Saturday, March 19, 2011

Their Heads Must Have Been Spinning

Russel Roan asks refreshing questions about the modal structure, and more interestingly, about the grammatical structure of this Sunday's Communio:


Now on paper, it would seem this should be the easiest of the three we do (Introit, Offertory, Communion). There are no melismas, and the melody is almost syllabic. It is tightly bound, dipping only once at the very end below the tonic RE (to DO at the very end of the piece) and climbs only a fifth above the tonic to LA. My mathematical analysis (I'm an engineer, not a musician!) would suggest to me that perhaps this is mode II not mode I as marked, given the tightness of the range of the piece, and the seeming cluster of the melody around FA (the dominant of mode II) as opposed to LA (mode I dominant), which we only reach four times and as I said is the highest we climb in the melody.

I'd love to claim that this cognitive dissonance was why I had difficulty with this piece - but I think more fundamental reasons are at play here (like hitting intervals properly! :-))

The text of the piece comes from Jesus' admonition after the Transfiguration, which is the gospel reading for this mass. After witnessing this, Jesus instructs Peter, James, and John:

Visionem quam vidistis, nemini dixeritis, donec a mortuis resurgat Filius hominis.

(The vision you have seen, tell no man, until the Son of Man be risen from the dead.)

This is yet another example of how using the propers amplifies and/or complements the other readings for the day in building a carefully constructed service, vs. going for the non-sequitur of singing some irrelevant hymn at this point in mass.

I have to confess that part of my tardiness in this write-up was due to having to dig deeper (read: look ahead in my textbook!) to get a clearer understanding of the construction.

The difficulty for me, and probably any native English speaker, is the role of the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive is used hardly at all in English, and its limited usage is slowly being washed away. Why? Well perhaps we as a people aren't able to grasp subtlety as we once were able. A dangerous development, as Orwell pointed out that eliminating shades of meaning in language is an effective way of controlling thought (newspeak anyone?) but that's a discussion for another forum.

In general usage, the subjunctive mood suggests possibility or uncertainty, or the as-yet undetermined future. The best English example I can think of is usage of "were", such as, "He was carrying on as if he were an expert in the field." Hmm maybe that example hits too close to home here. :-)

We first see the subjunctive mood with nemini dixeritis. Now, Jesus could have issued a direct order (alicui non dicite!) which our English would translate approximately the same (don't tell anyone!) . But He is not so harsh; the literal form of the subjunctive exhortation would be something like "Let you have told no man" - see how English struggles to express subjunctive concepts? This seems to me a little more polite, a little more understanding of human nature and the near impossibility of keeping such an experience to themselves "until the son of Man be risen from the dead" - what the heck could that have meant anyway to the three disciples? Who's the Son of Man!? How is he going to rise from the dead!? Certainly their heads must have been spinning.

The last clause - donec a mortuis resurgat Filius hominis - again sees usage of the subjunctive - hence the odd-sounding translation for us "be risen". Again, literally, it would be something like "may rise again" - not convincing English!

Once again by examining the Latin text, I was led to think differently about a familiar phrase about which I had never given much thought. When I read "rise again from the dead", I always thought of "dead" as being something like a state of being. You're live and you're alive, you die and then you're dead. I always had thought of Jesus flipping from one state to the other. But note that the text uses mortuis - the plural form. So instead of the Son of Man "be risen from (being) dead", what this is really saying is "be risen from (among) the dead ones" - of course the Apostles' Creed uses the same construct: tertia die resurrexit a mortuis.

Time is running short, so I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to cross-reference Filius hominis with the same phrase from the apocalyptic vision in Daniel 7:13-14:

I beheld therefore in the vision of the night, and lo, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and he came even to the Ancient of days: and they presented him before him. And he gave him power, and glory, and a kingdom: and all peoples, tribes and tongues shall serve him: his power is an everlasting power that shall not be taken away: and his kingdom that shall not be destroyed.