Last week I had the privilege of touring the magnificent Siena Cathedral in Italy, where there was an entire library off to the left of the main sanctuary containing chant books from the 15th century. The whole room was outlined with book after book of the most beautiful Graduals and Antiphonaries filled with stunning illuminations. The amount of beauty and detail in these jewel-toned miniatures took our breath away. But perhaps the greatest blessing for the two brothers and me as we went from book to book was being able to recognize and softly sing the chants that have become so beloved and familiar to us over the years. This wonderful experience made the sense of joining a living tradition of worship even stronger.
One look at this antiphon reveals that it is very similar to the Mode 3 selection we looked at last week.
The characteristic FA-MI relationship (home tone MI) is found right at the beginning of this antiphon. However, the range is much lower, mysterious sounding, even hovering below the reciting note LA, which we hear only 3 times. Only once does it ascend above this point on the word “Moyses”. Listen and look at this Mode 4 expression of: And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elias, speaking with Jesus.
This antiphon is from the Feast of the Transfiguration
I haven’t wanted to get out of bed all week. I wasn’t sure if it was tiredness, the gloomy weather, or all of the above! I couldn’t muster enough will-power to make this feeling go away. I asked for help from friends, tried exercising, praying, eating differently, but even the parts of the week I look forward to and expect to uplift me, didn’t help. Sunday a group of young kids from Boston came to sing in our Church. As I came through the back door of our Church in the afternoon, I heard their sound, and stopped. I had forgotten these suburban area kids had traveled down to the Cape to spend a day at our facilities. I ran to the back door to peek in on their rehearsal. Youthfulness, joy and honesty rang around the room. I stopped and listened long enough to see and hear the joy it was for these kids to sing. It made me smile, and remember that sometimes we must just keep putting one foot in front of another, not knowing when God might use a moment to re-awaken us inside.
Sunday we had a “Nor’easter.” Actually, it started Saturday with rain and high winds, and a sudden drop in temperature. I was outside Saturday evening greeting for the choir concert. The cloudy, rainy sky made things seem even darker than they were, and I wondered if people would come out on such a night. At around 7:00 they started to arrive — and they kept arriving straight through until 7:30! There were old people and young people, people with walkers, and a trio of laughing women holding their hoods tight against the wind. There was a blind woman and a deaf man and the proud family of one of the violin players. They hopped on the back of waiting golf carts and clung to the sides, laughing their way up the path to the church. I walked back and forth, offering my arm to people leaning against the wind. Everyone was smiling. One man even commented on how beautiful everything was. And I had to pause. I had started the evening almost apologetically, as if the bad weather was somehow my fault. It was a beautiful sight. The windows of the church and surrounding buildings lit the night with a warm light, almost like a beacon. And inside the church, while the choir, soloist and orchestra filled the space with the breathtaking music of Gerald Finzi, the beauty shone in the faces of the people listening. I forgot about the storm. There, gathered with strangers who somehow felt like friends, I found exactly why one would come out on such a night.
When I finished high school, I was given a new Bible. The front cover had a picture of a young man, about my age, with three questions; What’s the purpose of life? Does God care about me? And Does anything last? These are eternal questions, the type we ponder whether we are aware of them or not, whether we consider ourselves religious or not.
I’ve been studying a poem by William Wordsworth for a piece of music that our choir will be performing at an All Saints Day concert. One line reads, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” Thinking about this line of text, there is a lot of theological belief packed into it. Wordsworth goes on to explain that “heaven lies about us in our infancy,” but as we grow up, “shades of the prison house” (earth) build up around us, and we forget from whence we came and to where we are headed.
I still don’t understand many of the answers to the three questions on the front of my Bible. But Wordsworth helps give me clues. When I choose to believe in Heaven as a place that I came from and am going to, small and large worries no longer seem significant. Life gains a tremendous purpose, hope, and bit of clarity as I remember that there is another vast world still to uncover.
Gloriae Dei Cantores gave two concerts this past weekend. The closing piece was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. It is an incredibly stirring piece — first performed in 1936. Vaughan Williams, having seen first-hand the horrors of WWI, and already feeling the tensions that would lead to WWII, set texts from scripture and the expressive poetry of Walt Whitman. The full orchestra undergirds the choir’s cries for peace and laments over the relentlessness of war. At one point, having reached a peak with a cry of “Is there no balm in Gilead?” the music takes a sudden turn with the baritone solo coming in with the words “Oh man, greatly beloved, fear not. Peace be unto you.” It’s as though the tired, ragged and spent body of the pray-er is suddenly breathed over and touched by the hand of God himself. I was surprised to learn the text is from the book of Daniel. Daniel has just seen a vision of the destruction of his people and says literally, “My strength is gone and I can hardly breathe because of the vision.” The vision before him is of a man who touches him and says the words that Vaughn Williams set — and “he was strengthened.” It caught me that in our brokenness and exhaustion, if we can simply turn our face to God, all it takes is a word from him to strengthen us. In international war, or our own internal battles day after day — God calls us “greatly beloved” and bids us “Fear not.”
Whether I’m conducting a chant training session for choir members of parish churches, choir directors, or organists, or even doing a choral anthem workshop, inevitably, someone raises their hand and states with considerable firmness and clarity, “I don’t know any chant!” Frankly, I’m glad for the honesty because it bursts open a grand opportunity to point out to people just how much chant they “know but didn’t know.”
For instance, open the hymnal in your church pew – in ANY church and go to the Advent and Christmas hymns. Most likely, one of the first hymns you will find is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Instantly, your participants will probably express a certain amount of joy in that “certainly, we know this.” Then, they know a chant. Keep going through the hymnal and they will continue to be surprised by just how much chant they have been singing their entire life and did not realize that it was a chant.
However, it does not stop there. Point out the fact that Hollywood is no stranger to Gregorian chant. Movies such as The Name of the Rose, The Hunchback of Notre Dame or even The Matrix employ Gregorian chant to evoke a certain mood or frame of mind.
We hear and experience chant in both its original context and unexpected places. Sometimes it takes a moment of thought and realization – better known as an “aha moment” – to understand that whether we know it or not, we are influenced by chant in whatever context it may be found. But, we do know some chant!
As promised, here is another excerpt from the book Gregorian Chant by Father Andrew F. Klarmann. Why choose this particular passage? We have often spoken of the function and life of a Schola. But we have never really pondered together the role of the Schola director. Here are but a few of Father Klarmann’s thoughts:
“The director should not lay too much emphasis on the grace of the chironomy. At the final performance, it is the director’s duty to start his singers together, to keep them together throughout, and to bring them to the finish together. Any other instructions should be given them prior to their appearance and should be practiced during rehearsals. Furthermore, some directors execute the most graceful chironomy while the minds of the choir members wander and their eyes are fixed on some foreign object. Other directors need only to chironomize in a calm and unobtrusive fashion: the rendition is good because they have the attention of their choir. Whatever signs of direction are used, they are good if they are understood by the choir. An attentive, well-schooled choir needs very few of them.”
How aptly and succinctly stated! Our role as a Schola Director is one of education and guidance. Let’s take this to heart as we prepare for our next rehearsal!
I received a special gift this past week. I’m about as white, Anglo-Saxon as they come – Irish, Swedish, Scottish three generations back, but my friends have teased me about having some Russian Orthodox blood in me. Ever since visiting Russia with the choir in 1998, and then again with our youth group in 2002, I have hoped to go back someday. There is something about it that I love – a depth and history to the country and the people that just grabs hold of your heart. Especially in worship. I’ve never seen people so eager to be close to the Eucharist – so unconscious of the personal space that we Americans fight to preserve. They press in and past each other to draw close to the altar. And their music – impossible to describe with words how years of persecution and perseverance and love pour out in achingly beautiful harmonies.
So earlier this week, I happened to mention to a friend that I was wanting to pray the rosary, something I used to do as a teenager, but had lost my rosary years ago. The next morning she showed up at work and said “I have these two rosaries if you’d like to use one.” She handed me a red, knotted rope with beads and said “this one was blessed by the Patriarch.”
It’s been in my pocket and passed through my fingers since then. It helps find words for what’s in my heart.
I recently had the opportunity to work with an extraordinarily enthusiastic group of cantors in preparation for a full Gregorian mass. As we moved through our preparations and, ultimately, the mass itself, I was struck by their sense of awe of and responsibility for the chant and how it was presented.
Even though we only had two hours of preparation time together, we all mutually stepped into a legacy of chanted prayer that had long preceded us, and will last long after any of us walk on this earth. It only takes a moment of pondering that thought to realize that we were joining ourselves into a type of repetition. In this case, repetition which changes every time it occurs. A bit of a paradox — perhaps. But just as liturgical seasons repeat every year, so do those scriptures which inflame and inform them and by extension — the chants, which help illuminate those texts!
It was that understanding in which I found myself standing with that group of cantors — the joy of having known these chants and yet discovering new dimensions and how these chants would enhance this particular mass. As you spend time chanting, take the time to return to chants which you already know – see what new insight they give you.