Sunday, January 01, 2023

Ambrosian Music for the Feast of the Circumcision

This article is based on notes written by our long-time Ambrosian writer Nicola de’ Grandi, translated by myself.

The Duomo of Milan as it stands today is the result of a project which began in 1386, to replace the two cathedrals which had hitherto served the see of St Ambrose. The “winter church”, as it is still named in Ambrosian liturgical books, was the smaller of the two, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and used from the Third Sunday of October, the feast of its dedication, until Holy Saturday; it stood where the modern cathedral stands, but was nowhere near as large. The larger “summer church” stood on the opposite end of the modern Piazza del Duomo, and was dedicated to St Thecla, for which reason her name is included in the Canon of the Ambrosian Mass. In the Ambrosian Rite, several liturgical days (the vigil of Easter and its whole octave, the vigil and feast of Pentecost, and the Sixth Sunday of Advent) have two Masses assigned to them, one of which was originally celebrated in the summer church, and the other in the winter church. Ever since the two buildings were consolidated into a single, massive church, one of these two has been celebrated in a side-chapel. The ancient complex also had two baptisteries, one dedicated to the Baptist, and known as St John “ad fontes”, and the other to St Stephen.

A reconstruction of the cathedral complex of Milan, with the summer church of St Thecla on the left, and the winter church of the Virgin Mary at the right. The octagonal structure in front of St Thecla is the baptistery of St John; the smaller structural beneath it is the baptistery of St Stephen. At the lower right is a partial reconstruction of the interior of the baptistery of St John.
The two baptisteries were used not only for the celebration of Baptism, but also for the many stational processions which have formed part of the Ambrosian Divine Office from the very earliest times, following the ancient custom of the church of Jerusalem. Such processions are held at the end of both Lauds and Vespers on all Sundays and feasts of the Lord, and most ferias; on the feasts of the Saints, only at Lauds, since the Vespers procession takes place at the Saint’s own church. Even after the demolition of the baptistery of St John in 1410, all the elements of these processions (the various chants and prayers) were diligently preserved.

The stational part at the end of Lauds begins with twelve Kyrie, eleisons, after which the celebrant sings “Dominus vobiscum” (which is said very much more often in the Ambrosian Rite than in the Roman), and a deacon intones the first processional chant, known as a psallendum. The lectors and notaries then alternate the chant as the clergy make their way in procession to the baptistery. Before the new duomo was constructed, this was always the baptistery of St John, but on many days, there was a second station at that of St Stephen.
From the beginning of Advent to the first Sunday after Epiphany, and from Sexagesima to Easter Saturday, the first psallendum is followed by a responsory, which is called “in baptisterio.” Here is a beautiful recording by the great Schola Hungarica of the apposite responsory for the feast of the Circumcision, which preserves the proper manner of singing it in alternation between the clergy and the boys’ schola. The text is taken from Psalm 80; there is a particularly glorious melisma on the A of the last occurrence of the word “solemnitatis”.
R. in bapt. Canite in initio mensis tuba, * in die insignis solemnitatis vestrae.
V. I Exultate Deo adjutori nostro, jubilate Deo Jacob, in die insignis solemnitatis vestrae.
V. II Sumite psalmum, et date tympanum, psalterium cum cithara, in die insignis solemnitatis vestrae.

R. in bapt. Sing at the beginning of the month with a trumpet, * on the day of your great solemnity.
V. I Rejoice to God our helper, sing aloud to the God of Jacob, on the day of your great solemnity.
V. II Take up the psalm, and bring forth the timbrel, the psaltery with the harp on the day of your great solemnity.

This first part of the stational liturgy concludes with a prayer, which in this case, is the same as that anciently said in the Roman Rite as the main Collect of the Circumcision. “Deus, qui nobis nati Salvatóris diem celebráre concédis octávum: fac nos, quáesumus, ejus perpétua divinitáte muníri, cujus sumus carnáli commercio reparáti. – O God, who grant us to celebrate the eighth day of the Savior’s Birth; strengthen us by the everlasting divinity of Him, by whose dealing in the flesh we have been restored.”
At both Vespers of the Circumcision, there are two psallenda; the second of these would originally have been sung while processing from the baptistery of St John to that of St Stephen. It is also sung at the Mass as the Transitorium, the Ambrosian equivalent of the Roman Communion antiphon. The same chant appears as one of the many processional antiphons sung on the feast of the Purification, and formerly also on the Sixth Sunday of Advent, which in the Ambrosian Rite is a feast of the Virgin Mary, the solemn commemoration of the Annunciation and Incarnation. In the following video, it begins at 5:19.
Virgo hodie fidelis, etsi Verbum genuit incarnatum, Virgo mansit et post partum; Quam laudantes omnes dicimus: Benedicta tu in mulieribus. (Today the faithful Virgin, although She begot the incarnate Word, remained a virgin even after birth; and praising Her, we all say, Blessed art thou among women.)

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