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).

Proclaiming the sacred texts

by Sister Fidelis

In doing some research this week I came across a quote by Dr. Mary Berry, musicologist and chant scholar who taught our community so much about Gregorian chant. I found it extremely inspirational and informative—once again a reminder that it is the text, mainly Scripture, that is the motivator in this form of prayer, and how much we have to gain by participating in it.

“The first ray of hope that came to me fourteen years ago, when I launched out on teaching Gregorian Chant and 96 came when I expected 20, has been amply fulfilled. People come because they sense in the Church a malaise which actually amounts to a crisis of faith and a positive attempt to water down the basic doctrines of Incarnation and Resurrection. I’ve told you something about the research and I’ve also hinted at the extent to which people, particularly the young, find the chant relevant to their Christian lives. In coming to the Chant they find the strong affirmation of the living Christian message in all its vitality and passion and youthful vigor. My experience is that it utterly refreshes, enriches and converts anyone who sings it. The latest researches to which I have referred have laid open, like a delicate dissection, this faith proclaimed through the intricate and superlative art of generations of unknown composers, closer in time than we are to the original revelation of God in Jesus Christ. They proclaim the sacred texts in a way that reveals the Church’s deep and traditional faith in the Son of God, made Man, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified for our sake, but also risen, ascended, glorified.” —Dr. Mary Berry, CBE, from a lecture given in 1985

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:

Monday
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.

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

Thursday
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.