Sunday, 15 February 2015


Today is Quinquagesima: the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. In preparing the chant for today's EF Mass later this afternoon, I was struck by the Tract.  Here is the start of it:

The minute I started to sing it, I thought, Hello, I know this one. But I quickly realised that I didn't. I just knew some of it.

And I knew where I knew it from, because it is the Requiem Mass, which features highly on my list of favourites.

Here is the start of the tract from the Requiem Mass.

Even if you know nothing about chant (or music) or notation, you can tell just by looking that the opening musical phrase of each piece is identical, except for one additional reciting note at the start of the first piece (because Jubilate has one syllable more than Absolve).

But then then pieces diverge: the music for omnis terra is visibly very different from the music for animas omnium. However, every now and then, it sounded very familiar: for example, look at the decorated ending of terra, where there are many notes on the final, unstressed syllable. Then look at the decorated ending of defunctorum in the piece below. The last several notes are identical.

That pattern continues throughout the pieces: as though one is repeatedly quoting the other, and then moving off on its own, then quoting more, and so on.

But is that what is happening? Or were both drawing on a set of stock phrases and bolting them together?

And is there any intention for the familiar musical phrases in one context to make one think of the words of the other piece?

It is that last question that particularly intrigues me. 

I mentioned this briefly on Twitter, and the learned Dr Beale (@Dr_Teacake) pointed out that the Requiem Tract text had varied over time. So if we assume that the Requiem text was set to music later than today's Mass, the question becomes: when we are praying Absolve, Domine, animas omnium fidelium defunctorum ab omni vinculo delictorum (Loose, O Lord, the souls of the faithful departed from every bond of sin), are we deliberately being reminded, by the music, of the words: Jubilate Deo, omnis terra; servite Domino in laetitia (Sing joyfully to God all the earth; serve ye the Lord with gladness)?

It seems odd (to modern thinking) to set two lyrics with such very different emotional resonance to similar music - or more precisely to music including direct musical quotations (I had almost said leitmotifs, but that would surely be an anachronism).  But I like to think it is deliberate, and that in its gracious way, the music is interpenetrating our prayer for the faithful departed with that fundamental hope and joy that is the result of our Faith.

But I would love to hear from anyone who knows about this, to confirm or deny my speculations.


leutgeb said...

Also look at the Introit for the First Sunday if Lent and that of Trinity Sunday.

Ben Trovato said...

Leutgeb: Thanks. It is very striking how close these are, though not identical. I'm sure there are more, too. I wonder if anyone has done any research/study on such examples.