Ave maris stella

by Sister Fidelis


Tuesday we celebrate the feast of the Dormition or Assumption of Mary. This is a feast rich with beautiful Marian antiphons, hymns, and propers – many well-known pieces which I always enjoy chanting.

One of my favorites is the hymn for Lauds, Ave maris stella, Hail star of the ocean. This 8th century, mode I hymn is essentially a simple piece – mainly syllabic composition with just a couple small bursts of melismatic ornamentation. It has a lilting quality and to my ear sounds like the song of a girl, young, pure, not without difficulties but still full of hope and joy.   

The poem has a lovely text:
Hail, star of the ocean, kind mother of God,
And also ever-virgin, happy gate of heaven.
Receiving that “Hail” from the mouth of Gabriel,
Establish us in peace, reversing the name of Eve.

Loosen the chains of things; offer light to the blind;
Drive away our evils; plead for all good.
Show yourself to be a mother; may he take up the prayer sent through you,
He who, born for us, allowed himself to be yours.

One and only Virgin, among all others meek,
Released from our faults, make us gentle and chaste.
Grant a pure life; prepare a safe road,
That, seeing Jesus, we may forever rejoice together.

Praise be to God the Father, glory to Christ the most high,
Honor to the Holy Spirit, alike to all three. Amen.



Transfiguration Sunday

by Sister Fidelis

The Alleluia for the Feast of Transfiguration dates back to the XIth century, the first written record coming from Einsiedeln, Switzerland. The text of this Alleluia is so full of imagery, and helps us catch a glimpse of what must have been an incredible moment of awe and mystery: “For she [wisdom] is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness.” Wisdom 7:26

The music in this piece also paints a picture, full of melismas and sweeping phrases. The range is extremely full – an octave plus a fourth – and the musical lines follow a pattern: moving steadily upwards, then suddenly peaking and flowing quickly downwards. The outline of the melody traces a mountainous shape. In the middle of the piece we see one spot where the notes hover in the upper range highlighting the words unspotted mirror, or perfect mirror.

The sense of energy and exuberance in this piece is tangible and makes me think for a moment about how the disciples must have felt witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus that day. The scriptures really just tell us about their shock and fear and then Jesus’ reassurance to them. We can only imagine how their emotions played out in the days following, but the feeling I experience with this piece seems to have gone beyond their terror to a sense of awe and excitement of the reality of Christ.

The Divine Office — Vespers

by Sister Fidelis

The service of Vespers, along with Lauds is one of the oldest of the Daily Offices, and can be traced back to Jewish tradition. The word comes from the Greek hespera or Latin vesper, meaning “evening.”

Two unique elements of this service are the chanting of the Magnificat, from Luke, and also a Reading of scripture (this was introduced with Vatican II). In addition we sing a hymn, a responsory, and three or four Psalms with their corresponding antiphons. It seems in many ways that we recount the goodness and graciousness of God in this service. Traditionally we chant the higher numbered Psalms, various ones from 110–144. This includes some that are probably very familiar to most of us: 121, 127, 130,  144, and others. Not all, but many of them recount God’s goodness to us over history.

Maybe it’s the time of day, the setting of the sun, or the fact that much of the workday is through, I don’t know, but to me there is a peaceful quality about Vespers. One element particularly highlights this theme – the responsory– a short piece sung first by the Cantor and repeated by the rest of the choir. There is a different text for each day – here are a few, each with an uplifting message:

The Lord shepherds me and I will lack nothing,
He has set me in green pastures,
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Keep us O Lord, as the apple of your eye,
Under the shadow of your wings protect us
Glory be….

Let my prayer be directed to you, O Lord,
As incense in your sight,
Glory be…

The Divine Office — Lauds

by Sister Fidelis

Here at the Community of Jesus we chant the Divine Office, which for us includes: Lauds, Midday, Vespers, and Compline. Anyone who has experienced the chanting of these Hours will know that each service has its own character, which together create a rhythm to the flow of the day.

We start with the morning service of Lauds, from Latin laudare, to praise. As Dr. Mary Berry wrote: “Lauds was the hour that sanctified the moment of sunrise.” One of the traditions of this service is the recitation of the “Praise Psalms” (148, 149, 150) as the last Psalms of each morning. Another element particular to this service is the Benedictus, the “Canticle of Zechariah” from the Gospel of Luke, chanted while standing as is customary for a text from the Gospels. The “Invitatory Psalm” is also a unique element, dating back to the time of Benedict. This is the first Psalm of the service, traditionally set apart as the time during which any monk who may have overslept could still run in, prostrate himself in penance and take his place in the choir!

Looking back in history Lauds is one of the most ancient Offices, borrowing from the Jewish tradition of praying three times a day. In our Christian history we trace our current form of worship back to Apostolic times. Early writers such as St. Cyprian, John Cassian, Etheria, St. John Chrystostum all mention it in their writings, and of course St. Benedict gives a lot of detail about this service in his Rule.

Starting my day with this service can be an exercise in will-power to focus on the words before me and not to let my mind wander to my own plans or worries. Or it can be the perfect launching platform for the day if I let myself be affected by the words I am saying–inspiring Psalms and the beautiful poetry of hymns dating back to early centuries. I can find myself uplifted and changed as I repeat the praises that thousands of Christians have recited each morning for thousands of years…

Text of hymn from Sunday Lauds
Behold, already the shadow of night is diminishing, the dawn of light is gleaming red:
Let us all keep on with every effort beseeching the Almighty.

May our compassionate God drive away all our anguish, bestow health,
And give us, by the lovingkindness of the Father, the kingdom of the heavens.

Grant us this, O blessed Godhead of the Father, and of the son, and also of the Holy Spirit,
Whose glory resounds in all the world. Amen.

Hymn for Saint Benedict’s Day

by Sister Fidelis

Today we celebrate the Solemn Feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Here in our Community, one from the Benedictine monastic tradition, this is an especially significant day. We begin Vespers with a beautiful hymn written by Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072 AD), Benedictine reformer, and Doctor of the Church. Found in the Breviarum Monasticum, the hymn is written in Mode I and has a lovely lyrical tune which sets off the stunning poetry. Damian uses phrases such as “precious jewel of the heavenly king”, “your heart fixed on the stars,” and “you work through the narrow beginnings of a strict life” as he recounts the life of Benedict.

Each verse begins with a stepwise melody in the lower range, blossoms in the middle with leaps of 4ths and 5ths, and then settles back to a repeat of the opening phrase. It sticks to the typical features of Mode I – beginning and ending on Re and at points hovering around La. The clarity and simplicity are the perfect backdrop for the hymn text and a beautiful tribute to a man who influenced monasticism and thereby chant in such a significant way.

A love song

by a Cantor

This next week’s communion antiphon – Gustate et videte – O taste and see that the Lord is good – is one of the most beloved and familiar of scripture texts and chants. In “Chants of the Vatican Gradual”, Dom Dominic Johner notes that this is the oldest communion chant to be found with its psalm in the liturgy of both eastern and western church. (as quoted by Jeffrey Tucker on The Chant Cafe).

The chant opens with a well-known and rather insistent incipit, with the repeated tristophas on the words videte quoniam on the pitch DO – see that – bringing our attention instantly to the word suavis – sweet! There are also teneres on quoniam which help heighten that focus. From that moment, the chant descends gently to a cadence on MI. The final phrase – Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord – has a melodic rise that moves up to LA as its “reciting” tone, again descending back down to MI. Here again, the composer was making a point. By making the chant rise to its highest point right at the beginning, there is no doubt that it is the Lord’s goodness receiving most emphasis and because of that, those who trust in Him are blessed.

Incline thine ear

by Cantor

The upcoming Communion antiphon Inclina aurem tuam (“Incline thine ear”) may indeed hold the title as the shortest Communion chant in the repertoire. I believe the brevity is quite intentional as the chant is a simple, decorated Mode IV recitation. The melody weaves continually between the pitches fa and la, giving a sense that the person praying may be rocking back and forth while making this supplication to the Lord. Perhaps the most touching moment is the way in which the composer highlighted the word accelera,  by placing a tenere over several of the notes thus purposefully slowing down the word which means to hurry! What a delightful way to underscore the prayer’s desire that the Lord hurry and listen.



Mass of the Angels

by Sister Fidelis

Missa De Angelis, or Mass VIII, is one of the best known Gregorian Chant Masses today. As with most of these Mass units the various pieces, Kyrie, Gloria, etc. were not composed together but rather grouped at a certain point in history, assigned a number and title. This particular Mass seems to have been gathered together in the 18th century, though the Kyrie is likely a 15th century Norman composition, the Gloria from the 16th century, the Sanctus again from Normandy in the 11th or 12th century and the Agnus Dei, 15th  century, from the Rouen area of N. France. Most Masses are named for a “trope” that was sung before or after the mass, but this is one is unique and takes its name from the tradition of celebrating a Mass in honor of the Holy Angels on Mondays. This was a devotion especially practiced by the Franciscans.

It is interesting to see the characteristics of the various pieces here. The Kyrie and Gloria in Mode V and the Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Mode IV. The Kyrie and Sanctus, melismatic in style with the Gloria and Agnus Dei less so. And really with the exception of the Gloria it is not a “simple” mass so it is interesting that it has become one of the well-known favorites in many churches, not to mention one of the standard Masses used in the Vatican. Having been assigned as a “Festive Mass” I think there is a certain feeling of celebration attached to it and certainly we see that reflected in the chant throughout. For example the 12-note jubilus at the outset of the Kyrie, the continuous rise and fall of smaller melismas and repeated notes in the Sanctus, and the many torculae in the Agnus Dei. In celebration of the anniversary of the dedication of our church we sang this Mass on Sunday and it brought a real sense of joy to the morning.

The Immensity of God’s Throne

by Cantor

It is truly amazing what is both hidden but then revealed about scripture within chant. Often, we tend to look for such things only in the liturgical “seasons”, forgetting that Tempus Ordinario – “Ordered Time” – is in fact the longest of those seasons.
We find ourselves now entering the tenth week of Ordinary Time with the themes of the chant having to do with God’s protection, most beautifully said in the opening line of the introit “Dominus Illuminatio” – “The Lord is my light and my salvation; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 26:1-3) And it is this chant which sets the stage for the focus of this week’s blog – Alleluia, Deus, qui sedes super thronum – “Alleluia: The Lord who sits upon His throne.”

This Alleluia, a mode VII tune, opens briefly with a mode VIII intonation, but then quickly races further upward to the pitches re and fa, giving a sense of the mode VII intonation.This is intriguing, though it’s not particularly unusual as these two modes are closely related, as these sounds create a sense of “lift” before coming to rest on sol. The verse continues this same “lift” with both exact melodic repetition of the opening and then variation, climaxing in a melisma on the word thronum – “throne” – of no less than 74 notes! Equally astounding to its length is its range – a full 10th from bottom fa to upper la. There is no doubt remaining that this throne must belong to God who resides in height, depth, and everywhere in between!

It is fascinating to note that in this entire Alleluia, there are 95 notes prior to the referenced melisma and 103 pitches following. From just that quick glance, the melodic structure of the piece clarifies, revealing to the listener a most important symbol of the “most High” God. The final phrases are a melodic extension of the opening Alleluia Jubilus, carrying the text that it is this same God who is both just and the refuge of the poor. These phrases constitute one the longest and gentlest melodic descents in the chant repertoire, with no sudden turns – somewhat like a leaf gently falling to the ground on a cushion of undisturbed air. What better way to audibly reveal the justice and mercy of God.

Veni Sancte Spiritus

by Sister Fidelis

This last week in preparation for Pentecost we practiced “Veni Sancte Spiritus” at our weekly chant class. By now this sequence is familiar to everyone in our Community and feels like an essential part of the celebration. Sometimes called the “Golden Sequence”, the text dates back to the 13th century and has been attributed to Pope Leo III, or maybe more likely Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1228.

While the poetry of this hymn is quite developed, with an interesting rhythmic and rhyming pattern, the music is quite simple, enhancing the text. There are 5 different musical phrases, each repeated twice. The piece covers a large range (more than an octave), with many of the phrases moving in scalar motion from top to bottom or bottom to top.  For the most part we see syllabic writing with a few duple or triple neume patterns which gives a feeling of strength matching the powerful message: Come, Holy Spirit!

The overall visual shows a constant rise and fall to the extremes of the range in long phrases, and we also see large leaps of a sixth or even an octave at several of the cadence points. The prayer unfolds in a similar way: the rise and fall of a prayer calling to the Father, Son, and Spirit to console, refresh, cleanse, bend, melt, guide, all leading toward heavenly joy.