Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Finding Joy in the Law

Let's say that you are called upon to set the following text to music: "You have commanded that your precepts be diligently kept. Oh, that I might be firm in the ways of keeping your statutes!"

ICEL translates it "…that my ways may be guided towards…"

It's the text of the communion antiphon for this Sunday, the 25th in Ordinary Time.

Would you choose a dark and difficult tune that emphasized the difficulty of the task, perhaps something that dipped low to illustrate the propensity to fall into sin?

The monks took a different direction. They chose to set the text to Mode V, which has an airy simplicity about it, a bright quality that is eminently singable. Why would they choose this? It is as if to emphasis how the law of Christ liberates and guides us to spiritual freedom.

You can treat this like any song in F major. It begins brightly with excitement on C. The first phrase alone is a joy to sing. The phrase "viae meae" requires some getting used to but the "m" coming off the "ae" has a wonderful natural emphasis.

But what is really striking here is the last phrase, from "ad custodiendas" all the way to the end. The melody doesn't stray from a straight and happy walk, almost like skipping on stones down a pathway, with the episemas placed in just such a way that you can keep your balance through the end. We are being guided by the law precisely as the text suggests, and on this straight path we find joy.

Counterintuitive? In many ways, yes, but we find here a strong theological and even pedagogical melody that emphasizes the Christian contribution to the idea of the law.

This brilliant little chant is presented to me the day after I sat in on an online classroom where the professor was teaching about early music. As I followed the discussion, it was again clear to me how this music is presented in the classroom: 1) however praiseworthy, it is essentially primitive, and 2) its main merit is that it was the early step toward later became real music.

Of course a chant like this makes us realize that both assumptions are false. This is real music. It is not "primitive" but musically and theologically sophisticated, and incredibly expressive of the highest and loftiest ideals.

As always, I'm sure others will have thoughts on this chant that are much more profound than these.

Here is a version suitable for framing, one that includes the Psalm verses.

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