Chant Comment

Entrance Chant – Lex Domini  ( Graduale Romanum p 86  )

It is a tradition in our Congregation to celebrate the Abbess’s Feastday with extra solemnity including a Mass of her patron Saint.  As St Eustochium does not appear on the Roman Calendar, nor even in the monastic calendar, we adopted the option, since her feast falls on a feria, of a Votive Mass of the Saint, which has the advantage of leaving us complete freedom as to the choices of chants.  As Introit Mother Abbess chose Lex Domini, which now appears in the Graduale Romanum for the Saturday before the second Sunday of Lent. [i]  ( Its present position is part of the minor re-organization due to the re-arrangement of the lectionary.) In the pre-1972 Graduale it featured on the Saturday prior to the third Sunday of Lent, where in fact it was already found in 8th and 9th cent. manuscripts.

The choice of this Introit was dictated by St Eustochium’s famed love of Scripture which led her as far as learning Hebrew (under St Jerome’s tutelage) in order to be able to read the Sacred text in its original language.  The Introit’s text is taken from Psalm 18/19 which celebrates the splendour of God’s Law.  This psalm – in a much more modest way, but perhaps with more poetry – follows in the footsteps of the monumental psalm 118/119 which deals with the theme of love for the Law (in its widest sense of the revealed word of God).  It forms a kind of diptych of which the first part sings of the beauty of the sun and natural light.  From there it moves into a panegyric of the divine Law which provides light to the inner eye of our souls.  Our Introit is built upon verse 8, the first verse of the second section of the psalm, a kind of litany of the Law’s virtues.

[i] Not being a Sunday chant, it is not found in the Liber Usualis.

“Lex Domini irreprehensibilis, convertens animas; testimonium Domini fidele, sapientiam præstans parvulis”.   The Law of the Lord is perfect, it restores the soul; the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making the simple one wise.

The melody is indicated as being in the first mode, and it does indeed cover a normal first mode range, with an obvious dominant on La and the final note on Re, all very characteristic of the first mode.  And yet it shows some unusual traits that give the piece a specific, if not unique, character in the repertoire.  Its nearest counterpart in the Graduale is the Introit Sapientiam GR p 452 (originally for Sts Cosmas and Damien), which shows similar, though not identical, tendencies.

Most first mode pieces begin around the tonic (Re), rise progressively to the dominant (La), and after some musical embroideries around the La, descend gradually back to the tonic, thus creating the typically balanced first mode arch form.  In a more developed first mode, such as the pieces contained in the gradual, there will usually be several such arches, grouped around a main central one which will include the pinnacle of the piece.  But our Introit launches immediately from the La without any preparation, and from there climbs rapidly up to Do, which it seems to use as a kind of supra-dominant; it continues to move within this region for two-thirds of the piece, with the tonic Re only making its appearance during the last four notes.  The result is an unusually powerful start on the word Lex which spills over as a musical embroidery into Domini: the Law of the Lord, the key idea of the piece.  To understand the kind of musical lyricism which it engenders, we need to grasp what Lex stands for in the Hebrew mind, a concept quite different from the legalistic one we have inherited from Roman thought.  For a Jew, the Law is something revered and cherished, because it is God’s free gift of his self-revelation to his chosen people.  Our Lord shared in this love, which is why he could say that not one dot, not one iota, would pass until it was fulfilled.  ( cf Mt5:18) It is the dynamic of that reverence and love which causes the surge of the melody up to the Do, where it continues in an ample recitative surrounded with delicate embroidery, as it describes the Law’s perfection: irreprehensibilis, convertens animas:   perfect, it restores the soul.    We touch here the summit of the piece: the Law as the source of our life, energy and joy.

The second half of the psalm verse, following the full bar, resumes on the La but with less upward impetus.  We find no upper Re embroideries, and the Dos are more thinly spread.  The melody still contains some of the sparkle of the earlier half, but there is a gentle descent which becomes perceptible as it cadences on Fa: the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, that is, not just perfect and exalted, but also accessible to us, a support on which we can lean, in the same way that the melody now leans on the Fa.  Our text continues: making the simple ones wise, or more literally from the Latin: granting wisdom to the little ones.  Lofty as it is, God’s Law, which is also his wisdom, condescends and accepts to give itself over to the simple ones who accept their littleness.  Echoes of the original La of Lex Domini can still be heard, but it is now the Fa which carries the melody in its continual gentle descent, until, in a surprise final turn, it comes to cadence on the heretofore unheard bottom Re.  Only at this point can the melody be described as a first mode.  The wisdom of God that reigns sovereign over all things delights to be with the sons of men, (cf Prov 8,31) his humble creatures, and comes to find them in their abasement.  To do so, it chose to take on the form of a human nature, and, not counting equality with God a thing to be  grasped, (cf Phil 2, 6-7 ) became one with us little ones.