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.
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!
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!
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.
As we approach Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent this week, I’ve been looking at Mass XVIII – Missa pro defunctis, which we use during the Lenten season. While this is one of the “simpler” masses, it is also very beautiful and has been borrowed or expounded upon by composers over the ages – maybe one of the best known being Fauré in his Requiem.
It is interesting that although the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, were not composed together – not even within the same century, they have several similar qualities. For one, the narrow range is noteable. The Kyrie covers the distance of a 7th, the Sanctus a 5th and the Agnus Dei a mere 3rd! 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 – adding 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 Lent? Could it be connected to the thought of narrowing our focus or simplifying our lives? Maybe the chant itself will inform us of something in these next weeks…
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!
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.
Tomorrow, February 2, we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation. One of the best-known pieces from this feast is Lumen ad revelationem gentium, (“A light to enlighten the Gentiles”), a very simple mode VII antiphon, paired up with the verses of the Nunc dimittis.
This is one of my favorite Gregorian chant antiphons and brings back two very clear memories. My first introduction was in a class with Dr. Mary Berry at age 10. Dr. Berry herself created an indelible impression — a stately white-haired woman, arms gesturing, as she peered over her glasses and led us in song. We were caught up in the stories and history she told — a magical world to 10-year-olds. She had us all happily marching up and down the church, arms up and down in patterns of 2s and 3s, and the piece and the moment and the stories were all burned into our childhood memories….
Years later in a church in Italy some of our Brothers were asked to chant on the Feast of the Presentation. In a small ancient church in Tuscany we watched as they joined the procession of priests, deacons, acolytes, and various children, following the cross to the altar and chanting. The Brothers stood in their robes front of the altar with billows of incense rising around them…Lumen ad revelationem gentium…another moment out of time.
And then we come to the true moment for this piece and the story is even more wonderful — a man named Simeon and a prophetess meeting the Messiah and his parents in the temple. Ancient prophecies fulfilled and new prophesies spoken, mysteries, prayers, praises…
The simplicity of this music is interesting for such a special moment — a narrow range and almost completely syllabic. Sometimes it seems that mysteries bring us to a simple and childlike frame of mind. We come like a baby, simply being carried into this moment of God meeting man. May we each take a moment to remember our child-likeness on this Feast of the Presentation.
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.
Many of us are familiar with “Gaudete Sunday” (the 3rdSunday 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!
I just returned from a weekend “Chant Retreat” in Barga, Italy — two days of sharing together, preparing for Advent. Once again we experienced the incredible way in which this prayer can unite us in spite of language or cultural barriers. The retreat was held in both English and Italian, but really since all the chanting was in Latin we shared that common ground.
We began by singing the Salve Regina. Everyone in Italy knows this piece by heart, and no matter what their current connection with God or the church, singing these words together seems to bring a feeling of family. After this we studied some basic points of Gregorian chant, learned the De Angelis Mass and a Vespers service. Another wonderful point of meeting was that so many in Italy still have this Mass in their childhood memory so when we sang it in church that Sunday, the priest and much of the congregation joined right in!
Unlike many of our retreats in the US, the Italians were more interested in being together than studying and in that way it was a nice time of community as we learned, explored, listened. One of the poignant moments was just listening to some chants about Mary and “coloring” as we listened. No heady brainwork — just letting it wash over us as prayer.
It seems we all came away from the time renewed in some way and though we gained some knowledge about chant, it seemed to be more about experiencing the life it can give as we spend time with it — a good thing to ponder as we begin Advent…