About Cantor

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!

Rejoice! (in peace….)

by Cantor

Let me start by saying that when I see the word “rejoice,” or the Latin “Gaudete,” I do not expect the opening of this Introit chant that opens the third week of Advent. My natural inclination to expect something more instantly declamatory and “trumpeting” such as the opening of last week’s introit, “Populus Sion.” This is one of the reasons I love the chant—it shines with so many different colors of the scriptures.

Upon further study of the text, an attitude of quiet and peace is really quite perfect because this text is telling us to rejoice in the Lord, letting our modesty be seen before all men. Indeed, it carries on even further to tell us to worry for nothing—to make all of our petitions to the Lord. Truly, one can almost see the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the heart of this chant.

In fact, I do not  believe a more perfect example of chant reflecting the text exists in the repertoire. Much of the chant is in the lower to middle range of the mode, with multiple indications in the ancient Einsedeln notation for lingerings over the entire first phrase. Most amazing to me is where this chant actually does rise to the top of the range—“Nihil soliciti sitis”—“Be anxious for nothing!” Finally, the chant returns gently to the lower part of the mode, highlighting the text “…but in all things, bring your petitions before God.”  What better message leading to the final week of Advent.

Populus Sion

by a Cantor

As we enter Advent, it seems as though the scriptures are calling us to wake up, look up and prepare! No doubt, the lessons are pointing to the coming of Christ, growing with intensity in each passing week. One only need take the briefest of looks at the Introit for Week 2 of Advent to instantly see the chant reflect this same message!

The opening melody quickly leaps up a fourth and then another step underscoring this “theme of announcement” that the Lord is coming to save His people. However, what I find most moving and exciting is that it keeps right on rising as the text speaks of “hearing the Lord’s glorious voice!” Indeed, the chant sails up in the “stratosphere” for a relatively long time, before coming to rest on the phrase “in the joy of your hearts.”

Sometimes, when looking through these gems in the chant repertoire, I am amazed at the directness and simplicity of the chant and its ability to highlight a central message of the given scripture. But then, I remembered Dom Cardine’s famous statement: “The tones of the chant are drawn directly from the tones of the words.” I don’t believe there is better example than this message which we will hear next Sunday!


People of Sion, behold the Lord shall come to save the nations: and the Lord shall make the glory of His voice to be heard, in the joy of your heart.

So be it, I say to you!

A blog from the archives! We haven’t heard the Mass propers for several weeks now, but this just makes us all the more eager for the chants of Advent that we’ll be singing before we know it.

By Cantor

We often hear the phrase “chant is so peaceful.” Certainly, many chants do have an inherent sense of peace about them. But not all of them — sometimes the chant demands our attention, insisting that we stand up and listen!

Last week, the communion antiphon at the Church of the Transfiguration began with the text “Amen, dico vobis.” Translated, that means “So be it, I say to you.” These words of Jesus are not set to a gentle recitation but rather burst forth on a trumpet-like motive that leaves no room for doubt that we need to listen to Jesus’ words that follow.

All week, I found myself “hearing” that trumpet motive from other times of the church year. In fact that same sound occurs in the communion for Pentecost — “Factus est repente de caelo sonus” (A mighty sound came rushing out of Heaven); the introit for Christmas Day mass — “Puer natus est” (A boy is born unto us); the procession for Palm Sunday — “Hosanna, Filio David” (Hosanna to the Son of David), to name a few. In moments, I had been taken through much of the church year, reminded by a simple musical motive of the Kingship of Christ.


Salve Regina

by Sister Fidelis

As we approach Advent my mind turns to the many Marian chants that come with this time of year. Salve Regina, a very beautiful and well-known piece is one of four Marian Antiphons sung at Compline. It is traditionally assigned to be sung from the Saturday before Trinity Sunday until the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. I have memories of chanting or hearing this sung in a number of different monasteries and churches. In Italy it seems that everyone knows the Salve Regina by heart!  

A mode V antiphon, the melody of this piece has a simple feel – for the most part one note per syllable. At the same time it has long phrases that spin up and downwards and then finally seem to climax with the final three statements: O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Here below is a link to the antiphon sung by Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola on the CD Chants of Mary, and a translation of the text written in 1000 AD.

Hail, holy Queen, mother of mercy,

our life, our sweetness, and our hope.

To you we cry, poor banished children of Eve;

to you we send up our sighs,

mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Turn, then, most gracious advocate,

your eyes of mercy toward us;

and after this, our exile,

show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.

O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Our Guardian Angel, Our Lifelong Friend and Protector

by Cantor

Following immediately after the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (September 29) is a feast, in my opinion, not often recognized but of extraordinary importance and beauty: The Feast of Guardian Angels, observed annually on October 2nd.  This feast day honors the heavenly beings created by God and entrusted with the care of souls for their entire pilgrimage on the earth.

One of the most moving of the chants for this feast is the hymn for Vespers, “Custodes hominum” – Caretakers of men. The following text is taken from a program note found in “The Chants of Angels” sung by the Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola:
“On earth and in heaven, in life and in death, Guardian Angels watch over their charges, body and soul. The poet of this hymn (St. Robert Bellarmine, 1642-1621) illustrates the dangers that can be faced with courage, thanks to guardian Angels.”

We sing the Guardian Angels of men whom the heavenly father added to their fragile nature as friends, so that it might not succumb to enemy snares.

For the traitor angel, whom He had overcome, rightly stripped of the honors granted him, burning with jealousy, struggles to rout those whom God is calling to heaven.

So then, fly here, always watchful guardian, averting from the land entrusted to you both diseases of the soul and whatever does not allow its inhabitants to come to rest.

To the holy Trinity be loving praise always, whose triple plan is guided by His perpetual divine power, whose glory reigns through all the ages.

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.

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.


“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.

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.

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!