Friday, May 16, 2008

Trinity Sunday and Chant Associations

If you live with the chant long enough, you begin to develop these beautiful little melodies in your head that are triggered by certain words and events. This happens when you think of certain days of the liturgical year such as Easter or Christmas or Ascension or certain special Masses such as the Requiem. It's the same way music works in our lives, the way a certain college name (Notre Dame) conjures up the fight song in the minds of its alumni, or the way the name of a rock band brings to mind its greatest hit.

It is the same with getting to know the propers in the context of the liturgical year. The name alone presents certain associations, perhaps on the third or the fourth year of singing it. The more we live in this world of chant, the more entrenched this associations become. They become as familiar as a college fight song or the presence of the birthday song when the cake is brought out or a lullaby for a child going to sleep. You almost can't imagine the occasion occurring without hearing the music in your head, and the music seems so familiar that you can believe for an instant that the whole world must know this tune. It is at this point that you begin to leave the "real world" in a good sort of way and enter into this complex universe of sights, thoughts, and sounds known collectively as the Catholic faith.

One such association happens this weekend on Trinity Sunday. It is the introit Benedicta sit. It begins with a fantastic enthusiasm in a major mode of VIII. All is right with the world. The first word in the chant that causes melodic dwelling happens when we sing Trinitas. We just don't want to let go of it. Then we begin to sing of a feature of the Trinity: its undivided unity. The next phrase is the final moment of exuberance as we give profound thanks, until we begin to sing of the mercy of the Trinity and here we express a bowing down in humble gratitude. It's all here, the expression of gratitude by the whole community of believers, even the entire world.

In this one introit we see the culmination of all that has come before, from the birth of Christ, to the suffering of Lent and the Good Friday to the resurrection and ascension and Pentecost, and with this remarkable drama encompassing the whole of time and eternity we at last come to the living presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, undivided, in our lives and in the universe.

I'm always curious about what Johner says about these pieces. He says that the melody actually comes from the first Sunday of Lent. Looking it up just now, he is exactly right. Significance? It's pretty clear. He further points out that this introit is a relatively new adaptation since the feast was not extended to the universal Church until 1334, even if it has roots in a Votive Mass for the Holy Trinity from the 8th century.

It is also interesting that he is not entirely happy with the chant adaptation.

Particularly unfortunate is the fact that the ascending melody over the accented syllable of glorificabo eum is here fitted to the unaccented syllable (confite)-bi-(mur ei). It seems that the seven syllables of this text were parceled out to the seven groups of notes which are carried by the seven syllables of the original with no reference to the word-accent. Furthermore the second half of the first phrase begins with the motive which in the original brings the first phrase to a close."

So much for the view that Johner held a hagiographic view of the Graduale! Reading his gentle critique, one can only imagine what he might think of the processional songs that commonly replace the Introit. Nonetheless, he concludes that "the entire feeling of the original is admirably suited to that of our present Introit: it is a joyously moving song of thanksgiving."

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