I am 46 years old, and have been a Sister at the Community of Jesus for 26 years. Having grown up here, I have been singing Gregorian chant since I was 10! I was very blessed to study Gregorian chant with Dr. Mary Berry in Cambridge, England and here at home. Recently, I have been able to do some radio and tv interviews, sharing about the blessings of Gregorian chant. I love leading chant workshops, and have been able to do that in the US and abroad.
Today we celebrate the lives of three important early church fathers: Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, who was Basil’s younger brother, and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil’s close friend. All three were born in the fourth century into devout Christian families in Cappadocia (present-day Turkey). They studied together in Athens, then eventually each was ordained a bishop. Gregory of Nazianzus became Patriarch of Constantinople. These three men of God were very influential in taking a stand against the Arian Heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. They played vital roles in writing the Nicene Creed and defining the doctrine of the Trinity during a time of crisis and uncertainty in the life of the church.
Although Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus were very close to one another and joined in their faith, they had very different personalities and natural gifts. Basil was a man of action, Gregory of Nyssa was a great orator, and Gregory of Nazianzus was a great thinker and theologian and is sometimes called Gregory the Theologian.
Today they are known as the Cappadocian Fathers and are venerated by the church in both the East and the West. We honor them, three men of God, all different in personality and gifts and yet united without jealousy to further the work of His Kingdom.
This Sunday, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is the “namesake” feast for our Church. The interior stone lintel over the main church doors, has always been one of my most favorite carvings because of the language expressed in the bodies and on the faces of the three disciples. The three have been cast to the stony ground by the sheer magnitude of seeing Jesus in his transfigured state. What must it have been like? Peter appears caught between his spontaneous offer to make three booths and hearing the booming authority of the Father’s voice. James’ visage portrays overwhelming terror, and John is pictured in a moment of reverence and love. Jesus strictly charged them to tell no one about this event until after his resurrection. I found myself wondering if that was difficult for them. Did their experience come back to mind during difficult times? Did it sustain them through the crucifixion? I believe that Jesus intervenes in our lives with small transfiguration moments – tailor-made for each one of us. We are humbled by a new knowledge of who God is, and who we are – small, afraid, full of awe in the face of such a majesty.
Today is Christ born;
today the Savior has appeared;
today the Angels sing,
the Archangels rejoice;
today the righteous rejoice, saying:
Glory to God in the highest. Alleluia!
These are the words of the beautiful antiphon: Hodie Christus natus est, found originally at the end of the Lauds service for Christmas day. As I pondered what to share this week, surrounded by so much rich and meaningful music, this antiphon sprang to mind – a fairly simple but also more well-known piece. The text has been used by many composers over the centuries, Sweelink, Poulenc, and more recently Britten who used the Gregorian chant in its original version and helped make it a better know piece to many.
The melody starts with a sort of trumpet call – Hodie Christus natus est! – 3 notes rising. Each time the word Hodie (today) is restated we hear that same pattern, and as it builds to the final statement the tune rises to its highest point – today the righteous rejoice, saying: Glory to God in the highest. Alleluia!
Some images below show this antiphon’s history – the oldest written version found in the Hartker manuscript, Saint Gallen, Switzerland, 10th century. It was surely being sung even before that but passed on orally. The next version is from a 16th century manuscript, thought to be from a Latin American country, a piece likely brought over to the Americas with early missionaries. Finally we have the most current version, type-set as we’d see it today. It’s incredible to imagine all those over the centuries and across the globe joining in this prayer at Christmas! Enjoy the sound link below to hear the antiphon.
As we approach Advent, days becoming shorter and the church year coming to an end, I’ve been looking ahead to the rich repertoire of pieces we have for this season. Mass XVIII, assigned to the Advent Season, is one of the “simpler” but well known and beloved Masses. It is interestingly also used in Lent and has been borrowed or expounded upon by many composers over the ages—Palestrina, Fauré, Duruflé, to name a few.
It is interesting that although the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, were not composed together—not even within the same century—they have many similar qualities. For one, the narrow range is notable: the Kyrie covers the distance of a seventh, the Sanctus a fifth, and the Agnus Dei a mere third! Looking through the entire repertoire of ordinary Masses we don’t find any other Mass with such a narrow range. We also see in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei almost entirely syllabic writing, which adds to the feeling of humble simplicity. Then we find a motive, a repeated pitch followed by a whole step, which appears both in the “eleison” of the Kyrie throughout, and twice at the start of the Sanctus. The reverse of that same motive is the intonation of the Agnus Dei—two repeated pitches followed by a whole step upwards! There is something comforting and calm about the way in which this motive weaves in and out and in the way the overall compositions seem to rise and fall. What is it about this music that lends itself so well to the season of Advent? As we take some time this season to prepare for the coming of Christ we can let these pieces lead us and point our hearts towards the simple manger of Bethlehem.
I’ve heard that the Psalms reflect all the emotions of the human heart. I saw an example of this at Lauds a few weeks ago. We chanted Psalm 57 — “I am in the midst of lions . . . men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.” Then “they spread a net for my feet — I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path.” This all sounds pretty grim.
But immediately it turns: “They have fallen into it [the pit] themselves.” “I will sing and make music! Awake my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! [I will be so loud and excited that] I will awaken the dawn.” All this happens in five verses — deep sorrow turns into deep joy.
No wonder the Psalms are so beloved, and are prayed and chanted daily by so many. They remind us that God knows what we’re going through, and knows how to turn it around.
November 1 is the Solemn Feast of All Saints – a holy day whose tradition dates back to the 4th century AD. In the earliest centuries it was celebrated during the Easter season and came originally from liturgies held in honor of the martyrs in those times. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory set the date as November 1 which in the Western church has continued up to today. In a number of countries it is still a national holiday and very much a part of life, with special services and family traditions.
There are many pieces of Gregorian chant connected with this Feast – Litanies, Masses, Propers, and Antiphons – too numerous to mention them all! One lovely and well-known Antiphon that has a connection with this day is “In Paradisum” a chant traditionally sung at funerals as part of the Mass for the Dead. It is a very simple piece, Mode VII, composed as a mainly syllabic melody with a clivis or pes interspersed at points. The lack of ornamentation draws our focus right to the text: “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.” The melody lofts upwards from the very start and hovers in the higher range giving a heavenly sense. There is a sweetness and feeling of reassurance to the prayer being offered up for those who have now become Saints. Below is a link to this chant sung by Gloriae Dei Cantores schola members.
Watch the video for today’s blog—learn about “Ubi Caritas,” the Gregorian chant display featured at the Arts in Celebration festival now at the Community of Jesus, and about the Gregorian Chant Retreat happening here next month!
Today we celebrate the feast of Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas. This tradition began in the 5th century and became an especially significant feast in some areas. Because it falls near the Autumnal Equinox it was associated with the shortening of days and harvest. In Scotland it became a time for sports, games, horse-races and special harvest foods. In the Middle Ages it was a Holy Day of Obligation.
In the Graduale Romanum we find special Propers for this day – of note is a beautiful Alleluia. The melody is full of energy, rising and falling in ascending patterns. It has an open and lofting feeling much as we’d imagine the movement of angels. It is not a “gentle” piece but rather has a strength – leaps of fourths and fifths and repeated scalar passages, composed in a “major” mode and covering a large range. The text is as always the driving force of the melody and a wonderful prayer to chant:
Alleluia! Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle; so that we perish not in the awful judgment.
We celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross last week and the hymn for Vespers that day is Vexilla regis, an ancient and very well-known piece. Written by Fortunatus, it is documented that it was first sung as part of a procession from Tours to Poitiers, France, in November 569 when a relic of the True Cross was sent from the East by Byzantine Emperor Justin II at the request of St. Radegunda.
The hymn is regularly used now for I Vespers the Saturday before Passion Sunday as well as on several Feast days through the year. The text is full of imagery and story and the tune has a flowing march-like feel. A mode I with a fairly narrow range it moves steadily from the top-most tau down to do mainly in stepwise motion or small leaps – this giving a steady movement forward. The few porecti and quilismae add a feeling of flourish. Reading the poetry reminds us again of the love that lies at the basis of our faith:
The royal banners go forth, the mystery of the cross shines, Where, in the flesh, the creator of flesh hung on the gibbet; Where he was also wounded by the cruel point of the spear: That he might wash us from sin, water flowed with blood. Fulfilled are those things which David prophesied in faithful song, Saying to the nations: “God has reigned from a tree.” O beautiful and shining tree, clothed in royal purple, Chosen to handle on its worthy trunk such holy limbs! O blessed tree, on whose arms hung the ransom of the world; It became a balance for his body, and snatched back the spoils of hell. Hail of Cross, only hope! In this time of the passion, Increase grace to the faithful, and remove sin from all things. You, fountain of salvation, O Trinity, let all living things praise together; Cherish throughout the ages all those whom you save by the mystery of the cross. Amen.
On September 8 we celebrate the Nativity of Mary, a feast that was established as early on as the 6th century. Once again we have a collection of beautiful hymns, antiphons, and Propers, all written very specifically for this day. The hymn for Lauds is especially lovely: O gloriosa Domina, taken from the second half of a larger hymn written by Fortunatus in the mid 500s. The four verses used at Lauds have many wonderful descriptions of Mary: glorious Lady; gentle one; door of the high king; shining gate of light….
The melody of the hymn has a very simple and gentle feeling. While it covers a range greater than an octave, it moves largely in step-wise motion or leaps of a third. The second and fourth quarters of each verse have a lovely cascading pattern of pedes and clivi rippling from re to sol and landing finally on the home-tone, la.
It’s amazing to think of this piece being sung annually on this date for close to 1500 years. Several sources state that it was the favorite hymn of St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), that the song was always on his lips, even on his deathbed (Catholic Encyclopedia).
Here below is a visual sample of the first two verses as well as a recording of Gloriæ Dei Cantores Men’s Schola singing the hymn (from the CD, The Chants of Mary).