Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Confession: even after having studied music throughout college and graduate school—throughout my whole life, really—I find that I still feel woefully lacking in my musical knowledge, particularly of the treasury of sacred choral repertoire. To be fair, there’s a lot of music out there. A LOT a lot. More music than any one person could listen to in ten lifetimes. But still. As someone who thinks and writes about liturgical music, who regularly plays and even sometimes writes liturgical music, I know I can (and should) always be learning more about the musical heritage of the Catholic Church. The well of riches in this area is indeed bottomless, so, in this series, I hope to begin to plumb its depths more intentionally. Why? Because this music has been and continues to be an integral part of our language in worshiping God, and can help us to discover a richer vocabulary of praise. Because this music stretches across time and space, connecting us with those who heard and sang it centuries ago, and with those who will hear and sing it centuries into the future. But most of all, because this music is beautiful, and in its beauty, our hearts and minds are lifted to the One who shows us how to become beautiful. In short, I am undertaking this project because I hope that it will help me grow closer to God.
But where to start? The process of trying to find a friendly, fruitful inroad into the vast world of sacred choral music can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the Church herself provides me—and consequently this series—with a road map in the gift of the liturgical year. Much of the sacred choral repertoire was composed specifically for liturgical use, and through the magic of the internet, one can, with just a little bit of searching, discover multiple pieces composed especially for a particular feast or season. And so, once every week, I will be offering little points of entry into the world of sacred music by sharing both well-known works and hidden gems written for specific feasts as they arise on our journey through the liturgical calendar. I will offer a commentary on said pieces accessible not just to trained musicians, but to anyone who “has ears to hear” (cf. Mk 4:9, 23; Mt 13:9, 43; Lk 14:35), where I hope to draw connections between musical construction and theological reflection.
Because the ultimate goal is to get to the listening, my commentaries will be brief (this first post notwithstanding), and because people are busy, the pieces I will feature will also be relatively brief. With any luck, these posts will provide weekly opportunities to take a 5–7 minute respite from the craziness and busyness of the day, and enter into the beauty of a feast through the beauty of sacred choral music. I hope that you’ll bust out your headphones and join me in this sustained expedition through some of the most beautiful music that has ever been written, and I hope that it will help us all discover in this music a via, a way of growing in the knowledge and love of God.
In this first post, I begin—appropriately enough for someone working at a Holy Cross institution—with a recent choral setting of the Introit (Entrance Antiphon) written for today’s celebration: the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Composed in 1997 by British composer Grayston (Bill) Ives (b. 1948), Nos autem gloriari is a setting of the Introit, or Entrance Antiphon, which is intended to “give a name to the entire celebration” of the Eucharist, as Paul Turner asserts in his foreword to Jason McFarland’s book Announcing the Feast: The Entrance Song in the Mass of the Roman Rite (xviii). The Introit sets the tone for the feast, alerts the congregation to what we will be celebrating during this Eucharist; it is the musical door through which we enter the liturgical celebration. It is decidedly not just a song that will cover the time it takes for the priest and ministers to process from the back of the church to the front.
Today, the Church invites us to enter the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross with these words, based on Galatians 6:14: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered.” The Cross, once an ignominious sign of humiliation and shame and agony, is transfigured in Christ as the sign of our very salvation. Christ’s death on the Cross becomes a bridge, spans the chasm between God and humanity created by sin, and if we are to cross this bridge, we must not only accept the Cross for ourselves in whatever way it may present itself in our lives, but we must also glory in it. It is the great challenge and the beautiful paradox of Christianity. Life out of death.
Ives demonstrates this paradox musically by refusing to sugar coat the challenge posed by the Cross: the opening of this piece is haunting, eerie, quietly unsettling. The lower voices (basses and altos) stay on the same note while the upper voices (tenors and sopranos) sing a jagged melody, until all of the voices converge and, together as one chorus, ultimately find resolution on the final phrase of the Introit, which affirms that it is precisely through the ignominy of the Cross that we are saved from sin and death itself. The musical effect here is stunning. After wandering adrift through disjointed, dissonant harmonies, we reach a place of peace, of hope. The musical resolution for which we long comes only after we have confronted and accepted the reality that salvation cannot come apart from the Cross. It is our only way. It is, as the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross have taught us, our only hope.
Ave Crux, spes unica.