Friday, March 22, 2013

The Changing Moods in the Chants for Palm Sunday

I have to admit that Palm Sunday isn’t exactly my favorite day of the year. There’s just so much that can go irreparably wrong. I’m lucky that I now work in places where this liturgy is well organized, so the circus-like atmosphere is minimized, but learned reactions are hard to undo, so I’m a grump.

In spite of my cantankerousness, though, there is one thing about it that always gets to me, one of those moments of art that batters my heart whether I want it to or not. It concerns the transition from the procession to the Mass itself.

This liturgy, as we all know, begins with fireworks, with the chant Hosanna filio David. Then there are upbeat narratives such as Pueri Hebraeorum that eventually give way to the unbounded praise of Gloria, Laus, et Honor. The choir and congregation take the part of crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. Then, as the procession enters the church, or comes to a close, the schola chants Ingrediente Domino, another narrative, but one of a more subdued musical character. It’s as if the music is leading us down the mountain, into Jerusalem and into the Passion narrative.

Ultimately, though, the Introit finishes off this process, taking us from red to purple hues. “Oh Lord, remove not thy help to a distance from me…deliver me from the lion’s mouth.” The hushed beginnings of this mode 8 melody have something of desperate urgency in them which ultimately crescendos into begging. Earlier the congregation and schola sang the words of the narrator and the crowds, but whose words are these in the Introit? There is something of Gethsemane in them, as if they are meant to be the words of Jesus himself. It’s a powerful effect and yet a smooth transition from the pomp that preceded it to the Passion that is to follow. Start at 1:31:00 in the following video to hear both Ingrediente and the Introit:

Anyone who thinks that all Gregorian chant is relatively monotonous ought to study this succession of antiphons for Palm Sunday in order to test their theory. I always know this transition is coming, but I can never get through the first line of Domine, ne longe without a quiver moving up my back and meeting the lump in my throat. And then I realize it’s probably not such a good idea to be grumpy about complicated liturgies after all.