Did a colleague or friend ever walk up to you to praise you and your work, and point out also that you are generally a wonderful person and good friend—really a model and ideal? Your first thought is: ok, what does this guy want? Sure enough, most of the time, our instincts are right. Our friend wants something from us. Maybe it's money. Maybe it's that he seeks allies in some dispute. Maybe he wants us on "his side" for some reason. It's not always the case, but it happens often enough.
Between the first statement about your glories and the following request for a favor, there is a change in tone, isn't there? Well, the same scenario plays itself out in this Sunday's communion chant, and the music beautifully illustrates the change in tone from the praise to the request to the final compelling beg.
We begin with a lovely and calming song, with words from Psalm 118. "In salutari tuo anima mea." My soul aspires after your salvation." Also, "et in verbum tuum speravi." I hope in your word.
But then the chant shifts, with the speaker imploring God to do something about the persecution he is enduring. The rhythm is in the form of a recitation, with a particularly emphatic lift on "me." "When will you judge those who persecute me?" the singer asks. Then he provides a repetitive emphasis with zealous fire on "persecuti": The wicked are persecuting me." This is highly subjected, but I sense an element of hysteria is just beneath the surface.
We end with the sound of weeping and imploring. "Adjuva me, Domine Deus meus." You can sense the singer on his or her knees, begging "come to my assistance, Oh Lord my God."
It is chants like these that help me sense an ancient sense of "story telling" inherent in some aspects of Gregorian chant. It might be too much to say that it shares a sensibility with "folk" music but the connection to a culture of audible learning and sharing, with the music there to ripen and intensive the text, seems hard to overlook. This is dramatic, evocative music, given to us not just to make worship and adoration more fitting but also to convey a meaning and illustrate a truth.
Nathan Knutson, cathedral and diocesan director of sacred music, performing artist, father, lecturer on sacred music