Guest column from Jake Tawney of Roma locuta est.
Before discussing the translation, take a listen to a far better known Introit: the Puer natus from the Mass of Christmas Day.
Did you catch it? Listen to them both again carefully. The first thing you will notice is that they are both in mode 7, so they have a similar “sound” to one another. Mode 7 always strikes me as a “solemn joy” mode. It is bright enough to convey the sense of the jubilant, yet toned down enough to emphasize the great solemnity of the event. Keeping in mind that the Introit is the first thing heard at Mass, it (excuse the pun) sets the tone for the rest of the celebration. The mode is appropriate for Nativity of the Lord as well as the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. Both are joyous events to be sure, yet each in its own unique way is an event to be pondered with a great sense of awe and mystery.
The similarity is not just in the mode, however. If you listen to them once more, pay careful attention to the verse that is sung after the Introit and before its repetition. It is not only the same mode, but the same melody. This, of course is not unusual, for most of the mode 7 Introits take this melody for their verses. But these two Introits share not only the same melody for their verse; in this case they also share the same words.
Cantate Domino canticum novum: quia mirabilia fecit.
Sing unto the Lord a new song, for he has done wondrous deeds.
The verse is an alteration of the opening of the 96th Psalm and is appropriate for both of these great solemnities. The Nativity of the Lord is that day on which the darkness of the cosmos begins to decrease and the light of salvation begins its increase. Even the dating of Christmas near the winter solstice shows off this cosmic significance, as pointed out in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ratzinger). The light will find its definitive victory in the Resurrection. (Incidentally, the very same verse, mode, and melody are found in the Introits for the Feria Quarta and Feria Qunita following Easter. Moreover, although different in structure and mode, the same phrase forms the main Introit text for the fourth Sunday after Easter, which has thus been dubbed “Cantate Sunday”.) As for the Assumption, the Church is emphasizing that perennial apologetic truth, that Mary’s bodily Assumption was not something she accomplished, but was a “wondrous deed” accomplished by the Lord. The first “wondrous deed” done through the Blessed Virgin was precisely that event of its paired Introit: the Nativity, which was the culmination of the event that begun with her fiat at the Annunciation. (As expected, there are musical connections between the Annunciation and the Assumption. The same mode 2 Introit is prescribe for the Feast of the Annunciation and the Vigil of the Assumption; the Introit is Vultum tuum and comes from the Common of Virgins.)
The very structure of the Introits themselves is similar, though some of this is to be expected given that most Introits are very similar in basic structure, and these two find themselves composed in the same mode. However, there is one melodic line that is identical and shares a similar text. In the Puer Natus we hear, “et vocabitur” which translates, “and shall be called.” (The phrase actually pairs with the subsequent words “et vocabitur nomen ejus” to translate, “And his name shall be called.”) In the Signum magnum we hear, “et in capite” which translates, “and on her head” (when the Latin ejus is added to the phrase). Both phrases share the same melody line with a sustained pitch (the Puer natus on the end of vocabitur and the Signum magnum on the end of capite. The word ejus, present at the close of both phrases and given an ornate melisima, can be translated from Latin as either “his” or “hers” according to context. By giving this pronoun a musical emphasis, the paired Introits point out the two key players in the history of salvation: Christ (the new Adam) and Mary (the New Eve). In fact, both Introits have the same word (ejus) ending the previous phrase as well. The full reality of the texts is that each eloquently describes the person whom the respective Mass is celebrating: the Puer Natus describes the infant Jesus and the Signum magnum describes the Assumed Virgin. Both are laden with lyrical and musical mystery appropriate to their reality.
The full translations of the texts are:
Puer natus est nobis,
et filius datus est nobis:
super humerum ejus:
et vocabitur nomen ejus,
magni consilii Angelus.
A child is born to us, and Son is given to us: whose government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, the Angel of great counsel.
apparuit in caelo:
mulier amicta sole,
et luna sub pedibus ejus,
et in capite ejus
corona stellarum duodecim.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
It never ceases to amaze me the musical and lyrical connections found in the Gregorian Propers. The more one studies the chants, the more one comes to realize why these pieces form the official music of the Church. People who grew up with these melodies would have been all too familiar with the popular Puer Natus and, upon hearing the verse from the Signum magnum, would have been immediately transported to the Mass of Christmas Day. Whether the connection in their minds be conscious or subconscious, it would have been made nonetheless. Examples of these types of parallels are bountiful in the Gregorian repertoire. The reality is that the liturgy and Gregorian chant developed in tandem; as the liturgy, guided by the Holy Spirit, was finding its voice, that voice became expressed in the Gregorian melodies that grew up along side of it. For this reason, the two are inseparable. This is why, while other forms of music, such as Sacred Polyphony, may be appropriate to express the grandeur of the Sacred Liturgy, they will always be subordinate to the Gregorian compositions.* This is also why a period of history that has marginalized, or even eliminated, the Gregorian Chant that is proper to the liturgy is a period that will necessarily lose sight of the essence of the sacramental mysteries that constitute life in the Church.
* It should be pointed out, however, that the structure of Sacred Polyphony is based of the ancient Gregorian melodies, which is why they contain within themselves a continuity that suits them for use during the Sacred Mysteries.