I have been a cantor for over 25 years and an organist for most of my life. Chanting with people at home and across the country is one of my greatest joys. I remember the days of staring at the section of our undergraduate music text thinking to myself "what are all those dots and WHY do I need to know about them?!" Now, 33 years later, I am so grateful that those "dots" have helped teach me many things about God and His love!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.