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Gregorian Chants for the Sacred Heart

Crucifixion scene from Rabula Gospels

A 6th-century Syriac gospel book, known as the Rabula Gospels, which is one of the earliest Christian manuscripts to employ large, fully-rendered miniature illuminations.

The innate ability of music to influence the human mind is quite extraordinary. Children learn their ABC's via song. We know certain characters in movies are near simply by the theme music playing. Ephrem of Syria wrote songs to fight heresy. I can still recite all the books of the Protestant Bible in order because of a song I learned in Christian private school.

Have you ever been in a position in which you’ve had to explain why someone can’t have a song played at a wedding or funeral that they really, really want to have played? Sometimes it’s pretty easy to explain. For example, “Ave Maria” by Beyoncé isn’t actually about the Virgin Mary, or about anything religious at all (just read the lyrics).

Other times, it’s not so cut and dry, and a deeper question needs to be asked: where will the listener’s thoughts be directed while listening to this piece? Will they be directed to sacred things…or to secular ones? For example, the Bridal Chorus by Wagner was forbidden to be played even instrumentally for weddings for a long time, since it was written for an opera with a pagan theme. Listeners were mentally transported somewhere else when it was played. Restrictions around the piece have relaxed in many places, as the situation has paradoxically almost reversed itself. The piece is now generally viewed as something that is played only in churches.

Thought to ponder: Is a song of farewell written to the tune of O Danny Boy appropriate for a church service? Why or why not?

The Church respects the power of association with regard to music. In fact, this is one of many reasons why Gregorian chant holds such high distinction in the Liturgy. It is a genre of music dedicated to and performed exclusively within the Liturgy, so it keeps the mind focused on higher things.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, for Jesu.

I wanted to use the above for the title of this article, but you’ve been somewhat spared from my poor humor, as it was just too long. The Feast of the Sacred Heart, which we celebrate tomorrow, is a very late addition to the liturgical calendar, and as such offers a terrific opportunity to see examples of ancient melodies finding a new voice in (relatively) modern chants. The interplay of melodies and texts is extraordinary.

On a personal note, I visited the town where Margaret Mary Alacoque had her apparitions of the Sacred Heart. In 2008 I stayed in Semur, France with the Apostolic Sisters of Saint John (I'm in orange on the right during Sunday recreation in one of the pictures below), and while I was there they made sure I took take a day trip to Paray le Monial. The church, a precise reduced-scale model of the celebrated Abbey Cluny, is dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Paray le Monial has also earned the title of "Mosaic City", with a dedicated school and museum for mosaics, and of course many installations around the town. It is well worth a visit.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is as old as the Christian Church.

As early as the second century, Saint Justin Martyr wrote of the early Christians being like water coming out of the heart of Christ on the cross, “as water from a rock” (presumably a reference to an incident in the Book of Numbers, in which Moses strikes a rock and water gushes forth). In the first millennium of Christianity, the devotion was illustrated by images of the deceased Christ on the cross, with his side (and thus his heart) pierced by a lance. The cover image for this blog article is perhaps such an example.

In the Middle Ages, the side wound itself took on a mystical significance, as a gateway leading to the mystical recesses of the Sacred Heart. These images, frequently misunderstood today, can be found in certain illuminated Books of the Hours.

In the mid seventeenth century, a belief that humankind are incapable of making themselves worthy of God’s grace, and that Christ did not in fact die for all, but only for some people (an ideology called "Jansenism"), took rapid hold and instilled great fear among believers. The Sacred Heart, now as a manifestation of the all-consuming, non-discriminating Divine Love of God became more urgent than ever. The French nun, Margaret Mary Alacoque, received mystical visions and messages, from which the current forms of the image and devotion emerged.

In 1856, the Feast of the Sacred Heart was officially added to the universal calendar of the Catholic Church.

Image: Jared Suarez, Cathopic


Gregorian Chants for the Sacred Heart

This blog article is devoted to the set of chanted propers used most universally today for the Feast of the Sacred Heart, as promulgated in 1929. Many thanks to Dom Dominic Johner who, in his book Chants of the Vatican Gradual, elaborates the chants — and phrases of said chants — which these propers were most likely modeled upon. Each chant is linked to a recording. Even if you don't read music, or don't read chant notation, you should be able to follow what is being relayed here via the recordings and color coded charts. The charts were created by yours truly (sheet music provided by the indispensable Gregobase). You may click on each image to enlarge, if you wish.

Introit: Cogitationes

Listen, and compare to Laetare

It is this chant which gave impetus for the writing of this blog article, as a quick read through reveals an unmistakable similarity to the introit for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (“rose” or "rejoice" Sunday). The first three notes outline a triad characteristic of Mode V (the “Laetus”, or “Rejoice” mode), further setting the festive tone for the feast from the outset. Dom Johner points out that repurposing the melody of “consolationis” from the Lent IV introit reminds an attentive listener that it is the Sacred Heart which brings about the fullness of this consolation.

Gradual: Dulcis et rectus Dominus

Listen (gradual finishes at 2:45); and compare to Ecce quam bonum

It is typical for a gradual chant to share parts of its melody with other gradual chants. (There’s actually a word for this: “centonization”.) To share this much with just one gradual is rather unusual, though, and does suggest a modeling upon such a chant. Ecce quam bonum extols the virtues of brethren living in unity. Dulcis et rectus exalts the guidance of the Lord. How are these concepts related to each other?

The reading tied to this Sacred Heart Gradual provides the connection we seek. In Ephesians 3, Paul writes to the Jews concerning his call to preach the grace of Christ to the Gentiles: “For this reason I kneel before the Father...that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Unity comes through obedience to the law of the Lord which, through Christ's loving sacrifice on the cross, is extended now to everyone. Not just Jews. Not just Gentiles. (Dare I add, not just those whose political views we agree with?) All are called to live in the fullness of God.

Alleluia tollite jugum meum

Sacred Heart Alleluia and Alleluia Christus resurgens

Listen; compare to Alleluia Christus resurgens ("mors" begins at 1:13) and to parts of verses of the Reproaches

requiem = rest

mors = death

The rest (requiem) which Christ offers us comes by way of his victory over death (mors).

The repetitive phrase highlighted in yellow is also found in most verses of the Reproaches (also called Improperia — not to be confused with Improperium, the Offertory chant about to follow) sung during the veneration of the cross on Good Friday. The connection becomes far more powerful upon the reading of the gospel just following, taken from John 19: Jesus' body is pierced open with a lance and taken down from the cross.

Offertory: Improperium

Sacred Heart and Palm Sunday Offertory chants

Listen (Sacred Heart form ends around 1:30) NB: this recording is a "restored" melody and contains slight discrepancies with the sheet music; it also includes a rarely heard offertory verse

The connection to Holy Week, the use of the same identical chant as that of Palm Sunday, and the translation of the chant should, I hope, provide sufficient exegesis on their own.

Communio: Unus Militum

Listen; a recording could not located for Qui vicerit; sheet music for the full set of propers for Saint Boniface is here

The connection of this chant to that of the communio for Saint Boniface is not immediately evident. As a martyr, he is esteemed among those saints closest to Christ, having followed his example in making the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps part of the inspiration of Unus militum may be attributed to the close proximity of both feasts on the liturgical calendar.

Whatever the case may be, the eternal rewards which are praised in Qui vicerit are only made possible through the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross, finished by the flowing of blood and water from his heart.

Christ gave all, and by this gift, we receive all.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.


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