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8.553697 - Paschale Mysterium: Gregorian Chant for Easter

Paschale Mysterium
Gregorian Chant for Easter


[1] Vexilla regis (hymnus)
[2] Domine, exaudi (tractus)
[3] Crucem tuam (antiphona)
[4] Improperia II
[5] Oratio Jeremiae
[6] Exultet (praeconium paschale)
[7] Cantemus Domino (canticum)
[8] Surrexit Dominus vere (antiphona cum psalmo invitatorio 94)
[9] Alleluia. Haec dies (antiphonae)
[10] Haec dies. Confitemini (responsorium - graduale)
[11] Alleluia. Pascha nostrum
[12] Victimae paschali laudes (sequentia)
[13] Exsultemus et laetemur (cantus responsorialis)
[14] Aurora lucis (hymnus)
[15] Benedicamus Domino, alleluia (ad dimittendum populum)


The liturgical celebration of the mystery of Easter, the Paschale Mysterium, comes at the height of the Christian year, marking the task of human redemption and the glorification of God. It is both a record and a redemptive representation of the passion and death of Christ, on Good Friday, and of his resurrection, on Easter Eve and Easter Day. These two celebrations, which have formed the core of the Easter liturgy since the apostolic age, centre on the Cross, the "King's emblem, glowing with mystery ...the wonderful, shining tree, adorned with royal purple", in the words of the hymn Vexilla regis, written by Venantius Fortunatus, seventh century bishop of Poitiers, the opening of the present release. In the modern liturgy the Vexilla regis is sung at Vespers in Holy Week. Its composition presents highly lyrical melodic motifs and is constructed on an authentic protus mode which has a range of a modal fifth (D to A) with the ornamentation of B flat.

The liturgy of Good Friday juxtaposes the celebration of two ritual elements, the readings from the Bible followed by the universal prayer (aratio fidelium) and the Veneration of the Cross. The first has its origin in the papal liturgy, celebrated in the Roman Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, the second, more popular in character, is derived from the presbyterial liturgy.

In the first part the readings, songs and prayers alternate, following the classical pattern of the stational-liturgical synaxes, the archaic mark of which they retain. The two readings before the Passion narrative and the direct psalmody of the tracts come from the Gallican liturgical tradition. The chant Domine, exaudi, originally sung on Ash Wednesday, from Psalm CI, contains the anguished cry of the servant of Yahweh that announces the redeeming Passion. The last verse of the text, "Rise up, O Lord, take pity on Zion, for the time has come to have mercy on her" corresponds to the climax of the music, that touches the dominant G, with Gallican patterns that have also supplied material for the creation of the Alleluia modal D tone (1st mode). The tract Dominus exaudi is in plagal protus. The main chord d (opening iubilus at Domine in the first verse) develops its dominant on the upper third (iubilus of the second verse on ne avertas) and on its fourth, on g, in the last verse.

From the second part of the Good Friday liturgy (the Veneration of the Cross) come the chants of the Improperia, the Reproaches, and the antiphon Crucem tuam adoremus (We adore thy cross). These two musico-liturgical elements, introduced into the Roman liturgy between the ninth and eleventh centuries, still today arouse emotional intensity within the striking frame of the Adoration of the Cross. The antiphon Crucem tuam rises like a cry of triumph, extolling the glory of the Cross. In fact it is composed on the theme of the Te Deum.

The dramatic Improperia that follow accompany the rite of the Veneration of the Cross. The text reminds us of how the chosen people offended the Son of God and of the benefits that he had bestowed on the ungrateful nation. Here the second group of Reproaches, without the Trisagion, is offered, consisting of two-member sentences that alternate with the verses. The semi-ornate phrase that serves as a refrain is polymodal: it opens in the e mode, with melodic- textual accents on g (Popule meus, quid feci tibi?) and continues in the Gallican d mode (Aut in quo contristavi te? Responde mihi). The verses present a syllabic psalmodic tonal pattern, stemming from the musico-liturgical tradition of Central Italy: e is the reciting note, with mediatio and terminatio cadencing on the lower c.

The prayer of the Prophet Jeremiah, offered here almost unabridged, is the lament that describes the struggle of Jerusalem and of its inhabitants. The Jews recite it on the day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple, the Church in the office of Holy Saturday, to recall the tragedy of Calvary. The melody of this text is set to an early d tone coming from a non-Roman, perhaps Gallican, musico-liturgical tradition and following the pattern of a double psalmodic tone in semi-ornate style, with cursive cadences: mediatio cadences descend to c, while terminatio cadences close on the reciting note of d. In the second part the reciting note of the psalmodic tenor rises to g.

The Exultet is the chant announcing the joy of Easter, commonly known as the praeconium paschale, at the opening of the Easter Vigil, the principal of all vigils, after the blessing of the fire and the paschal candle that through its light dispels the darkness of night and of evil. The Exultet starts with an invitation to joy and thanksgiving (exsultet ...gaudeat ...laetetur), in a solemn reciting tone of wide ambitus: from the reciting note of c touching d to highlight the textual stress, the melody has two intermediate cadences on a (caelorum and mysteria) and an ornamented cadence on low c (salutaris), prepared by means of a long step-wise melodic descending line (et pro tanti Regis).

There follows, with the same melody, the humble prayer of the minister that he may worthily sing the praise of the paschal candle, symbol of the risen Christ. The prayer ends with a brief dialogue with the congregation on the tone of the chant for the Preface of the Mass.

The words Vere dignum et iustum est introduce the essential and most beautiful part of the Exsultet, to the simple tone of the Preface of the Mass. Two reciting notes c and b descend to b and a respectively at the cadences. The text is divided into four parts:

1. The praise and thanksgiving to God for his work of redemption.
2. Easter night brings to the composer's mind figures from the Old Testament, the Paschal Lamb, the Red Sea and the passage through the desert.
3. Admiration for the splendour of redemption in the four exclamations of O.
4. The prayer to God that he accept the tribute and that the paschal candle (the risen Christ) may never fail but shine with unextinguished light.

After the blessing of the paschal candle follow biblical readings that, like a series of pictures, evoke important stages in the history of salvation. Among these is the reading of the passage through the Red Sea, followed by the well known Song of Moses Cantemus Domino. This composition is part of the Roman musical tradition, with the insertion of a Gallican incipit belonging to the earliest musical form of direct psalmody and built on three richly embellished reciting notes, g, b and c.

Easter Day Matins that since the eighth century has been sung after the Vigil at sun-rise, opens with an invitation to celebrate the risen Christ, Surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia. This text acts as a refrain for the invitatory Psalm XCIV. Its c-based form (octoechos plagal tritus) is matched to a semi-ornate tone for the psalm Venite, exsultemus Domino, with the reciting note on the higher fifth.

The chant Alleluia. Haec dies consists of several antiphons in the fifth mode for Easter, all of them beginning with alleluia. There is a second alleluia at the middle cadence and two more at the end of each chant. These antiphons constitute a modal tone of the same kind as Alleluia. Noli fiere Maria, which is also recorded in the early Roman and Ambrosian liturgical repertoires. They have the characteristic form of a psalm with double refrain.

The Haec dies is the responsum (refrain) to a series of verses that were formerly sung on Easter Day. Now they are divided over each day in Holy Week, but they all share the same form, a d ornate style (modal tone) of Gallican origin. In the verse (Confitemini) the melody moves away from the rigid scheme of the tone, rising boldly in an explosion of joy at the words quoniam bonus. The responsum Haec dies is a late composition built on set phrases borrowed from the verse. It consists of three melodic phrases, each of them ending with a iubilus, the first, at the last syllable of Dominus, of limited range, has the character of a melodic stress on the dominant (c); the second, at the last syllable of Exsultemus, descends to the low fifth with a smooth melodic movement; the third, at the last syllable of in ea is wide-ranging and of some intensity, stressing the melodic accent on the modal fifth and then descending to the tonic.

Alleluia. Pascha nostrum has a text that declares "a banquet is prepared: the Lamb is ready: this Lamb is Jesus Christ who was sacrificed and now lives" .It is impossible to imagine or devise a more fitting alleluia iubilus to this Easter proclamation. The alleluia melody (in authentic tetrardus) settles on the dominant d after sequential rebounds round the notes c, d and e, offering expressive trills with the melodic upper step e, before gracefully moving to g, the better to reveal the religious feeling of the soul. The verse tone covers the range of a tenth, permeated with rich melismata.

The sequence Victimae paschali laudes, attributed to Wipo of Burgundy, who lived from 990 to 1050, chaplain at the courts of Conrad II and Henry III, was written for a short liturgical drama and is a highly lyrical and moving poem. Its qualities mainly lie in its expressiveness, its enthusiasm and the dramatic idea of a duel between life and death in which the author of life, who had died, now reigns alive (mors et vita duello conflixere mirando ...). The melody is not inferior to the text. It is syllabic, attractive and calling for wide, lively phrasing, in order to express the expected warmth and colour.

The chant Exsultemus et laetemur, with its answer Alleluia. Resurrexit Dominus, is a trope of the Easter final Benedicamus Domino and Ite missa est. It probably dates from the thirteenth century. The melody evolved from a deuterus tone, with its descent from 9 to e in the final cadence.

The hymn Aurora lucis, written by an unknown writer probably in the fifth century, is sung in the office of Lauds at Easter. The verses and strophes are ornamented on a syllabic eighth mode tone, nimble and joyful, reflecting the spring dawn of Christ's resurrection.

Through the concluding phrase Benedicamus Domino the melody to which the Exsultemus et laetemur was set can be heard again.

Alberta Turca
(Teacher at the Pontifical Ambrosian Institute in Milan)



A Brief Note on Plainchant

Plainchant, the traditional chant of the Catholic Church, has certain general characteristics. It consists of a melodic line, following the free rhythm of the Latin words and uses the ancient modes rather than major or minor scales. These modes take their names from quite different Greek modes, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and these modal scales correspond to scales played on the white notes of the piano from d to d' (Dorian), e to e' (Phrygian), f to f' (Lydian) and 9 to g' (Mixolydian). The range of a plainchant melody is seldom more than an octave (eight notes). The modes listed above, known as authentic modes, have companion plagal modes that start a fourth below and have the prefix Hypo- added to their Greek name. Thus the Hypodorian mode has a range from A to a, but its final note, on which the chant will end, is still d. To add complexity to this, these modes may also have other names partly derived from Greek. The Dorian mode may be referred to as authenticus protus, Hypodorian may be plagalis protus, the Phrygian mode may be authenticus deuterus and so on, using the Latin form of Greek numerals, protus (= first), deuterus (= second), tritus (= third) and tetrardus (= fourth).

Chant may be syllabic, with one note to a syllable, the usual form of the settings of the Psalms. It may be neumatic, with occasional groups of two or three notes to a syllable in a more or less syllabic context, as in the Hymns of the liturgy. Finally it may be melismatic, with more elaborate groups of notes on one syllable. Generally speaking, the more wordy the text, the more likely it is to have a syllabic setting. Melismatic settings are preserved for words like alleluia, which allows for rhapsodic embellishment.

Gregorian chant is not synonymous with plainchant but refers to the standardised form of chant attributed to the revisions or inspiration of the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great. Earlier forms of chant still in use include the Ambrosian in Milan, attributed to St Ambrose and the Mozarabic in parts of Spain, while the Gallican, from France, and the Celtic forms of chant are largely obsolete. Plainchant of whatever kind has a remoter source in the practice of the synagogue and modifications inevitable in contact with a pagan world.

Keith Anderson

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