[The following are the program notes for First Vespers of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, to be celebrated Monday, December 31 at 5:15 p.m. We hope that many of you can join us and ring in the new year with this beautiful celebration!]
Articles tagged with Schola Laudis
“He did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid [Mark 9: 5].” With this little detail, Saint Mark reveals quite a bit about the character of Saint Peter and the human condition in general. Under normal circumstances, we are unprepared to behold the full glory of God, and when suddenly God’s grandeur “flame[s] out, like shining from shook foil,” it can be a terrifying, disorienting experience.
We have many testimonies of this encounter. One early, telling encounter was that of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was a priest and probably had entered God’s temple countless times to offer sacrifice. One day, he suddenly saw in reality what he had been celebrating in shadowy, symbolic ways. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up….And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts [Isaiah 6: 1, 5]!” Isaiah is rendered voluntarily speechless until his lips are cleansed by a coal from the altar.
Similarly, Saint Thomas Aquinas, toward the end of his earthly life, was celebrating the Eucharist as he had many times before. This time was different. Like Isaiah, he glimpsed something of the reality that he had celebrated in the half-veil of sacramental mystery. The author of the Summa Theologica, perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement of all time, wrote no more after this, leaving the Summa unfinished. “All that I have written seems as so much straw,” he confided to a friend.
Saint Peter suffers no such scruples. Beholding Christ transfigured, he was properly afraid. Not knowing what to say, however, he said whatever came to mind. In this, he seems to be of a kindred mindset to modern man. Is it not the case that our incessant talking, the swarming proliferation of words, is so much nervous chatter to cover over our anxiety and alienation? We hardly know what to say, yet we can’t stop talking. In our case, I suspect that silence doesn’t occur to us because our fear is not the result of an encounter with the living God, but with the dreadful possibility of His utter absence.
I began by saying that we are not normally prepared to meet God in the unmitigated power of His limitless Being. What the Transfiguration begins to teach us is that, under the dispensation of grace, in the afterglow of the Resurrection and Pentecost, we live under a “new normal.” We live in the in-between time, the time of the holy Liturgy, after the shadows of animal sacrifice but not yet at the full consummation of the world. The Kingdom of God is breaking into the world that itself is passing away. The baptized, as God’s adopted children, are being trained to “see [God] as He is [1 John 3: 2].” The training of our senses and their elevation to the spiritual realm takes place in the liturgy.
This past June, we were blessed to be able to unveil our two newest icons, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, flanking the Mother of God and John the Baptist. Gradually, our sanctuary is being populated with the communion of the saints. Icons are not mere representations of model believers. The iconographer truly receives the image from the inbreaking realm of heaven. Iconography is, therefore, an ascetical craft, a discipline of visual listening and receptivity, a training of the interior vision to see beyond the sacramental into the reality of God’s holy court. At the same time, icons train the worshipper to attune his or her senses to this new reality. The icons are a central part of the liturgical act, and as conduits of grace, help to elevate the sense of sight to its proper spiritual register.
Similarly, sacred music is much more than pleasing ornamentation of holy words. As Kevin Allen and I have discussed at various time in our decade of collaboration, the composer of sacred music must, like the iconographer, exercise a discipline of spiritual listening. The aim is, through purification of hearing, to catch something of the overwhelming beauty of the perpetual song of heaven. At Solemn Vespers this coming Saturday evening (August 5, 5:15 p.m.), the First Vespers of the feast of the Transfiguration, Kevin and I humbly offer two new motets in this spirit. We pray that our double motet will be a similar conduit of grace, to prepare our hearts to hear God’s Word in its fullest transformative power.
If you are in the Chicago area this Friday night, I hope that you will come by the monastery for Solemn Vespers at 7:00 p.m. The service will last for about 45-50 minutes and will feature the exquisite motet Tu solus, qui facis mirabilia. Unlike the version in the embedded video, however, our Schola will be singing it as a part of the liturgy, and your hearing it will be as part of the publicly assembled Church at worship! Also scheduled: Magnificat by Palestrina and Gustate et videte by di Lasso. And finally, we will be debuting a piece composed just for this celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Auctor beate saeculi by Kevin Allen.
I spent Monday morning at the Regenstein library at the University of Chicago, in the forlorn area of the stacks where rest the a cappella liturgical compositions of the 14th century to the present. I was enjoying myself browsing, hoping to discover some long-overlooked masterpiece (I found several dusty books of obscure pieces–we’ll see whether they turn out to be masterpieces). After about an hour of browsing, I was struck by the almost complete gulf between the music of the sixteenth century and that of the seventeenth. Compare, for example, a Magnificat by Orlando di Lasso (ca. 1532-1594):
…and a setting by Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1554-1612):
So these are two composers separated by one generation. Gabrieli is thought by many to have studied under di Lasso, which is why I chose these two in particular. In di Lasso, one can hear already some incipient Baroque elements, to be sure. And he was a much more prominent composer of secular music than was his exact contemporary, the hallowed Palestrina. But Gabrieli moved in an entirely new direction (Mind you, I love Gabrieli’s music!). He was not alone. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), a priest, was the most celebrated figure of the revolution from Renaissance to Baroque style. Significantly, he was one of the pioneers of the new secular humanist entertainment, opera. His opera L’Orfeo is the earliest opera still in the repertoire.
Back to my Monday experience: what we see in liturgical music of the seventeenth century is precisely the importation of these secular humanist elements into liturgical music, necessitating a break from tradition. For example, the tradition of alternating chant and polyphony in the singing of the Magnificat, is almost always dropped, so that the whole text is set for the choir and orchestra. Also quickly gone is the association of the Magnificat with a particular ecclesiastical mode (or scale), drawn from the proper antiphon of the day (On Friday, we will sing Palestrina’s Mode 1 setting because the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart uses the antiphon Ignem veni mittere in terram, “I came to send fire upon the earth…” which is in the First Mode). Practically speaking, this means that in the new style the monks, canons or nuns, whose job it is to pray the liturgy, are squeezed out in favor of the professional musicians. The particular consecration of specific men and women for the performance of the liturgy is obscured. I will leave an exploration of the consequences of this obfuscation to a later post.
There are many other similar consequences. That these were not apparently felt at the time is somewhat surprising. Why? I mentioned Palestrina’s name with hushed, respectful tones above. He was the greatest composer in Rome at the time of the Council of Trent, and he took it upon himself to forward the Tridentine reforms. Among these were calls for the simplification of liturgical music. Some council fathers had been prepared to restrict liturgical music to Gregorian chant, and legend has it that Palestrina himself rescued polyphonic music for the liturgy with his composition of the sublime yet direct setting of the Mass for Pope Marcellus II:
So within two generations of the council, it seems that liturgical music was largely going its own way, quite contrary to the expectations of many at Trent.
I wrote last week about discontinuities in monastic tradition and the difficulties that these pose for the recovery of a vibrant monastic tradition. Here, I suggest, is a similar discontinuity in liturgical music, one that is probably as radical, in its way, as that which happened after Vatican II. On the other hand, it has more in common with the hidden discontinuities in the broader intellectual tradition of the West, in the sense that it was not clearly perceived as such at the time. And when it was perceived as at least a change, this change was celebrated by those in the know as a liberation from hidebound tradition and a recovery of ancient models of music, which it was not–this was pure propaganda of the sort that Renaissance thinkers excelled in.
Next time: the specific problem of discontinuity and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s brilliant remedy of the Hermeneutic of Continuity.
Last night, we celebrated the Great Litany before Solemn Vespers. We used a somewhat shortened version of the litany itself, but I did insist on keeping the very long Collect in place