Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Jesus's first miracle in music

I wish I could provide an erudite commentary on Dicit Dominus, but alas one evades me completely in the face of this, one of the most difficult and fascinating communios we've encountered.

The text recounts the first miracle of Christ: "Jesus saith to them: Fill the waterpots with water and carry to the chief steward of the feast. When the chief steward had tasted the water made wine, he saith to the bridegroom: Thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in the presence of his disciples."

And the chant is in the 6th mode but not in a stable way that one might expect. At the outset, I found myself singing as if in the first mode, but then it begins to move in unexpected ways until we arrive an a very high range above the staff, emphasized in three separate note trios precisely at the point where the servant discovers that the water has been turned to wine. It's a miracle, says the melody. It is also precisely at this point that I lose track of the "tonic" or "final" pitch, the Fa, so that by the time it arrives at the end, it feels as if one has been through a complete transformation, accepting the notes as if by faith. And yet, it is precisely where we began.

Ah! The miraculous transformation is illustrated in the musical line. Surely that's it!

Events prevented me from learning this chant the way I should have before singing it, but I did get through it a dozen times or so before liturgy. Even then, whereas others singers had a fuller sense of it, I felt like I was still navigating the black dots on the page, particularly the difficult switch between the flatted and natural note before the Doh.

This is to say nothing about the difficulties of the Latin, the rhythm, the subtle articulations of the liquiscent notes--all of which add up to a chant that is not for the feint of heart! Here is one recording online, in which the singers do their best but can't manage the melodic line. If you listen, you can tell that even these monks become confused, and the attempt to accompany it (what a mistake!) actually increases the confusion.

So: to those who aspire to musical excellence, try this at home! To sing this perfectly requires something approximating...a miracle.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: