28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 14 October 2012, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

 Introit: Si iniquitates, begin on D (as mi)

 Offertory: Let all mortal flesh keep silence #23, begin on D

 Communion: Aufer a me, begin on A (as fa)

 Recessional: Farther than the farthest sun, #725, begin on G.

 Ordinary from Mass XI (Orbis factor)

 The Introit antiphon is in two phrases, the first of which is subdivided:

  1. (a) Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine,
    (b) Domine, quis sustinebit?
  2. quia apud te propitiatio est, Deus Israel.

The well known and often prayed Psalm 129 anticipates the spirit of All Souls' Day and is very fitting near the end of the liturgical year. We are grateful that God's forgiveness is more generous that ours. Otherwise, who would be able to stand it? God indeed looks upon (observaveris) our sins and weighs them in the balance of His holiness and justice, but His mercy prevents His justice from punishing a repented sin in the manner it deserves.

The divisions of the melody are evident enough. To the soaring ascent of the first phrase, a second, filled with rest and relaxation, answers. All three members of the first phrase close on the half tone b c. Domine here carries the same melody as in the Introit Omnia quae fecisti, with the difference that there it closes with c b, instead of with b c as in the present melody. There the second phrase begins with a higher note; here on a lower. The very same reason holds for the close of sustinebit. Here again the following phrase sets in a third lower. It might also be pointed out that we have to do with a question, and that the tension contained in a question naturally evolves itself in an ascending melodic movement. One would perhaps want more prominence to the significant quis than is done here. If the first half of the phrase has c for its dominant, then the second receives special force from its dominant d. Care must be taken that the recitation be not too precipitous on this d; in fact, a moderate martellato might be recommended. It seems as if a trembling before God's holiness pervades the melody.

The second phrase, however, brings rest. It never extends beyond c and has only minor thirds and seconds in the beginning. Over the accented syllable of propitiatio the melody becomes an expression of fervent thanks; it comes to full bloom in the more florid melismas over the word Deus. Only with God can we find such judgment and forgiveness. The final groups of neums are frequently seen at the close of Mode III Introits (cf. the Introits Vocem jucunditatis and Cum clamarem). The last two groups of neums represent a rhythmically united and inseparable whole; they always occur over the two final syllables. That explains the peculiar treatment accorded Israel.

The Communion antiphon is in three phrases:

  1. Aufer a me opprobrium et contemptum,

  2. quia mandata tua exquisive, Domine;

  3. nam et testimonia tua meditatio mea est.

Still again we hear from the great Psalm 118, in a chant sung on September Ember Wednesday in the Extraordinary Form. Jeffrey Tucker (of Musica Sacra & various blogs) wrote about this antiphon in 2006 in a poignant posting on NLM. His strong writing style is offputting to some, but he leaves no doubt about how moved he is by singing this week's Communion antiphon.

Anytime the topic of Gregorian chant comes up, the conversation immediately veers in two directions: why can't this material be in the vernacular, and why can't we just sing in modern notes? The communio this week, which conveys an intoxicating spiritual power, is a good illustration of why both of these paths seriously diminish the glories of chant.

 We begin with a plea that moves unusually quickly through a long opening phrase: no breaks, no "downbeats," no time signature, and very effective use of vowel and consonant sounds to match the words. Put this in modern notation and you lose the visuals, the phrase, and, ironically, make it more difficult to place the consonants. Now look at the word contemptum in which the first "n" sound closes on the lower note (which is small, a liquescent in the Gregorian notation). I can't think of a way that this unity of notes and music can achieve the same effects in modern notation.

 Now move halfway through, beginning with "nam." This last phrase is a singer's dream but only as written. It feels and sounds just like what you expect of meditation. It captures the sense of private, contemplative, concentrated prayer. The intervals are short and the changes in notes are a perfect match with the text, and it is a long and uninterrupted phrase. What you certainly do not want here is a sense of bumping through the notes one by one, as you might get in modern notation. Also with the neumes you can enjoy the visual presentation of what it means to meditate.

 As for language, I'm sure it's been put into English somewhere, but it is almost painful to imagine how it might sound. Isn't it time that we all just acknowledge that the presentation of Gregorian chant is at its highest glory in precisely the form that it has come to us through the ages?

 

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