Thursday, March 10, 2011

Duo Seraphim Clamabant

Russell Roan of Richardson, Texas, offers his review of the 20th Annual Renaissance Polyphony Weekend held recently at the University of Dallas:

To me, it was very edifying to be deep inside the music (and text) of these works. There is a basic level of appreciation of this kind of work, in which simply listening to the beauty of the setting can move the listener, who may not have any idea as to the text or intended purpose of the composition. The next level, I think, is if one has some basic familiarity with the text or at least the function of the text. So, the listener may know that he is hearing a Sanctus, for example, and know the text from the English translation of the mass parts. So knowing the general meaning and purpose of the text and hearing musical motifs that suggest certain emotions or moods may deepen the effect of the composition if the text and effect of the music are in harmony.

In this case, it was a rare opportunity to carry this level of appreciation to yet a deeper level, in spending long hours in rehearsing the music and learning the subtleties that might not have been discernible on a single hearing, even if there were basic familiarity with the text. It is especially true for someone who has some working knowledge of Latin, however limited. I was struck by the number of times I encountered a phrase of music that perfectly invoked the Latin text that was being sung at that moment. It was my unworthy privilege to be able to take the time to allow the music and text to swirl around together in my thoughts.

While the Monteverdi mass was quite beautiful and had some profound moments – among the most moving to me was the profound drop to whispered pianissimo at the words et homo factus est (and became man) in the Credo; followed immediately by music that suggested weeping in lamentation in the next line crucifixus etiam pro nobis (and also was crucified for us).



But for me, my favorite work that we did was the motet by Jacobus Gallus: Duo Seraphim Clamabant. The text is derived from Isaiah 6:2-3.

Duo seraphim clamabant, alter ad alterum, sanctus sanctus sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth, plena est omnis terra gloria eius.

(Two seraphim shouted, one to the other, Holy Holy Holy (is the) Lord God of Hosts, all the earth is full of His glory.)

This is the textual foundation for the Sanctus in the liturgy - modified to pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.

A more literal take on clamabant would be "were shouting" - imperfect tense - incomplete, ongoing, eternal - outside the bounds of time, just as our liturgy is outside the bounds of time.

(Oddly, the Vulgate uses the Latin word for army/host exercitus in Isaiah 6:3, whereas in Romans 9:29 and James 5:4 the Hebrew sabaoth is used.)

Of particular interest to me was the phrase alter ad alterum - one to the other. Both seraphim are shouting (clamabant not clamabat) - each to the other. But alter is an interesting Latin word to use here. It is only used with things that come in pairs - hands, eyes, ears, twins. The two seraphim are separate beings yet eternally bound to one another in some mysterious way.

Recall also that, in Catholic theology, the priest at the altar servers as alter Christus, usually translated as "second Christ", though I think use of alter connotes something stronger in Latin, which is lost in the English translation.

For this work, Gallus divides the choir into two independent choirs, each the musical embodiment of a seraph - Duo Seraphim, Duo Chori.

At first, the two choirs answer each other, almost in canon. But as the piece progresses the calls and responses start to overlap until both choirs are singing continuously, combining one with the other until finally dissolving into a single sound/entity (alter ad alterum!) as the "seraphim" get carried away shouting the glory of God.

There were some interesting moments musically - from the isolated point of view of someone singing the Choir II bass part. Initially on "clamabant" there are octave jumps syllable to syllable - cla (up octave) ma - bant (down octave) cla (up octave) ma (down octave) bant! These octave jumps seemed well suited to "shout" and to me suggested blowing trumpets.

After alter ad alterum, the work moves on to the shout itself, with Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. Imagine the sound of European emergency or police vehicles; that familiar two-toned screech is what is written here for the basses to sing: a perfect fourth, which somehow has the ability to cut through cacophony and is easily heard; no doubt the reason it is used for both purposes. Sanc (down fourth) tus (up fourth) Sanc (down fourth) tus .... In the bass part, these intervals (octaves, fourths) are used extensively throughout the course of the work.

Again this was just the bass part; some other participant will have to extol the greatness of the soprano, alto, and tenor scores!

When the piece resolves at the very end to an A-major chord, Gallus recalls alter ad alterum (conceptually, not textually) - separate entities yet bound together as a pair. Choir I has the A (ST) and E (AB) of the chord, while Choir II has the A (TB) and C# (SA). Without the other "seraph" the chord is incomplete!

If you are a singer, I encourage you to participate in next year's workshop, or find a choir doing these extraordinary works or other sacred music. This is a rich but sadly neglected treasury from which one may draw profound inspiration.