Friday, November 30, 2007

Dominus dabit, and the beauty of chant

I had to lecture on chant a few nights ago, so I played a bit of a game to prepare. I decided to pick this Sunday's communion antiphon, whatever it is, and use it as an illustration of the glorious unity of musical composition and theology that chant embodies. I wanted to show myself that what I suspect is true: every chant in the Graduale is a hidden treasure, and capable of being examined in the way that a masterpiece painting or architecture is examined.

The piece turned out to be Dominus Dabit:

The first step was learning it, which was not difficult since it is in familiar Mode I. Then the mysteries begin to be revealed. I like the announcement at the beginning of Lord, so elaborate and placed right at the start with a strong independent phrase, moving thereafter to how the Lord gives forth goodness. The goodness of the Lord is illustrated beautifully here with the highest notes of the piece, which then fall down.

I'll let Dom Johner continue with his commentary, and only add that the lower notes after land struck me as a way of illustrating that the growth of the final fruit in the last phrase comes from deep roots.

The Lord gives His blessing: a joyous animation runs through the melody with these words. What copious blessings has the Lord poured upon this earth, and what a plentitude of grace has He again placed in our souls in Holy Communion as seed for eternity! Wherever this seed falls upon rich soil, in souls who recognize that the one thing necessary is to do the will of God, there it bears rich fruit.

In the Blessed Virgin, however, this Communion finds its finest realization. Hitherto our earth had brought forth but thorns and thistles. We are, as Adam of St. Victor sang in the twelfth century, a thornhedge, lacerated by the thorns of sin; but Mary knows nothing of thorns. She is so richly blessed that the angel can greet her as "full of grace." The heart of this ancilla Domini was fertile soil, moistened by the dew of heaven. Soon she will present us with the most beautiful flowerlet, the ripest and most luscious fruit which has ever graced the face of the earth, a fruit so precious that mankind, generation after generation, will never weary of calling out to her: "Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus!"

The first phrase has a range of a ninth; with benignitatem it lets the blessings drop gently from above. The second phrase, which treats of the fruits of the earth, does not extend above the dominant of the mode (a). Both phrases descend in a gentle line to low c and begin the following member with an interval of a fourth. A fluent and bright rendition should characterize the whole piece.

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