The importance of the Propers
As the reader who drew their latest post to my attention pointed out, sermons generally seem to focus on the Epistle and Gospels of the relevant Sunday. In fact, all of the propers often have something to contribute to our understanding of what the Church is seeking to teach us.
One of NLM's arguments though, is that the chant settings for the music are themselves aids to our interpretation. A little while back they posted this fascinating quote:
"From Dom Gajard's untranslated work Les plus belles mélodies grégoriennes:
When we were at the noviciate, we observed, while serving his private Mass, that after the introit, the gradual, the offertory, the communion – all the sung pieces, in short – he would mark a pause, not found in the rubrics, and absorb himself in meditation. One day, one of us made bold and asked why he stopped so, and he received this answer, "For the sung pieces, the missal only gives the text which lends itself to many interpretations. What interests me is to know the Church’s interpretation, and I believe that it is clearly given in the melody which dresses up the text in the Graduale. So I stop for a while to bring the melody to mind. Gregorian, you know, is the official commentary of the liturgical texts, authentically given by the Church herself."
(Trans. Denis Garneau)
Jeffrey Tucker's latest piece is about Eastertide. He suggests that:
"We are used to the idea that Easter takes place suddenly, as if we wake up and it is a done deal, so everyone cheers. And so on it goes until Ordinary Time hits us. This is what happens when choosing music for Mass is reduced to selecting hymns from a list.
The liturgical sense is different. Easter begins with a sense of awe or even fear that is the first impulse upon discovery the reality of the impossible: the dead come back to life. And it comes to dawn on people slowly that it is not only true but also offers an in depth meaning concerning our own salvation. Our death can be new life too in Heaven. Our conversion to the faith in Christ gives us new life as well.
The jubilation emerges progressively as the weeks move forward, as Christ visits and walks among the believers before his Ascension into heaven, when we look up to observe yet another astonishing reality, breathtaking in its transformative power.
If we look only at the incipits for the introits for the season, we can see this drama unfold progressively as the weeks move forward. There is the awe, the fear. Then attention turns to the metaphor of conversion and new life (Quasi Modo). On the third week we should joyfully (Jubilate). On the fourth, we reflect on the mercy of the Lord, and the great gift he has left us in the opportunity of salvation (Misericordia). On the fifth, we sing a new song about wondrous deeds (Cantate). On the sixth, evangelism: spread the good news (Vocem). Then we rejoin the historical narrative on the following week: "Men of Galilee, why are you gazing in astonishment at the sky?"
Even if you know nothing about music, you can observe the drama in the lines of notes and the shapes of phrases. I've put together this little tool so that you can see how this works. Now compare the first chant with the last one. The story is in the line of notes. "
Now in fact, the musical storyline Mr Tucker is pointing to is even clearer, in my opinion, if you revert to the traditional ordering of the sequence of Introits, in which Misericordia comes before Jubilate Deo as used in the 1962 Missal (why on earth did the Novus Ordo vandals shift Good Shepherd Sunday around?) - you need to look beyond the incipits given here to fully see the picture, but the Introits seem to me to become increasingly more upward in their initial movement, and have a wider range as we move toward the Ascension. Very cute!
For those interested in the musical word painting going on in the Propers, a great resource is the book by Dom Dominic Johner, The Chants of the Vatican Gradual, which can be downloaded from the fabulous Musica Sacra site. Regardless, pay attention as the choir sings the propers this Sunday!