Saturday, October 28, 2006

Rejoice in the Chant

Years ago, I was discussing music with a parishioner who attended the "contemporary" music Mass, and (no surprise) I mentioned the glories of chant (why must I do that?). Her response was honest but tough to take: "I find chant so depressing. Christianity is about joy."

Of course my first reaction is to bristle up like a porcupine but there is no sense in taking issue with someone's subjective impressions. Chant either helps her pray or it doesn't, and if she finds that that it depresses her, am I suppose to argue her out of that position?

What that conversation did do, however, was bring about a certain alertness to the requirement that singers do their best to convey joy within the chant tradition when it is appropriate to do so—not in the same earth-bound, yippee way that contemporary pop music does but in a manner that points to transcendent joy, infused with the mysterious awe that comes from reflection on the final victory over death.

And thus this weekend's communio: Laetabimur

We begin with rejoicing, not the usual intonation of a few notes but one that is long and melismatic. Economy is given up in favor of extended exuberance. The schola joins by picking the phrase and taking it to its highest point in the middle of the word salvation. Immediately, the listener knows the theme, even if the text were not the there.

The name of the Lord follows with two successive affirmations of the Trinity. We end with this wonderful phrase on "magnificabimur" in which the last syllable seems to wait and wait until the last possible moment. The "mur" here recalls the initial "mur" in laetabimur. Joy and pride in our God!

Different chants require subtle changes in tempo but it strikes me that this one should be sung on the faster end of the metronome. Timing it out with this online metronome, I might suggest about 184 beats per minute for the punctum—which is quite fast, faster than the adult heart pulses during strenuous exercise but on the upper end of a child's pulse after bounding around the yard in sheer love of life. The same sense is conveyed here in a contained and upward looking way. This is the song of salvation. Learn it for Sunday and you will carry it in your heart all week.

Here is a version you can print and learn, with Psalms.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: