Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Two Stories of Discovery

One of the downsides of restoring propers one at a time, rather than singing them all, is that we miss the delightful interaction between them as they occur in the Mass. This weekend is a good example. The offertory and the communion chants tell two famous stories, each very different. Each uses word painting to convey the message. Both are classified as procession chants but the examples show how this tells little about the expected structure and feel.

The offertory text concerns how an angel announces that the Lord is risen. You might expect this chant to be rather elaborate and you would be exactly right. It is a communication from Heaven to earth, from eternity straight into time, to tell of a miracle that changes history forever. "Angelus Domini descendit de caelo, et dixit mulieribus: Quem quaeritis surrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia."

The mode is the brightest of the Greogorian repertoire. The structure begins low and moves straight up to Domini and then we see the descent take place just as quickly on "descendit" – but we've yet to reach the heights. That occurs in the next phrase before the melody navigates downwards again when the angel speaks and up yet again when speaking to the women. The most melismatic lines are reserved for the words of the angel: "The One whom you seek has risen as he said he would."

Can we say that the text is lost in this remarkable and fast-moving sweep of music? I think it is better to say that that text takes flight amidst a melody that is so picturesque that the communicative aspects of text take a subordinate role – or, another way to put it is that the text takes on a new communicative form that goes far beyond mere story telling. We are permitted to experience the real moment when the event happens, in real time, right in Mass!

Now consider the incredible contrast with the communion chant later in the Mass. Here we have another story of a discovery, written in the major mode of VI. This time is it Thomas, who is rather incredulous about this resurrection event. Jesus invites him to feel, physically feel, where the nail penetrated his flesh – proof that this is one in the same man who was crucified. He does so and he believes.

This chant is a straight text, with only the slightest elaboration on the word alleluia. I'm particularly struck by the treatment of the text "feel the place where the nails were." It moves hardly at all from a melodic point of view but instead drives forward relentlessly: "et cognosce loca clavorum." On the last syllable the tune goes upward and leaves you with a sense of wonder concerning the outcome. The chant finishing quickly with Jesus' calling for belief to replace doubt.

The chant is quick, almost didactic, probably following the pacing of the actual events themselves. After all, if one is doubting, one would feel no hesitation in wanting to discover what is true. The shock must have come immediately on discovery.

We have here two very different ways of story telling within the musical language of the Roman Rite. They occur not far from each other in the ritual, one about an Angel's announcement and one about a mortal's doubt – one told in a kind of heavenly musical language and one told in a very straight-forward and nearly plain way of speaking. We gain two very different messages from the music, but both have a way of illustrating the stories in a special way. Both should surely appear in the same liturgy. To miss one is to miss a dimension and expression of the faith.

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