Saturday, March 21, 2020

Longing in Dorian Mode: Guest Article by Mr John Chalny

Our thanks to Mr John Chalny for sharing this article with us, an explanation of the antiphon at the Benedictus corresponding to today’s Gospel in the OF, that of the Publican and the Phrasisee (Luke 18, 9-14). It was originally published on his Medium page, and is reproduced here by his kind permission. Mr Chalny has spent half of his life in European capitals and half in small-town North America; he writes about faith and culture, and is currently in a monastery in Italy weathering the coronavirus storm.

The Benedictus antiphon for Saturday morning lauds offers an eloquent musical commentary on the Latin text. The antiphon is in Dorian mode, which is the “gravest and manliest” of the modes according to Aristotle (Politics 1342b). Indeed, the publican in the back of the temple is humble and virile, upright and kneeling, as it were.

The antiphon from the Vallombrosian Benedictine Oblates monastery breviary begins one note below the tonic (the subtonic), “at the back” of the mode, to fit the text “at the back of the temple”. In fact, until the end of the first line, the melody keeps us uncertain as to where we are in the mode. Only when it rests on the tonic for the last three syllables of publicanus are we sure where our grounding is. At first destabilized, we gain a foothold when we realize that we too identify with the publican.

The first syllable of nolebat ducks back to the subtonic, connecting the “back of the temple” with the “not looking up” that characterizes the posture of the publican. The whole phrase is constructed by contrary movement between the rising and falling flow of the melody and the meaning of the words: a tentative lift on nolebat follows the already mentioned bowing of the head in the first syllable, but returns to the subtonic on oculos. On the words “lift to the heavens” (which was negated by the nolebat) the melody barely rises, and falls immediately back to rest on the tonic.

The second phrase of the antiphon, “but beating his breast, saying”, introduces a movement forward by starting on the mediant (the third note of the scale, halfway between the tonic and the dominant). It could be the beginning of a hopeful line, or not. The mediant is ambiguous, it could go either way. In fact, “but…” is almost a hopeful word, until the content of the opposition is clarified. Not only is the poor man unable to raise his eyes and is kneeling in the back of the temple, he also is beating his breast. Perhaps we too know what that is about, what sorrow and regret and lacerated hearts we secretly carry under our robes… This phrase ends with dicens on the subtonic: still, cavernous, yearning, subterranean.

The publican says: “God, be propitious/have mercy on me a sinner”. The first word in the phrase, Deus, remains between the subtonic and the tonic. It is a bare word, objective and deprived of emotion. But then — have mercy, take pity! Propitius soars upward, tentative and fluctuating, grazing momentarily and wistfully against the submediant (the sixth note in the scale, halfway between the dominant and the higher tonic). Then it rests on the dominant, and then returns down to the earthiness of “me, a sinner”.

A miniature masterpiece, hidden in the pages of the psalter. It is like a monkish smile, half-hidden by a cowl, transmitted across the centuries. Longing and sorrow, hope and realistic self-appraisal, contained in thirty seconds of music.

More from the monastery here.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: