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.
Yesterday we celebrated All Saints’ Day, one of the major feasts of the church year. There is evidence that this feast goes back at least to the 4th century. In 998, November 2nd became the day that All Souls Day was added to the Church Calendar. We can trace its existence back to the famous French Abbey of Cluny, where the Benedictine Abbot declared a day in which the monks commemorated all the dead of the Monastic Order. Soon this Cluny practice was adopted by the whole of the Western Church as a general commemoration of all those who had died.
The Mass for the dead contains some of the most beautiful music in the Gregorian repertoire. These important prayers are well known because they were chanted and prayed so often. The name “Requiem Mass” comes from the Introit for the Mass of the Dead, “Requiem aeternam.” This beautifully simple Mode VI chant is a prayer for the faithful departed. Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. The psalm verse is translated: A hymn, O God, becometh thee in Zion, and a vow shall be paid to Thee in Jerusalem.
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.
The choir, Gloriae Dei Cantores, is currently rehearsing for a recording of late Medieval and early Renaissance choral music. One of the works is a setting of the offertory for the first Sunday of Advent, Ad Te Levavi (Unto Thee do I lift up my Soul). As the rehearsal of this piece progressed, I found myself more and more stirred to track with the Gregorian chant proper of the same name.
The parallels between the chant Ad Te Levavi and the choral work were amazing! The melodic motives, lengths of phrases, and soaring melodic lines seemed to have been inspired by the chant. Perhaps most amazing was just one small point. At the text “non confundar” (to not be confounded), the choral work goes on for a great deal of time, constantly restating this outcry. When I looked at the ancient notation in the chant, under the word “non” was the letter X. In this particular notation, the letter X means “expectare” — to wait. I was amazed that at this moment in the chant, the indication was to slow down, lingering upon this text. The choral work did exactly the same thing!
Clearly, the composer of the choral work knew and understood not only the structure of the chant, but the truth contained within it. Without simply being a direct copy, the chant inspired a choral work to further explore the depth of the scripture which it so faithfully served.
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.”
This week, we are preparing to perform Vaughn Williams beautiful and heart-wrenching work, Dona Nobis Pacem. Using Walt Whitman poetry as the primary source of text, Vaughn Williams wrote the work just before WWII as an outcry begging the world not to enter another world war. The piece takes the listener on a journey through all sorts of human emotions about life and war. There’s an outcry for peace, followed by a ruthless depiction of the sheer horror and un-humanness of war. Next comes a beautiful portrayal of the hope of reconciliation, followed by a martial and respectful, but sorrow-filled movement titled Dirge for Two Veterans. In the fifth movement the ensemble reaches its height of anguish, crying out to the heavens asking why? Why all this death, turmoil and suffering? Echoing the prophets of the Old and New Testament, the work closes with a triumphal hymn reassuring us that God will have the last word. The work is set down quietly with one last plea for peace.
In the fourth movement in particular, Vaughn Williams is juxtaposing the inexplicable horror and gut-wrenching sadness of war with the dignity and respect of human life. The music sounds triumphant and victorious as the poetry is depicting a tragic scene of a father and son killed together on the front lines.
It’s the same 2 measures in this movement that put a lump in my throat every-time we sing them. The poet has just explained that he can see and hear a sad funeral procession approaching. As it arrives the listener is quickly swept from seeing a sad procession into the grandest and noblest British-sounding march with all the pomp and circumstance the orchestra, organ and choir can muster. It is a triumphal and victorious moment, thrust in among deep anguish. I know this moment is coming in the work, but each time I’m caught by surprise in the sweep of majesty and glory. Vaughn Williams captures this essence. As the created beings in God’s image, we need to be reminded that all human life deserves the utmost respect.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the city of Barga located in the northern part of Italy. As part of that travel, our chant schola chanted the midday office and compline in a church which was constructed and then added to over the course of several centuries. Towering above us in this church was a 12th century wooden statue of St. Christopher, still bearing its own wounds from centuries of war and unrest made visible in the arrowheads still in its torso.
As we chanted, I was struck by the thought that when that statue and that church were new, it is quite likely that chants we were praying were also relatively new. We were actually chanting in the surroundings in which these chants first came to life! Listening in this extraordinary building, the acoustic “told us” the tempo to take, allowed us to hear and experience the building of harmonies which hung in the air like incense, and gave us a sense that this chant had been heard in this room many thousands of times. The span of centuries was instantly crossed as we joined our voices with those voices of chant from “back then” – when the voice of the church was much younger and yet full of all the years that it would carry through. It made me realize again that we have the privilege every time we chant, of joining instantly with all of those centuries of prayer.
Our scholas have just completed the recording sessions for a Gregorian chant CD to be released later in the year. Of course, much of the preparation for the recording involved chanting together.
However, a large portion of the preparation and, I would venture to say, the most important part, involved the time we spent together not actually chanting. All of us had agreed together that we would, individually, take the time to really study the text – even use it in our devotional time – before delving into the chant itself. Then, we met several times as a group to discuss what we had discovered in the text and then how the chant illuminated the text.
After concluding this process, our chant rehearsals changed dramatically. We had a new unity of spirit, thought, and expression that went far beyond the neumes – the chant had transformed into a living conversation between us and God. Did each of us think exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment? No. Were we committed to a shared vision of each work? Absolutely! And, even more amazing was that within the groups, we had greatly varied levels of cantors – many very experienced – some brand new!
Perhaps though what I found most moving was that at the end of the sessions, we actually found it difficult to tell each other goodbye. We had experienced something together that would not have happened without a shared vision of each chant and the conversation it helped create.
Now in the second week of the Easter season, rehearsals have begun for the chants which will take us all the way through Ascension and Pentecost. When our Schola gathered for its first rehearsal, one particular comment kept arising: “This piece sounds familiar, but it’s somehow not quite the same.” So, as we looked at each of the pieces, we discovered the same thing — the insertion of an alleluia either within the body of the text or added as a conclusion to the entire chant.
This made us stop and try an experiment — chanting a piece without the alleluia. The piece sounded fine — even complete. Yet, when we put the alleluia back into the piece, an entirely different character awakened in the chant! What a fabulous discovery! As the saying goes, “You don’t really know what you have until it is gone.” How true that is with our beloved Alleluia! Instantly, we knew that the restored Alleluia was a gift to us — a reminder of the continued joy of the Easter season.