Monday, December 21, 2009

Ave Maria: The Offertory Chant

[Live recording, contemporary]

From William Mahrt, editor of Sacred Music, comes this commentary on this past Sunday's offertory chant. A striking fact is that many Catholics today are not even aware that there is a particular piece of music specifically assigned to be sung at offertory. As a result, we loss cultural access to the source of even common prayers such as Ave Maria:

We may not often think about the sources of the “Hail Mary”; it is often called the “Angelic Salutation,” leading us to assume that it consists only of the words of the Archangel Gabriel. The Gospel of St. Luke gives us precise information: the first phrase “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum,” consists of the words of Gabriel at the Annunciation. The following words, however, are those of Elizabeth at the Visitation, “Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui.” The composer of this offertory most likely was quite aware of these differences, since the melody makes a clear distinction in range between the two messages. Gabriel’s words form the first half of the piece, marked by a colon; Elizabeth’s the second half, beginning with an expansion of the range, representing the female voice by higher pitches, at least at the beginning.

The piece is in mode eight, which has an interesting pitch structure. The main strong notes of the system, regardless of mode, form what is called a chain of thirds: A-C-D-F-a-c-e (Capitals are the pitches A–G completely below middle c; lower-case letters represent a–g which surround middle c; doubles represent the sequence of pitches aa–ee entirely above middle c; these are the medieval designations commonly identified with Guido of Arezzo. ) Mode eight has a final of G, which is not one of the strong notes, and a reciting tone of c, which is a strong note. The result of is that a frequent melodic figure in this mode is the triad below the reciting note, F–a–c, and some of the most interesting melodic action is between this chain of thirds and the G final.

Thus Ave Maria begins with a figure on “Ave” centering first upon F–a, then, moving through G–E, the triad D–F–a, leading to G. The G–E third leads down to the D, but also establishes an expectation of a return to G, which then provides the final of the passage. On “Maria” the melody rises to the reciting tone, reviews the chain of thirds downward and back up again and down to arrive at the G; thus the closest connection has been made here between the F–a–c thirds and the G–c final and reciting tone.

That G–c fourth is mirrored by the fourth below the final, G–D, in the next phrase, “gratia plena.” Then that fourth below is complemented by the fourth above on “Dominus tecum,” but here there is more development: the first incise (to the first quarter bar) outlines the G–c fourth; the next repeats it exactly, but extends it, touching on the F below the final, and then on “tecum,” the two fourths are placed in immediate juxtaposition leading to the final: G–D–G–c . . . G, an emphatic conclusion to the Angel’s salutation.

The address of Elizabeth, “benedicta tu . . . ,” distinguishes this female speaker by setting the melody higher; in fact it rises a step higher than the theoretical ambitus of the mode permits; thus it is a pointed featuring of the voice of Elizabeth; this figure develops the chain of thirds a third higher, a–c–e, descending then from c to G, re-establishing the G¬–c relationship. This is developed on “in mulieribus” by reiterating the fourth a step higher, progressing to the a–c third, which in turn leads to a cadence on b, an unusual cadence note for the G-mode, a cadence which leaves a sense of being incomplete and demands further motion forward. The following phrase fulfills that expectation by descending through the chain, c–a–F–D, reiterating the D–F–a figure upward and downward and rising finally to the G final.

The piece is somewhat more melismatic than most offertories, but it is significant that all the melismas occur on accented syllables of important words; thus, in contrast to graduals and alleluias, which often place melismas upon final unaccented syllables, departing somewhat from the text, these melismas emphasize and decorate the text itself. The overall contour of the melody is shapely and graceful, as one would expect of the words and actions of both of the speakers.

It is interesting to note that there is another mode-eight offertory on the same text, Ave Maria, for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is the same text, except that it ends with “alleluia.” It is very unusual that the same text in the same genre should be represented by two different melodies in the same repertory. When the only textual difference is the addition of an alleluia, the tradition simply added an alleluia to an existing piece. I would guess that the occasion for this piece was the definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, at which time the text was probably proposed and someone at Solesmes composed a new chant.

All this talk about the melismas here made me curious about the post-Trent, pre-Solesmes edition of this piece. Even our Ratisbon friends did not see fit to purge the melismatic character completely! See what we have from the 1870 Gradual:

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