Thursday, February 13, 2020

A Description of Sarum Vespers, by James Griffin

On Tuesday, we shared a video of the First Vespers of Candlemas which were recently celebrated in Philadelphia according to the Use of Sarum. The organizer of the event, Mr James Griffin, has very kindly provided us with us with a detailed description of the ceremony, which we are very happy to publish, together with photos by Allison Girone.

Last September, photos of Vespers according to the Sarum Use celebrated at Balliol College, Oxford were posted on New Liturgical Movement. As a student of the Sarum Use for many years, I was immediately captivated by the photos and closely studied the Schola Sainte-Cecile’s program for the service; but I didn’t think any further about the article until a friend asked me if I could organize a liturgical event like it for our own community in the Philadelphia area, where I now live.

Many people expressed skepticism about this idea, but they couldn’t shake me from the opportunity I saw at hand. What if I could invite all the university students and scholars of early music in this city to a rare celebration of Vespers with just the kind of music they’ve been learning in concert hall environments, but in the original context for which it was composed? What if we could invite Catholics with an appreciation of sacred music to an event which would expose them to the broader treasury of our musical patrimony outside of the Mass? The possibilities for evangelization and outreach seemed endless. After speaking with the archdiocese’s office of worship, and asking the Dominicans of St Patrick’s Church in center city Philadelphia to host at their parish, I spent the next two months on a promotional campaign: Sarum Vespers for Candlemas Eve, 2020. On the night of the event, in a church with no free parking anywhere nearby, for a liturgy which fulfilled no Mass obligation, over 700 people poured through the doors of St. Patrick’s, telling the whole world that there was a hunger for beautiful, traditional worship. I’m privileged to be able to share with you the official video and photos of this historic occasion below.

The congregational service booklet may be viewed at this link. The full photo album, taken by Allison Girone, may be viewed here.

The verger (called “the sacristan with the rod” by the Sarum Customary) makes way for the procession. In the medieval Church, before the introduction of pews defined a central aisle, it was necessary for large churches to have someone bearing a rod to clear the way for the clergy. While an entrance procession is certainly not necessary for celebrations of the Divine Office—the clergy and choir at Salisbury likely took their own places individually before the start of the Hours—it was a practical necessity for such a large group in this space to enter the church in a more formal manner.

As in the traditional Roman Rite, the hours are preceded by several prayers recited in silence. The officiating priest begins with Deus in adjutorium meum intende, to which the choir answers with Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina and Gloria Patri. The Sarum Use directs the choir to turn to the altar at several points in the rite, including whenever the doxology is sung. Strictly speaking, the Sarum Use also envisions that the entire hour of Vespers—with the exception of the Responsory—is said while standing. We allowed the clergy and congregation to sit for the psalms, but no chairs were set out for either the singers or the altar servers.

The “heart” of Vespers is five psalms; however, the group used for First Vespers of the Purification in Sarum is different from that of the Roman Rite. As in the Dominican Use, Sarum assigns the Psalms of the Christmas octave: 109, 110, 111, 129, and 131 (in the traditional numbering). Each psalm is preceded by a semi-doubled antiphon, intoned by five different clerics in descending order of seniority. Each cleric is individually approached by the Precentor, who pre-intones for them as needed. We assigned the antiphons in advance to four priests and one deacon, all from different dioceses, religious orders, or the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter. It was hoped that this would visually signify how all the clergy sustain the universal Church by their obligation to pray the Hours daily.

After the cleric intones the first portion of the antiphon, the four rectores chori—rulers of the choir—go straight to the first verse of the psalm, followed by the rest of the choir. We sang all odd-numbered verses of the psalms in unison with the organ, with the verses fully notated in the programs for the congregation to join in singing. The even-numbered verses were sung by the choir alone to 3 or 4-part harmonies called fauxbourdon or falso bordone. The complete antiphon follows at the end of each psalm.

At the end of the third psalm, the four principal servers go into the sacristy to change from surplices to amices, albs, and cinctures. (Apparels for the amices and albs were made especially for this occasion.) Toward the end of the final psalm, the four servers assist the rulers with putting on silken copes, which they must wear as a proper vestment for the singing of the responsory, a common feature of First Vespers in medieval Uses. For this event, we took the opportunity to use Thomas Tallis’ setting of the responsory Videte miraculum; the four rulers still sing the verse and doxology in the original plainchant. Tallis’ setting is occasionally used by choirs today as an anthem during the Offertory or Communion at the Mass of the Purification, but it seems possible that this particular liturgy may have been the first time that it sung in its original context since his own lifetime.

R. Behold the miracle of the mother of the Lord: a virgin has conceived though she knows not a man, Mary, who stands laden with her noble burden; knowing not that she is a wife, she rejoices to be a mother. V. She has conceived in her chaste womb one who is beautiful beyond the sons of men, and blessed for ever, she has brought forth God and man for us. Mary… Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. Knowing…

During the responsory, the candle-bearers begin lighting the candles of the side altars, which were soon to be incensed. Because of the expense of candlewax before the modern period, it was common for the them to blow out the processional candles when they were not being used, and to only light candles on side altars when necessary.

The hymn Quod chorus vatum follows the responsory. Tallis only set the second and fourth verses to polyphony. For the first, third, and fifth, we set the plainchant to notation in the program and accompanied them with the organ for the congregation to sing. During the hymn, silken copes are brought to the officiating priest and one other, whom the officiant designates to assist him in incensing the altars.

After the hymn, two cantors sing a versicle. Unlike the Roman Rite, the choir does not sing the response, but recite it privately. The Precentor approaches the officiant to help him intone the antiphon before the Magnificat, which is sung in full before and after the canticle. The Precentor returns to the choir and the two priests approach the altar to begin the rite of incensation, first making a prostration and kissing the altar step.

For this liturgy, we were blessed to be able to set two reliquaries upon the altar, one of St Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury and martyr, and one of St Edward the Confessor, King of the English. While the two priests incense the high altar together, the choir sings the canticle of Our Lady. It seemed fitting for this occasion—being a restoration of sorts—to use the Magnificat written by Robert White during the brief restoration of the Sarum Use under Queen Mary I. Regretfully, we only had two choir rehearsals to dedicate to the entire program, so much of the Magnificat had to be reduced to psalm tones. I hope to have the complete White Magnificat sung at a future celebration.

After the incensation of the high altar and relics, the two priests form two separate processions, each led by a candle-bearer and thurifer, to the side altars on opposite sides of the church for them to be incensed in turn. The officiant has his way cleared by the verger. After the altars are incensed, the two priests return to their stalls to be incensed. The thurifers then incense the four rulers, then all the clergy and choir in order of rank.

At the end of Vespers, the Collect is said by the officiant at the foot of the altar, flanked by the candle-bearers. Two cantors sing Benedicamus Domino; as with the versicle, the response Deo gratias is made privately. On this occasion, the officiant added in silence a collect for the Sunday displaced by the Purification.

At Salisbury, the chapter would have gone on with Vespers of the Little Office or to Compline. (Those familiar with the Book of Common Prayer know that the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are both sung at Evensong: a sign of how Vespers and Compline, formerly having been sung together, were conjoined and abbreviated after the Reformation.) For this celebration, it seemed best to end it with Vespers and make a return procession out of the church.

The occasion of this celebration of Vespers allowed me to unveil the creation of a new liturgical institute to serve the Philadelphia metropolitan and surrounding regions: the Durandus Institute for Sacred Liturgy & Music. The Durandus Institute (named after William Durandus, the medieval French bishop and liturgical author) is committed to serving all forms of Catholic liturgy, but with a specialty in the medieval uses and those of the religious orders. A website will be developed soon. In the meantime, a Facebook page is currently live. We look forward to bringing about more opportunities to worship God in the full splendor of the Catholic tradition of sacred liturgy and music in the near future!

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