Approaching Advent

by Sister Fidelis

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.

Nativity, 1622, Gerard van Honthorst

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.

holycross

The Turn

by Sister Spero

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.  

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.

All Saints Day

by Sister Fidelis

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.

We wish you a happy All Saints Day!

 

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.

Saint Michael, defend us!

by Sister Fidelis

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.

Vexilla Regis

by Sister Fidelis

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.

O gloriosa Domina

by Sister Fidelis

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).