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For Dr. Sara Pecknold, professor of music at Christendom College, Christmastime is one of the most beautiful times of the year. What can be lost in today’s secular culture, however, is the importance of sacred music especially at this time as the world celebrates the birth of Christ. In this article for the latest issue of Instaurare, she examines why it bears so much importance, especially in our modern world.

Who among us, from young to old, does not enjoy donning our Christmas best to attend Mass on the great Solemnity of Our Lord’s Nativity? Who is not thrilled by the sight of bright red poinsettias and quieted by the heavy mystery hovering in the aroma of incense, inviting us to celebrate the coming of Our Savior? Who cannot be moved by the placing of the Divine Bambino in the manger of our parish’s Nativity? Who does not relish the singing, at last, of the final stanza of “O Come All Ye Faithful”: Yea, Lord, we greet thee…All of these signs snap our bodily senses to attention so that we may contemplate the truths clothed within the material enjoyments as we honor the God who took on the garment of the flesh, mysteriously uniting the Divine and Human natures.

This story comes from the latest issue of Instaurare Magazine, the official magazine of Christendom College. Read more from Instaurare here!

The metaphor of clothing is particularly enlightening in regard to the special role of music in the celebration of Christmas. In his motu proprio on sacred music, Pope St. Pius X likens liturgical music to a garment: the “principal office [of sacred music] is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful” (Tra le sollecitudini, I.1). The great chant scholar and former Christendom professor Fr. Robert Skeris has stated it this way: that the melodies, particularly those of Gregorian chant, are the sonic vesture of the sacred text. Just as the priest dons his vestments to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, so also the words of the liturgy should “wear” clothing that is most fitting, most holy, and most splendid. In light of this, let us investigate one particular text of the Christmas liturgy and the sonic garments it has worn throughout the centuries, Viderunt omnes, the Gradual for the Mass of Christmas Day:

Viderunt omnes fines terrae

salutare Dei nostri.

Jubilate Deo omnis terra: 

Notum fecit Dominus salutare suum: 

ante conspectum gentium revelavit justitiam suam,

Alleluia.

Translation:

All the ends of the world have seen

the salvation of our God.

Shew yourselves joyful unto the Lord, all ye lands:

The Lord declared his salvation:

his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight

of the heathen.

Alleluia.

First, we can consider Viderunt omnes in its earliest musical version, as Gregorian chant. In the chant version, we see (and hear!) that this exuberant text has been generously and sumptuously clothed (visit https://youtu.be/EN73kO2_PZA). One of the fundamental questions to answer in regard to Gregorian chant is this: is the chant syllabic, neumatic, or melismatic? Syllabic chants feature about one note per syllable, neumatic chants two to three notes, and melismatic chants three or more notes.

On Christmas Day, the Gradual chant is highly melismatic, adorning the words omnes, terra, suam, and especially Dominus with extravagant melodic gestures. In fact, the first syllable of Dominus boasts 53 notes, which sparkle like gems in Our Lord’s Davidic crown. The chant is set in the fifth Church Mode, which has a joyful, transcendent character. To be sure, the chant melody is both fitting and splendid.

This Gradual also comes into the spotlight at the turn of the 13th century. During this period, as the great Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was under construction, a new way of notating music with precise rhythms and up to four voices was being developed by the Notre Dame composers Leoninus and Perotinus. The works of these composers are liturgical clausulae, choral “clauses,” which were inserted into the Mass and the Divine Office. Since the rest of the liturgy was chanted, these polyphonic, choral clausulaeheightened the solemnity of particular liturgical moments. Such is the case with Perotinus’ setting of Viderunt omnes. Here, the composer has taken the original chant melody, stretching it out into extremely long notes and placing it in the lowest voice. Above this, he added three decorative, buoyant voices (visit https://youtu.be/3oaRM1uDsw8). Like the chant melody, this organum quaduplum is in the fifth Church Mode, and it also features extremely long melismas; it takes the singers about a minute just to complete the first syllable, “Vi-”!  In our day, most Catholics might not be prepared to sit through an entire liturgy celebrated with Notre Dame polyphony; Gradual alone requires about

10 minutes in performance! However, the generosity of musical gesture, the sense of timelessness inscribed into the sounds, and the sheer length of these pieces speaks eloquently of the mysterious intersection of time and eternity in the Incarnation.

If we turn to the Renaissance, we find several exquisite settings of this text. The English composer and Catholic convert William Byrd (1543-1623) included it in his Gradualia, which contains choral works for most major Roman Catholic liturgical occasions. Converting and composing during an age of persecution, Byrd is a particularly inspiring figure. His setting of Viderunt omnes is jubilant in its bouncy rhythms and imitative musical lines. At the same time, it powerfully communicates the mystery of Christmas in its employment of the first Church mode (actually transposed), which lends the work a minor sound. This overall “minor” character is transformed at the conclusion of the piece with a Picardy third, a common 16th-century device in which a piece in a minor-sounding mode resolves with a decisive, triumphant, major sonority.

In all of these cases, we can glimpse ways in which the great musical works of our Catholic tradition adhere to the principles so well-articulated by St. Pius X: that sacred music must be “true art,” characterized by sanctity, goodness of form, and universality. As Our Lord humbled himself, taking on human flesh in the Incarnation, so Holy Mother Church invites us to clothe ourselves in goodly attire, and to vest the sacred words of the liturgy in holy and splendid garments, ever old and ever new. The final verse of Adeste, fideles states it well:

We shall see the eternal splendour of the eternal Father      

Hidden under a veil of flesh,

The infant God wrapped in swaddling clothes.

O come, let us adore Him…

Thus may we strive to fulfill the “scope of the liturgy,” as St. Pius instructs us, to glorify God and to edify the faithful, rendering that which is justly due to Our Creator as He offers us the very sacrament of our salvation in His Son.

Read more from Instaurare Magazine here.

Contributed by Dr. Sara Pecknold, professor of music at Christendom College.

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