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Musical Rhetoric in the Chants for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

January 16, 2011

There was once a music history teacher who said that “when Palestrina ran out of words, he stopped.”  In other words, the music was a vehicle to carry the text, but the music did not in any way express the meaning of the text.  When Palestrina is held up next to Monteverdi, this might seem true, but ultimately this is a matter of two kinds of expressiveness rather than a matter of one style being without so-called “word painting.”

The same debate goes on about Gregorian chant.  Many say that chant cannot depict the meaning of the text because so many melodies are used for multiple texts.  Many other melodies are highly formulaic.  For instance, mode 5 has little motifs that are typically found, all mixed up, in any number of mode 5 chants, even though the melody, from start to finish, is not exactly the same.  This is also cited as a reason why the chant cannot be expressive of the meaning of the text:  How can the same material express the several ideas of different antiphons?

Sometimes, in our rush to come up with thesis topics, we say some awfully questionable things, and this whole business of early music taking no heed of the text is an example of this.  To get to the ultimate refutation, Professor William Mahrt of Stanford University has written an article on word painting in formulaic chant, which is contained in Cum Angelis Canere, the Festschrift for Msgr. Rober Schuler.  I will not repeat his argument here, but Mahrt’s elucidation is brilliant and irrefutable as far as I can tell.  He cites numerous examples of chant that recycle musical material and yet manage, in each case, to highlight the meaning of the text.  If this is true for formulaic chant, then it can only be even more true for chant that is more original, for lack of a better word.

We had two chants at Mass today that can be better appreciated with an attitude of sympathy for the idea of word painting in chant.  The first is the Offertory, Jubilate Deo.  Offertories tend to be difficult and florid but this one takes the cake.  For the purposes of my comments I want to focus on the way the music treats the beginning: Jubilate Deo, universa terra.  It begins with a typical ascending, open-fifth flourish—a motif that is typical of mode 1, which is the mode of this piece.  The first time through this text is melismatic enough, but then it is repeated, and the melismas—long sections of many notes set to only one syllable—become longer, and the range becomes higher, and the whole thing becomes magnified.

Whoever wrote this chant understood rhetoric.  Any time a text is repeated, it is for a reason.  One of the disconcerting things about those automatic talking fire alarms in public buildings is that the friendly electronic voice is not only friendly and totally in the wrong mode, as it were, for such an emergency; but in addition its repeated warnings never increase in intensity.  It is surreal, and not in a Debussy kind of way.  When actual human beings talk, on the other hand, they punctuate repetitions with some kind of change in intensity.  Usually it increases, whether through crescendos or decrescendos.  That is what this chant does.  If the writer had simply wished to use the music as a practical vehicle for the text, i.e. so that it would carry throughout the cavernous monastery, he wouldn’t have made such a rhetorical flourish.

The second chant I wish to highlight is the Communion, Dicit Dominus.  The Communion chants typically come from the Gospel of the day, and that is the case here:

“The Lord said, ‘Fill the jars with water and take to the chief steward.’ When the chief steward had tasted the water after it had become wine, he said to the bridegroom, ‘You have kept the good wine until now.’ This first sign Jesus worked in the presence of his disciples.”

This melody is in mode 6 and shows signs of being fairly normal in terms of its range and melodic fragments.  Also generally common is the use of lower notes to quote the Lord, as the chant goes down to D on “Implete hydrias…” (Fill the jars with water).  All seems to be in a pleasant little rut until the chief steward’s quote, “You have kept the good wine until now.”  Suddenly the chant bursts upwards, going all the way to an E above middle C; and if that weren’t enough, the mode changes.  We started in mode 6, which cadences on F, but the steward’s quote cadences in the seventh mode, on G.  After this the narrative voice returns, and the chant calms down while doing some twists to get back to the original mode.

In high school band camp we ate bag lunches every day.  One of my fellow trumpet players was sitting with me one afternoon when he took a drink of orange juice.  A strange look came over his face as he explained that, for a second, he thought it was milk, and so the orange juice “tasted funny.”  Imagine the tricks one’s taste buds can play in such a moment.  I wonder if the chief steward didn’t experience a similar kind of surprise when he tasted the water-made-wine.  The chant, at the same time, surprises us.  Again, this would be one unbelievable coincidence if the composer of this chant didn’t intend to highlight something in that text.

The Whig Theory of History has done a lot of damage to society.  We assume that as time goes on we’re entitled to more and more of everything, including knowledge and enlightenment.  We also tend to think that people in the past weren’t as advanced artistically as we are today.  The techniques were different, but truly we’ve all occupied that strange space between angels and animals where mankind must make his home.  I like to say, in reference to early keyboard technique, that just because Buxtehude didn’t use his thumbs doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a soul.  In other words, we cheat these composers when we assume that they conceived their music the same way a 21st century music appreciation professor looks at it.  From these two chants alone, we can see that there are many hidden treasures and that even the earliest musicians drew their inspiration from as many sources as we do today.  Different is not inferior.


The aforementioned Professor William Mahrt, who himself is a schola director, has chimed in over at the Chant Cafe with more specific information that is absolutely beautiful and fascinating:

“Michael has picked up my point exactly.

The two pieces he mentions have more specific text representation, however. Jubilate Deo is one of two chants, beginning with the same two words which do about the same thing; the first, in mode 5, is a wonderful piece that is scarcely ever sung, since in the OF it is for the First Sunday in Ordinary Time, which is systematically replaced by the Baptism of Christ, being provided only for the weekdays following the Sunday. In the EF it is replaced by the Holy Family.

In both chants, the repetition has a very particular meaning. The first statement is an exhortation to sing joyfully. The second responds to the first by doing just that, singing joyfully, for the melismas in both chants are probably the longest to be found in any offertory and the most exuberant among all the Gregorian Mass propers. Thus, these melismas are not just a fancy repetition, but an instantiation of just what the first statement urges.

The communion on the Wedding at Cana is notable for the way that it distinguishes the speech of three speakers: the narrator is in a middle range, Christ in a low range, and the chief steward in a high range.. This is exactly the procedure for the chanting of the Passions. Until recently, it was thought that these Passion tones were a late development, but Michel Huglo has shown that they are quite early. So, it is quite likely that the communion antiphon plays upon the conventions of the passion tones.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael J. Miller permalink
    January 17, 2011 8:54 am

    From my studies of medieval literature (Chaucer, Middle-High German epics) I can confirm that, although such early works may seem severely limited to us moderns, the masters used the slightest stylistic features to consummate effect.

  2. January 17, 2011 12:01 pm

    Thank you for the blog and for these good insights. I also appreciate the name you have chosen for our blog.

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