Saturday, February 03, 2007

Gregorian Chant: not just music, but sung theology

by Dom Christopher Lazowski
Abbaye Saint-Wandrille, FRANCE

Being a fairly standard-issue Benedictine, I am partial to "ferial spirituality". Thus I tend to notice when the proper of saints ties in with the proper of seasons. It does today, at least in France, where we celebrate the memoria of St. Anskar (801-865), monk of Corbie, archbishop of Bremen, and apostle of Denmark (of which he is the patron), Norway & Sweden.

The text of today's antiphon for the Benedictus is : "Lumen ad revelationem gentium praedicavit Anscharius, et borealis regio solem iustitiae orientem ex alto conspexit" ; "Anskar preached the light of revelation to the nations, and the region of the north beheld the sun of justice, the rising sun from on high."

This antiphon isn't in the 1934 Antiphonale Monasticum ; it's in the 1935 Antiphonale Solesmense. I don't think it's an ancient text. It sounds to me more like an adaptation, but I could be wrong. If it is an adaptation, it's a good one. I supplemented my reflections on the text by having a look at an Antiphonale Monasticum in the custody of our maître de choeur, into which one of his predecessors copied all the neumes from Hartker, and cross-referenced parallel passages.

The antiphon clearly prolongs the spirit of the feast of the Presentation, with expressions like "Lumen ad revelationem gentium", "solem iustitiae", and "conspexit" (which reminds me of "viderunt oculi mei" in the Nunc Dimittis), whereas "orientem ex alto" ties in with the Benedictus. The melody goes up to C three time (in fact up to D once); often in Gregorian chant, the highest pitched parts of a melody draw attention to the parts of the text the composer wanted to highlight. The three words in question are "praedicavit", "borealis", and "alto". Anskar "preached" the word that dwells on high, in uncreated light. He did so in the "north", way up there. That's the word were we hit D. The people Anskar preached to beheld the rising sun from on "high". So the music invites us to raise up the eyes of our soul to contemplate Christ who comes to meet us with salvation.

Our "Antiphonale Duplex" doesn't give any neumes for this antiphon, which shows that it's not in Hartker. But it does reveal two other points, beacause it gives two cross-references to other antiphons. In "solem iustitiae", "iustitiae" quotes the melody of "facias" in "ut salvum facias populum tuum", "that you may save your people", from the antiphon for Thursday of the second week of Advent. The melody of "orientem" reproduces that of "sicut imber", "like the dew", from the antiphon for the Magnificat of Lauds of Christmas Eve (the Liturgia Horarum and the 2005 Antiphonale Monasticum have moved it to 19 December). The Saviour of the world descends into the Virgin's womb like the dew. So when the dawn breaks, the dew of the gospel of salvation falls on those who dwell in the desert, in ignorance of Christ, and brings refreshment to their souls; the rising sun enlightens the most far-flung corners of the world,and invites all peoples into the Church. Liturgical Christmastide may be over, but in our life on earth it is always Advent, since we need to welcome Christ into our hearts anew each morning.

Gregorian chant isn't just good (often great) music; it's sung theology, and lectio divina set to music.

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