Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Universal Language of (Lenten) Music

Many functions can "exercise" parts of the brain seldom used in the doldrums of quotidian life: practicing arithmetic, learning or speaking another language, and music. The last of these, according to neurologists, exerts memory, creativity, motor skills, and releases oxytocin, which creates emotional trust between people.

Music is so powerful that one often neglects the words of a well-written melody and sometimes the key or produced effects of music elicit a "mood" that speaks more clearly than words. Very touching melodies, the sort where the notation follows in sequence rather than spilling all over the place for the sake of "theory", can render even memorable words immemorable, as Beethoven did to Schiller's An die Freude. This same power of melody made the Beatles and Beach Boys popular despite the inanity of the words. Yet it is the unique combination of melody and word that makes the Marian anthems of the season my favorites in the liturgical canon.

Alma Redemptoris Mater has never "done it" for me; melodically it dithers too much and lyrically it lacks the rhythmic qualities that make the other three anthems so very singable. Ave Regina caelorum and Regina coeli, however, are this writer's most favored of the four anthems precisely because their simple tone variants perfectly marry a straightforward, balanced base text to a tune that accentuates and punctuates those words adequately.

Ave Regina caelorum, like the Ordinary setting of Lenten Masses, is given in a major key, beginning low and climbing high in saluting the Blessed Virgin under several titles (Queen of Heaven, Lady of Angels etc) before trilling at the top of the scale to change the direction of the prayer from greeting to petition (Rejoice, O Glorious Virgin) and finally resting with the request that She might pray to Her Divine Son on our behalf.

Regina coeli does something very similar with a more spartan set of words, but instead of a "climbing" melody that cheers up the grimness of Lent, it begins high and slowly relaxes at the end of each verb and its accompanying Alleluia. Rather than provide relief, as the Lenten music does, Regina coeli reflects the confidence, heart-throbbing joy of a mother who can touch Her once-dead Son.

One wonders if, when God disposed the human mind toward the qualities of music, He had the Felix culpa of the Fall and His Son's restoration of us, His image, in mind?


  1. Does anybody know why were the people clapping at the beginning?

  2. Well,Alma Redemptoris Mater of Palestrina is somewhat better than the Original (Simple and Solemn Tones). For Me,the Regina Cœli(at least the Solemn Tone)is more exuberant than the three other antiphons and for this reason;I Love it very much.

  3. I suppose the 1st Tone solemn "Salve, Regina" is the most "accessible," in the sense of typically chant-like. I've always loved the dactylic hexameters of the "Alma," even if the accompanying chant never, to my mind, did justice to the majesty of the meter. One man's half-baked opinion.