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Fr Peter's comments on chants for the 5th Sunday of Easter

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Introit. Psalm 97: 1-2

The amazing imagery of this psalm inspired the carol ‘Joy to the World’. Examples are the phrases; ‘Shout to the Lord all the earth (verse 4), ‘let the rivers clap their hands and the hills ring our their joy (verse 8), with trumpets and the sound of the ‘shofar’ raise a shout before the King, the Lord (verse 6). The shofar was a horn sounded to announce a great feast or other important event. The reason for such rejoicing is a new and great event in salvation history.

So the chant begins; ‘sing a new song to the Lord’. God’s salvation breaking into our world is the cause of such joy. There is no greater act of God than the paschal mystery of Christ and the opening of eternal life to us. So we can apply this chant very readily to the events of Easter and as Gregory Polan OSB writes in his revision of the Grail Psalter, on which I am relying heavily for these notes, I can apply it to the graces which which God works daily in my own story.

Verse one rises up from the word Cantate with a sense of drawing up praise from one’s depths to canticum novum, which in the way that it opens up the melody seems to compliment well the sense of newness; a new song to the Lord.

The motive given for this new song is sung with what seems to be a second important element of the melody. It is the rising just half a note higher over mirabilia, giving perhaps a feeling of extra ardour. We return to that note over ‘suam’ with a second motive which is the revelation of His justice. The first Alleluia at the conclusion rises to it again while the second Alleluia reminds me of the melody over canticum novum.

In his commentary of `1934 on the Vatican Gradual Dominic Johner OSB points out similarities between this Introit and that of the First Sunday of Easter with which some of us are familiar; ‘Quasimodo geniti infantes’. They have the same mode and the same range. He writes that we can readily infer from this similarity and from the restricted range that this is not intended as a powerful song of victory, but rather a heartfelt song of thanksgiving for the wonder of wonder that is the resurrection of Christ. That commentary may be consulted on line on the Church Music Association of America Website.

This antiphon seems to me to have both a nobility and clarity that we could seek to communicate in our singing.

Alleluia Psalm 117,16

This psalm is associated in Judaism with the feast of Sukkoth, or Tabernacles. It is the last of the collection of psalms from 112 to 117 called the Hallel psalms which are sung at major Jewish festivals. That name derives from the word ‘Alleluia’ which means literally ‘praise the Lord’ and which opens and ends each of them. They recall the great event of Israel’s salvation and extol the Lord who rescues his people in their trials. This psalm is placed between the shortest and longest psalms in the whole psalter. D Polan tells us that in christianity it is often called the Easter Psalm because the authors of the New Testament saw its fulfullment very clearly Jesus. One example is in its image of the corner stone (verse 22) which St Peter uses in Acts 4:11-12 ‘This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you.’ And of course in todays second reading from 1 Peter 2-9.

The 4th mode is a favourite of mine. Perhaps some you may be able to tell us more about it. It seems to produce some unlikely sequences. It has joyous moments but the way that it ends on a semi-tone suggests sadness to me. The two are not incompatible. We have had a tendency to treat the melisma at the end of the Alleluia verse as decoration but we should probably look to it before learning the Alleluia for a clue to its interpretation. I have in mind the words to which it is set.

Here I seem to be contradicted since the words are triumphant but perhaps the mode should encourage us to treat them as tempered. After all the Gospel from this Sunday is from the farewell discourse of Jesus at the Last Supper. The antiphon ends with; ‘The right hand of the Lord has exalted me’. This is very suitable to the message of the first reading about the ordination of deacons to assist in the distribution of food for the widows and the continued growth of the faith.

Johner writes that this antiphon has in parts characteristics of the 1st mode; for instance the opening of the alleluia and the end of the words Dei, virtutem, and Domini, which are the same, have a firmness to them. He says that to the descending line over the first ‘dextera’ the ascending over the second comes as an answer.

Again a very simple antiphon but also quite subtle feel I think.

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