. The newly vowed sings it once on their own and then, in a chorus of support, the entire vowed community repeats it. It is as though, through the Latin text, we are pledging to stand with the newly professed, and they with us — a bond of obedience and dependence on God. And we sing it, knowing we will stumble, that sometimes we will want to quit, and that sometimes, we just need to stand still.
“Suscipe me Domine, secundum eloquium tuum et vivam; et non confundas me, ab expectatione mea.”
Uphold me, Lord, according to your word, and do not disappoint me in my hope.
Late last evening, I attended a schola rehearsal in which a men’s group was preparing the Alleluia for Epiphany (Vidimus Stellam). They worked in earnest but the rehearsal did not seem to progress. We put the rehearsal on “pause” to see what we could do to change the course of this practice session.
Almost without a breath, everyone realized they had not discussed and ingested the text enough to inspire them to truly grapple with the chant and its meaning. Within moments, multiple ideas were flying around the room concerning the story of the three ancient seers who had spent years in preparation for this one fantastic moment of seeing the Christ Child. Suddenly, the rehearsal sprang to life! Now we had the inspiration to do the work needed to bring this chant “off the page.”
This was a good reminder to all of us that chant is first and foremost, drawn from the very sounds of the words which it upholds. And, in order to truly understand the chant, we must first know its text intimately. It is that understanding which under-girds our chanting and gives us genuine inspiration.
We have seen his star in the East, and we have come with our gifts, to worship the Lord.
(from Matthew 2)
This is the text of this morning’s Gregorian chant hymn from Lauds for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, by Prudentius (4th-5th c.). This is a tragic event in the history of God’s people. It is also referred to as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” The Wise Men reported to King Herod that they were searching for the infant king of the Jews. This threatened Herod. To protect himself against being supplanted by this infant, Herod ordered the slaughter of all male children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. No one knows who or how many were killed, so the Church honors them as a group of martyrs. Augustine of Hippo called them “buds killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves.”
Hail, flowers of the martyrs, whom, at the very threshold of the light of life, the pursuer of Christ destroyed, as a whirlwind would roses in bud.
You are the first victims of Christ, the tender flock of the sacrificers; pure ones before the altar itself, you play with palms and crosses.
Glory be to you, O Lord, who are born of a virgin, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, for everlasting ages. Amen.
As many of us know, it is Great Advent! The week of O Antiphons. And tonight’s antiphon is O Clavis David — O Key of David. All week long, Paraclete Press is offering a beautiful, daily meditation on these Gregorian chant treasures, along with a sound clip, a coloring page, and a modern day interpretation from poet Regina Walton. We invite you to follow this link, and take a quiet moment to reflect on today’s words. To follow along for the rest of the week, “like” Paraclete Press on Facebook, and check your feed every morning for the next O Antiphon!
Blessed Great Advent!
by Sister Fidelis
Many of us are familiar with “Gaudete Sunday” (the 3rd Sunday 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!