Chant Comment

This Alleluia must surely rank among the most inspiring pieces of the Graduale Romanum (also found in the Liber Usualis at the 8th Sunday after Pentecost).  The lyricism of its 7th mode melody can compete for virtuosity with the graduals Benedictus, Dirigatur and Lætatus sum. 

All of these pieces have a common feature related to the intensely dramatic character of the 7th mode: that is their use of visual imagery in an attempt to translate the transcendence of God.  In the Gradual Dirigatur, it is the soaring movement of incense which provides the inspiration; in Lætatus sum, the vision of Jerusalem with its lofty towers delineated against the sky.    

In the Gradual Benedictus, as in our Alleluia, the image used is that of mountains:

“Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of God. on his holy mountain!”

Even more than the text, it is the musical arabesques of the melody which suggest this mountain scenery, far more akin to Alpine peaks than to the hills of Judea! But in the fertile imagination of a pious Jew, the hillocks of Jerusalem become mountain Alps, when they speak to him of God. We see them – or rather we hear them – raising their lofty peaks to the “Lord Most High”.

It is no coincidence that the ‘peak’ of the melody should be on the word “Lord”. It is typical of these Gregorian melodies that they treat the Divine Name with particular attention and devotion (think, for example, of the jubilus of any Alleluia, invariably situated on the particle –ia standing for the name of the Lord); nor is it uncommon to find the summit of the melody at that point, as is the case here.

The phrase “in monte sancto eius” gives us a similar example of this kind of “musical word painting”: in the alternation of syllabic and melismatic tempo which we see here, it is important to sing the syllables with all their oratorical and rhythmical fullness, in order to allow them to sketch out melodically the majestic chain of peaks. The text of our psalm continues to describe the mountain as “towering in beauty, joy of the whole world”. If these words are not actually included in our Alleluia, the melody more than makes up for it in its powerful evocativeness

This piece is a perfect example of a pure 7th mode, making use of all the potential and all the particular melodic vocabulary of that mode. It takes off with the introductory Soh-Re intonation, typical of the mode (compare Intr. Puer), weaves its way around the tonic Re, punctuates its melodic arabesques with the quietly insistent sub-tonic Do, and finally touches ground on the dominant Soh. The Re seems to echo as though from mountain peak to mountain peak, and provides a springboard for further ascents up to the top Fa and even beyond, to La, on the word Dominus, summit of the whole piece. This is the highest point a 7th mode ever reaches and only a small number of them do so. On the other hand, the composer makes no great attempt to descend lower than the tonic Soh. What he is evidently interested in is the height aspect:

“I saw the Lord high and lifted up ”

(Is 6:1)

Looking at smaller melodic motifs, we can detect, beyond the basic 7th mode structure, more primitive entities, pentatonic nuclei that take us further back in time, to a distant period before the drawing up of the 8-mode system, in or around the 8th century.  The group Re-do-la-do-re, which grew out of the mother-note Re is one such nucleus, repeated 3 times, once in the Alleluia, twice in the verse, and elaborated upon in a variety of ways, eg. before the half-bar of the Alleluia: La-Do-Re-La-Soh-Fa-Soh.  This group is repeated after the half-bar and gives us the clue on how to interpret the final cadence of the alleluia: a clear repercussion should mark the end of that melodic nucleus, out of which can then spring the coda: Soh-Ti-Soh-Fa-La-La-Soh.  A sustained double note of 2 beats on those Sohs would deprive them of their hinge character, whose purpose is to join the two melodic “words” into a phrase.  

When well performed, there is a gentle rhythmic pulse coinciding with these Sohs and carrying the melody forward to its conclusion.  The absence of the half tone (Ti-Do) in the first melodic excerpt of the Alleluia is in itself suggestive of antiquity.  This is all the more intriguing in that we do not have the semiology signs for this piece, indicating that it was written down quite late (not earlier than 12th cent. ) though it may well have existed long before that.  Since, generally speaking, it is believed that the jubilus of an alleluia is a later development and addition, we might reasonably suppose that the composer received the primitive alleluia with its melody from an already long-standing tradition and then expanded on it.  Just how old is the original syllabic alleluia must remain a matter of guess work, but it would not be inconceivable to think of it as borrowed from pre-Christian synagogue liturgy.

The melisma of the alleluia is resumed on the words civitate and eius (“in monte sancto eius”) each time acting as a final jubilus, and each time providing space for contemplation on the mystery. What mystery? The mystery of “God with us”. From ancient times, the mountain has been seen as a symbol of God’s meeting place with man. In his revelation, God made use of this natural association, and revealed himself on mountains, from Mount Moriah to that of Calvary, from Mount Sinai to the Mount of the Beatitudes, from Mount Carmel to the Mount of the Transfiguration. And when the author of the Book of Revelation wished to describe that final state when God will dwell among us, he used the same language: “In the spirit, he carried me to a great, high mountain, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem”.

Here as in our psalm the mountain is equated with the Holy City. Christian exegesis and tradition see in that city the Church, temple of God and bride of Christ. But tradition also sees in the mountain the person of Christ, who is God’s Temple on earth and God with us: “ad montem qui Christus est” (Collect for Our Lady of Mount Carmel). Orthodox tradition has by analogy applied the image to Our Lady: “O come to Sion, the divine and fertile mountain of the living God, and let us rejoice as we gaze upon the Theotokos”(Matins, Dormition of our Most Holy Lady). By a similar analogy, we too have to be that mountain where God dwells: “Follow Christ that you too may become a mountain” (St Ambrose on Gospel of St. Luke).

“In the spirit, he carried me to a great, high mountain, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem…”