Monday, December 18, 2006

The Marian Antiphon for Advent

One of the great pleasures that our schola has enjoyed this season has been getting to know "Alma redemptoris mater," the Marian antiphon for Advent, which was well known by countless generations but has fallen into disuse. It is hard to imagine a more lavishly flowing and ravishingly beautiful chant. It was apparently the most popular of the Marian antiphons in the Middle Ages: for example, it makes an appearance in Chaucer's "Prioresses Tale."

I gather than the simple tone is most common, or was most common in preconciliar days, which is rather disappointing. It is the most modern of all the versions. Upon rediscovering this chant for ourselves, we worked from the solemn version found in the Liber Usualis. Here is a copy you can print.

And here is the text:

Alma Redemptoris Mater,
quæ pervia cæli porta manes et stella maris,
succurre cadenti,surgere qui curat, populo:
tu quæ genuisti, natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem.
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore sumens illud ave,
peccatorum miserere.

Kind Mother of the Redeemer,
thou who art the open door of heaven and star of the sea,
help thy fallen people, striving to rise again;
thou who gavest birth, while nature marveled, to thine own sacred Creator.
Virgin before and afterwards, receiving that greeting from the lips of Gabriel,
have mercy on sinners.

Viennese conductor and musicologist Michael Proctor writes on this antiphon in the Winter issue of Sacred Music. He discusses the many versions of the melody that one can find. He reconstructs two versions side by side, one from the 10th century (St. Gall) and one from the 13th century (Worcester Antiphonale), and puts both into "modern" neumes so that we can compare them (the first time this has been done with this chant, to my knowledge). Here are the results.

It is a fascinating exercise to compare their differences, and yet what stands out to me is how remarkably similar they are. The variations can be ascribed to local tradition in the most charming way, slight improvisations on particular words. Which one is the "real" Alma? Well, we only know that the simple tone is fully modern (17th century or later) and that the others are much earlier. There seems to be no crying need to settle on one in particular. They are all expressive and display something about the faith of our heritage.

(Over the years, there's been a great deal of hysteria concerning whether and to what extent the reconstruction efforts by the Solesmes monks succeeded somehow in rediscovering the "true" chant tradition in every way. Of course this is a silly way to phrase the question. What they did was recover the dominant strains and lines, but neither they nor their strongest defenders ever claimed that they had somehow rendered the one true way to sing all chants. There is nothing whatever to fear from deeper research, as Dom Mocquereau would be the first to say.)

Of course hundreds of motets have been written on the theme as well. We sang one by F. Guerrero this past Sunday.

I wish that I could find a recording of the solemn version on line but I don't see one.

A final note. I was humming this chant around the house one day, and to my surprise my daughter began to sing the hymn "I Know that My Redeemer Lives"--and it wasn't until that moment that I noticed the similarity of the two melodies. Did one influence the other? Surely not...

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