Friday, May 21, 2010

Veni Sancte Spiritus

Here is a commentary on the Gospel alleluia for Pentecost, Veni Sancte Spiritus. It is by Ted Krasnicki

In the musical treasure of Gregorian chant there are some compositions that stand out for their exceptional beauty. One such masterpiece is the second alleluia for Pentecost Sunday Veni Sancte Spiritus, a prayer to the Holy Spirit whose accompanying melody is of unusual beauty. It is a unique composition having a distinct melody, unlike many alleluias that were composed using one of the several melody types, so it was given significant attention by the composer in relation to the text. Indeed the verse text and melody blend together so well that it is a fine example of Augustine's observation that one prays twice through song. The melody reflects our supplication to the Holy Spirit, revealing our fervent yet humble desire for His Love to fill us. Alleluias are not always joyous acclamations, but are often humble interior prayers as is this one. This text over the centuries has become the customary prayer to the Holy Spirit. Traditionally, everyone kneels while singing or reciting the verse.

This alleluia is also special because it was not part of the original set of propers for Pentecost Sunday that had been composed by the mid 8th century when the Roman schola cantorum had completed most of the Mass propers and which were soon afterwards transmitted to the Franks. The original Roman Gospel Alleluia was Spiritus Domini, which is not used anymore today. By the 11th century, Veni Sancte Spiritus was making its appearance as the Gospel Alleluia for Pentecost Sunday.[1] Dom Cardine thought that the text and music may have been composed and added to the Pentecost Mass propers by Robert the Pious who later became Robert II, King of the Franks.[2] However, the text and melody can already be found in manuscripts dating from the first quarter of the 10th century, about 50 years before the birth of Robert, so he could not have composed it.[3] But it is likely of Frankish origin even if only for its easily remembered melodic line as distinct from Roman chant whose constant ornamental oscillations make it more difficult to grasp and remember.

Veni Sancte Spiritus is unmistakably a mode 2 composition with its heavy emphasis on the RE as the final and with a range from the DO in the lower tetrachord to only SIb in the higher. It falls mostly within the natural hexachord of the later theorists. The RE is especially strong in this entire piece, not so much as an anchor but as the goal for all the other notes to return, like a magnet drawing all the other notes after they had meandered away. Except for the symbolism in the opening alleluia, there are no big leaps which a mode 2 composition can take. All the cadences and half-cadences end on the RE, except for one MI on amoris. Dom Gajard wonders whether it is a real cadence at all and questions the justification of placing a small breath bar after it in the Vatican edition, as the melody can continue a few more notes to be definitely resolved on the RE of eis.[4] On the other hand, there are two ways the MI is used in a mode 2 composition, as Fr. Saulnier has pointed out.[5] MI can be a weak note like that of a pien in a pentatonic scale which one would expect in a descending melody; or it can be a strong note of rest directly related to the RE in an ascending melody.[6] In this case, except for the added ornament on FA, the melody is ascending and the MI is strong.

The melody that begins the alleluia here is effectively an ornamentation of the RE. It is a simple melody that revolves around the RE, hugging it warmly, giving a sense of peaceful prayer. The jubilus that follows is a typical Gospel alleluia melody in so far as it can be divided into three parts that express the ineffable Trinity, not with words, but through the melody. Each part is divided by the dotted RE and represents each person of the Trinity. Beginning with the Father, the jubilus launches itself from a much higher note SOL as if from the height just near heaven itself, and then slowly descends back to the RE. Throughout the piece we see slow descents of the melody through little steps, as if a dove were gently relaxing its wings and slowly coming down towards us. The figure of the descending dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit was quite important for this composer. In the part representing the Son, the melody starts even higher, at the LA, the abode of Christ, following his ascension into heaven.[7] The melody again very slowly descends like a dove towards the RE. It would not be inappropriate to make a slight pause after the second RE that separates the Son from the Holy Spirit, and in fact seems quite natural to do so here. The last part of the jubilus representing the Holy spirit flows so well from the the second, that we could say it embodies the notion of the filioque which was then gaining support throughout the Frankish Empire. The jubilus ends solidly with RE after a brief rest on MI. It would seem as if the RE represents us here on earth praying towards heaven for the Holy Spirit to come down to us, not to bring flames of fire, but to comfort our hearts with the warmth God's peace which is Love.

The verse melody begins with the motive of the lasting melos, FA-SOL-LA-SI-LA, but is transposed to the lower tetrachord DO-RE-MI-FA-MI. This is a musical formula used to suggest a gain after a great loss such as in the requiem Kyrie where eternal life comes to us by way of death. Jesus has returned to heaven leaving the Apostles alone, which is most discomforting and a great loss for them; but their gain is the Holy Spirit sent as the great Comforter and which we today invite to bless us too. So the melody begins with a desire for the loss to be transformed into a blessing. Although mode 2 is Guido's Secundus tristus, there is little sadness here with major thirds placed in the right places to enliven the melody and prevent it from slipping into sorrow. As in the opening alleluia, the RE throughout the verse is a strong note of resolution towards which all other notes are attracted.

Following ancient tradition, speech accents within important words of the text are given melodic emphasis, such as in Veni, Spiritus, and amoris. The biggest emphasis is of course given to the accented syllable of amoris. Love is the special characteristic of the Holy Spirit. Although there are some slight variations in the manuscripts for this melisma, we have a quick rising in small steps on the previous words which has set up amoris to start on high notes, and then a slow descent begins through small intervals, as if a bird, the Dove, is slowly descending towards us. In the middle of the melisma we have an interesting motive taken from the Pentecost Introit Spiritus Domine, found on the word replevit which is also suggested by the opening melody on Spiritus. What we would today call an arpeggio, the melody moves upward on a staircase of notes that suggest the flight of a bird gracefully rising in the sky. The melody for the introit Spiritus Domine also emulates the flight of a bird, the Dove, but here its flight encompasses the entire world. Whereas the text of Spiritus Domine, having been taken from the more philosophical book of Wisdom, emphasises God's presence throughout the external world, the text of Veni Sancte Spiritus centres on the interior prayer of the individual. But in both cases, the character of the melody appropriately matches the character of the text.

Finally, we have, according to the custom of the time, a repetition of the alleluia melody repeated at the end of the verse beginning on the last words ignem accende with a slight modification on ignem. At the time this alleluia was composed there were no Sequences that followed the Gospel alleluia as these came centuries later; so the beautiful Trinitarian alleluia at the beginning can be repeated again after the verse according to a long tradition if the Sequence is sung before and not after the Gospel alleluia, as is often the case today.

[1]. cf. St Gallen 375 P175.

[2]. Dom Eugène Cardine, Graduel Nuemé, Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes. Page 272

[3]. cf. St Gallen 359 P21. Perhaps the text is based on Veni Creator Spiritus attributed to Frankish bishop Rabanus Maurus if not vice versa,

[4]. Dom Gajard, Les Plus Belles Mélodies Grégoriennes, Solesmes, 1985. Page 167

[5]. Dom Daniel Saulnier OSB, The Gregorian Modes, Solesmes, 2002. Page 55

[6]. Quite a few of the early chant compositions use only the notes of the pentatonic scale.

[7]. Christ did not only suffer, die, and resurrect but went further into heaven as the motive FA-MI-SOL-LA symbolically represents. cf. M. Clement Morin pss. and Robert M. Fowells, “The Gregorian Language: Servus Dei”, in Cum Angelis Canere, edited by Robert A. Skeris, Saint Paul (MN): Catholic Church Music Association, 1990, pages 85-88.

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