Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Organic Musical Development in Salve Regina

Our friend Pes sent this fascinating commentary to me:

One way to move a parish further into the universal music of the Church is to teach it the antiphon, "Salve Regina" (Hail, Holy Queen). (early version | later version)

Since there has never been (nor is there now) an official requirement to sing a recessional hymn, congregations have found it an edifying exercise to sing words to Our Lady after being dismissed. The words addressed to her vary by season. The tradition is to sing the Salve during Ordinary Time. I have heard it sung with gusto here in Indiana, and it is a very fine thing. It is also easily learned.

The text is a supplication. In English: Hail, holy Queen, mother of mercy. Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope. To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate your eyes of mercy toward us. And after this, our exile, Show us the fruit of your womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Rather than just offer one version of the melody to this, I thought it would be interesting to offer two, because there are two classic versions of it. Comparing them is also instructive from a compositional perspective.

One version was composed later than the other, and I think you'll hear the difference as very striking.

Here is the opening phrase of the later Salve:

Notice the nice upward arch which enacts in music the lifting of our hearts to Mary, enthroned above. The melody peaks on the appellation "Mater," as of to exalt her unique excellence. This seems to render a hailing quite well, and the tone is major and bright. How different is the earlier version of this opening phrase:

The structure of the melody here is the inverse of the later version. I can't help but think it much more humble, much more of a supplication, as if one sings it with eyes downcast, respectfully. But it needn't be sung that way at all. What if one sings it with great confidence -- what is the effect then? Seriousness. The opening "salve" is like doffing a cap. The word "Regina" is given a regal melisma. "Mater misericordiae" is rendered with small, calm intervals. The effect of all this could never be sentimental or trite.(Try singing it in a silly voice: it's difficult to make it sound silly, isn't it?) It is a serious address to a Queen with real power.

The second phrase ("Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve") is also treated very differently in the two versions. The later version treats it as a response to the first half (a "consequent"), and it brings the entire opening part of the melody to rest on the same note at which it began:

The effect of relaxation is given a wonderful sweetness by those descending intervals, buoyed half-way through by the hopeful ascending melody of "spes nostra," until the melody bows again, at rest, on "salve." It's a very nice arched melody, skillfully constructed, easy to sing, and subtly illustrative. Its symmetrical structure and consistently major sound invites us to think it a later composition than the other, which is much more modal (i.e. less clearly major or minor). Here is the same phrase in the earlier version:

It's simply a repeat of the first phrase, but notice how elastic that same melody is in rendering the tenor of the text. It's a second hailing, yes (same melody), but "dulcedo" also gets treated the same way as "holy queen" but the melisma now sounds tender instead of regal, a kind of chivalric attitude? Notice then that the same melody gives "spes nostra" a short illustrative ascent before bowing again with the melody of "salve."

I'd like to pause here to consider the importance of these similarities in illustration. What is clear about the later Salve melody is that it has clearly learned some illustrative techniques from the earlier version, even while totally inverting the melody and its tonality! The later Salve is still, then, recognizably "chant." It is not a metrical melody, and it is still tied very much to the attentive attitude the earlier compositional masters had toward the content of the text at the level of the word.

This is the chant tradition in action, I believe. It developed into a major/minor direction (which then continued to form Western music in general), but its compositional game still bore a strong family resemblance to those of the early masters.

And perhaps it's enough to stop there, because my point in rehearsing these details is to suggest that with the two Salves, we have, in miniature, a clear view into how our Christian predecessors approached the job of continuing the tradition of sacred musical composition. First, they didn't take a smug modernist attitude, though they had every right to be proud of the changes in harmonic knowledge that had occurred. Second, they continued to use similar illustrative techniques because they shared the illustrator's mentality. We could probably think of other similarities.

I thought this worth sharing because it illustrates truly organic musical development. If only more composers in the 1960s had learned this lesson, we might not have such textually insensitive and musically uninteresting music to sing at Mass!

So all you young people out there: pay attention. You can write better music with more spiritual depth and staying power if you let yourself be attentive to how your predecessors approached the setting of text to melody for sacred use.

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