Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Let everything that hath breath, praise the Lord."

This post is not meant as a reminder, considering most anticipated Masses for the holy day on 1 January have now been celebrated, but rather more as an incomplete reflection (One realizes that much time and research is needed to fill the gaps, and my transitions to one idea to the next as of late have been, well, to use a technical term, wonky... Oh well. It's a blog, not an academic paper.)

The Te Deum may be sung in thanksgiving on the last day of each calendar year, so on 31 December, in a church or oratory for the faithful to receive a plenary indulgence. At my parish, we sang an lovely English setting that was easy and familiar (I am sure I had heard the melody used elsewhere, though I couldn't place it), with the text coming from the Book of Common Prayer, as opposed to the Latin plainchant. I do love when one can sing the plainchant melodies while singing an accurate yet elegant rendering of the Latin text, but the Prayer Book's translation is beautiful in its own right, as is much of the Anglican liturgy. 
We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord/All the earth doth worship thee: the Father everlasting./To thee all Angels cry aloud : 
the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
A favorite recording of the chant (the only version my friends put on Facebook!) is the chant sung in alternatim with the organ at Notre-Dame-de-Paris, with the organ being played by Pierre Cochereau. See below for the music. This practice could be found, and still is, across Europe, but it was especially popular in France, one of the leading Catholic centers of organ music. The cantor would intone the chant, and the choir would follow, then the organ, followed again by the choir.

Today that seems like an intolerable practice, and indeed, it does not seem to have been universally accepted. The French carried on, almost indifferent to protests, though they did place Psalm 150:6 on organs as an acknowledgement of the criticism and as their defense: Let everything that hath breath, praise the Lord.

However, the Te Deum was sung much more frequently in the Divine Office following Lauds, just as the Gloria was prayed on all third-class feasts, save those in violet. Thus it was more easily memorized, not just its melody but its texts. It, the Gospel canticles, and other frequently sung chants (there are verses for chants such as the Tantum ergo, the hymn for Vespers of Corpus Christi and of course at Benediction) were recited while the organ was played, so it was not as if the verses were left unprayed...

A commenter on the Youtube video gave this beautiful reflection on the practice of singing chant alternatim with the organ:
The Te Deum is supposed to unite the two choirs of Heaven and Earth in praising God. So the choir here is only singing half the verses while they leave the choirs of angels and saints in Heaven to sing the alternate verses (while the organ roars out its accompaniment to them).
This also responds to the critics of the practice, since the organ is accompanying the angels who are singing this. Further, it points towards a fundamental part of Christian worship, that of creation's response to God our creator, which is to acknowledge him as creator and give him what he is owed, n what St. Thomas Aquinas explains is the virtue of religion, a sub-virtue of justice.

God made this clear in the Ten Commandments, since he explicitly declared  himself to be the Lord God and that we must keep the Sabbath day. Through his creation in the image and likeness of God (at the moment, I cannot recall the Fathers' arguments and whether it is image or likeness that reason is a part of... I think the former) man is capable of recognizing God as creator. St. Thomas's five ways, no matter what one might think of them otherwise, come to mind as a strong proof of this view in theology. Additionally, goods can be good in their own right and used for legitimate pleasures without man needing fear his salvation. Of course, ultimately goodness comes from participation in the divine goodness. The good creation cannot stand apart from the creator that saw that it was good, and so goods are ordered, from the lesser goods to the highest goods, namely God, to whom all the lower goods point. But our nature is weakened, so we turn to other desires and things in place of God, leading us away from the fulfillment of ourselves in God, leading us away from goodness and towards nothingness.

Yet we turn our hearts and minds towards the Lord, lifting them up to him in worship, which is fundamentally an act of thanksgiving. It is simplistic to remember Athanasius' On the Incarnation simply for his theology of theosis, where God became man so that men could become gods, since the work and even that statement are more complex, but it is true. We must keep this in mind during Christmastide and Epiphanytide especially, when we liturgically commemorate the Nativity of Our Lord.

In further parts I hope to reflect upon the nature of liturgical hymns of thanksgiving and their connection to each other, namely the Gloria and the Te Deum, and how we ought to perceive thanksgiving. I have some reading and thinking to do tomorrow, it looks like. Blessed new year. 

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