An Oldie-but-Goodie

St. Ambrose is the universally acknowledged author of 4 hymns, three of which are attested to in the writings of St. Augustine. Many scholars believe St. Ambrose to be the author of another dozen hymns that are still known. In homage to his abilities, holiness, and authority, many hymns were attributed to him, but are unlikely to be his.  An entire meter, now known as Long Meter (8.8.8.8) and in times past called “church meter,” was known in times before that as Ambrosian meter.

St. Ambrose’s hymns are characterized by theological density, bold use of images, and scriptural allusions. I believe that this is an example worth emulating.

This is my translation of Apostolorum Passio, for the upcoming feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. It may be sung to the chant tune of the Latin text, or to any number of familiar chant tunes such as Jesu Dulcis Memoria. Among the many LM modern hymn tunes to which it might be sung, I especially enjoy Deo Gratias.

Blest day by suff’ring sanctified:
Christ’s chosen high apostles died.
Today St. Peter wins renown.
Today St. Paul accepts the crown.

Together, equally, they bled:
Together: the victorious dead.
They followed God and sacrificed
And now their faith is crowned by Christ.

St. Peter holds the highest place,
Yet Paul is not the less by grace.
An equal faith was giv’n to Paul:
The chosen vessel of God’s call.

St. Peter, downward crucified—
To honor God in how he died—
Securely tied, he sees unfold
The death his Shepherd once foretold.

On such foundations Rome may claim
The highest service of God’s name.
His noble blood has dignified
The city where this prophet died.

Let all the world, then, run to Rome.
Let families of nations come!
The head of nations teaches there,
Beside the nations’ teacher’s chair.

O Lord, we ask that we may be
In their exalted company,
And with our princes sing Your praise
Forever, to unending days.

Parish Book of Chant

My first try at building a Youth Schola was a bust, because I tried beginning with polyphony. Big mistake. Singing is one thing–even singing in Latin is pretty easy–but singing in parts is difficult for inexperienced singers, especially the very young. Then one Pentecost I asked one of the original Schola members to chant the introit, on a simple Psalm tone. He aced it, and a few months later I began advertising for children to join our parish’s Youth Classical Schola, specializing in Gregorian chant.

Obviously Gregorian chant is more than Psalm tone introits, so thank goodness for Richard Rice’s The Parish Book of Chant., which became our standard textbook. It is published by the Church Music Association of America. Filled with chant Ordinaries, dialogues from the Mass, chant hymns, and information singers need, it is just what we needed to really move forward. I was just a step ahead of the young people myself, having grown up with the usual parish guitar and organ fare and without much exposure at all to Gregorian chant. The Parish Book of Chant helped us not only to sing the chant, but to love it. Over just a few years, our parish has trained dozens of young singers, some of whom can now sight-read difficult propers.

For those who would like to preview a copy, this option is available online here. It’s a unique resource, friendly, helpful, and not at all intimidating for new chanters, and I am so glad to be working at a time when such wonderful helps to singers are available!

Responsorial Psalms

Parishes accustomed to using a single source for Responsorial Psalms have an opportunity this year to widen their options. This year is Cycle B, the Year of Mark, the shortest Gospel. During the summertime (July 29-August 26 this year), the Gospel is taken from the Bread of Life discourse in John chapter 6.

For three of those weeks, in a row, we will sing the classic Eucharistic Psalm 34, with the refrain Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

This would be an opportune moment to seek out alternatives to the usual Psalm fare. The options are almost unlimited, and include new settings by CMAA composers and others, too many to mention here (but I hope some will be added in the combox).

The Role of the Cantor

There are some preachers so intent on finding a text to suit the day that this very concern for appropriateness makes them overlook the criterion of usefulness, so that they take texts which contain little or nothing that is of any use to their audience. People like this should be called church cantors rather than preachers of Christ. It is the job of the church’s cantors to chant the texts which are proper to the season or the feast, without regard to whether the sense of what they are singing is useful to those who listen or not.

Blessed Humbert of Romans

The Pious Imperative

Like many parishes this first Eastertide Sunday in May, the choirs at my parish will be singing several versions of the Regina Caeli. I wonder how many folks have stopped to consider the paradox of this text. We, with our limited vision and holiness, are exhorting Our Lady, with all her privileges of knowledge and love, to rejoice. Mary, whose mere voice sounding in her cousin’s ears made John the Baptist leap for joy in the womb, already rejoices exceedingly. And yet we, the Church militant, as yet on the path to redemption, exhort her, who is full of grace, to rejoice. And then we explain to her the reason why she should do so.

I take this verbal construction to be a kind of literary license, not to be taken at face value. Somehow, by saying to Mary “rejoice,” we are not helping her but helping ourselves. We are not cheering her on, like fans in the stadium during the race, but entering into her exultation, like fans during the victory lap. Or rather, we are the runners, and are cheering on ourselves, by praising the Lord for her victory, her salvation, and her joy.

Music and the New Evangelization 2

From Religion and Imagination ‘in aid of a grammar of assent’ by John Coulson.

When the vital connection between religion and imagination is either overlooked or denied, it is not merely theology or the theologian that suffers. The very life of religion ebbs and becomes infertile. (p. 3)

To what extent can a belief be said to be established as true, if it has failed to convince or to be successfully brought alive and made real? (p. 4)

It is literature which shows us that we cannot rest in a purely negative conception of imagination. It does more than suspend our disbelief. It predisposes us to believe in what it has realized. (p. 7)

When we “use imagination,” we begin to see our world differently. Our standpoint or focus changes, but this act of imagination remains incomplete until spontaneously and creatively we gain an enlarged sense of reality. But our powers of perception are more than merely enlarged. They are reordered. (p. 8)

Announcing the Feast: Why Antiphons?

From Jason McFarland’s book:

Without a doubt, responsorial or antiphonal singing is especially suitable for processions because such songs have an open musical form and thus a variable length that can accommodate the infinitely variable length of an entrance procession. Repeated antiphons also facilitate active participation because the gathered faithful can sing them from memory, in contrast to singing a hymn from a book, and thus engage more fully in the entrance procession. (p. 110)

Indeed, antiphons are a unique liturgical-textual genre. Their purpose is neither to proclaim nor to allude to the ancient Christian textual tradition, but to appropriate it. In so doing, antiphons reflect and pass on a tradition of textual interpretation. This occurs through the way a specific antiphon text employs the textual tradition and relates to and interacts with its verses to produce a particular Christian meaning, and then how the antiphon and verses together relate to and reveal something about a specific day of the liturgical year, thereby announcing “the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity” (GIRM 47). (p. 167)

The Music of the Spheres

Organ pipes, like the sun, are filled with sound-waves. Find out more on the NOVA special tonight at 9 pm EDT. Film footage of both the sun and organ pipes (the latter filmed at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) will be featured.

New Year’s Resolution: Beginning to Sing the Propers

If your parish is considering using the proper texts of the Mass, and if you are not sure how to make the transition from hymns to propers, Hymn Tune Propers might be the solution you are seeking for the upcoming liturgical new year. Charles Giffen and I have worked together to produce this booklet of Advent propers. The texts are my adaptations of the daily and Sunday Entrance Antiphons, rhymed and metered in 8.8.8.8. iambic (Long Meter) verses. Charles has set these verses to familiar Long Meter tunes: Conditor Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars of Night), Winchester New (On Jordan’s Bank), and, for December 17-24, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel). Optional Psalm verses are provided, in traditional Anglican chant, except for the days of the O Antiphons, and Dec. 24, when the antiphon is followed by the refrain: Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Hymn Tune Propers project is envisioned as a “first step” in parish music renewal. It offers an easy and accessible way for parishes accustomed to singing hymns–a majority of parishes–to sing in their familiar musical style, but using the Church’s universal texts. Parishioners on a wide scale can have access to the liturgical texts that are often hidden from them by the custom of singing hymns in place of the processional chants.

In my opinion, this is not a long-term solution for any parish, for both musical and textual reasons. The musical style of hymnody is not flexible enough to foster true cantillation of the liturgical text. In my versifications I have made small compromises in meaning and imagery in order to accommodate meter and rhyme. But it is a useful, easy, non-confrontational first step in helping parishioners become familiar with the existence of propers, to know and love the liturgical bounty they represent, and to have a chance to become more deeply immersed in “the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity” (GIRM para. 47).