The Church has begun a New Year! Advent marks the start of a new cycle of readings and a new beginning but we begin quietly. The General Instructions of the Roman Missal says: “In Advent, the organ and other musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season’s character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord [GIRM §313]”

The Offertory that the choir will sing, Watchman, Tell Us of the Night composed Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), an Armenian-American is an interesting composition which uses note clusters instead of the usual triads such as C-E-G. At the beginning of the 20th Century, it became clear to young composers that the harmonic system that had been in place for 500 years had been exhausted. That system is called “tertian” because it was built on thirds such as c-e-g-b-d-f-a. That is called a 13th chord and it contains all the notes of the major scale. In addition, the notes within this 7 note chord could be altered by the addition of a sharp or a flat to obtain a slightly different sound. All this came to a head at the end of the 19th Century with composers such as Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, and early Schönberg. Early in the 20th century the Second Viennese school of  [Schönberg,  (now a little older) and two disciples: Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern [the von was later dropped] started to experiment with new musical techniques that were very sparse sounding at the time. Here is a link to Six Piano Pieces Opus 19 It is very sparse and dissonant. At that time they had disallowed octaves so there are many major sevenths [a half-step less than an octave] or a minor ninths [a half step more than an octave]. These Six pieces are called atonal because there is no tonal center. The last of these pieces, number 6, are the church bells in Vienna ringing for Maller’s funeral. Other composers went in different  directions. Some added “wrong notes” to triads such as c, d, e, g [an added second]. In France, Oliver Messiaen began using what he called “modes of limited transposition” and eventually using Indian rhythmic patterns on which to compose and organize his music. Here is “Le Banquet Celeste’ [The heavenly banquet] In most compositions he also has a text in mind either from Scripture or from the Mass. Here is the text he quotes at the beginning of the piece: “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in Him” Messiaen was a very great composer and a great teacher. Other composers used folk music of their countries on which to compose music [Béla Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams Prelude on Rhosymedre [it means ‘Lovely’ in Welsh]. Alan Hovhaness used his Arminian folk roots along with the associated rhythms in his compositions. The Prayer of St. Gregory is interesting because the trumpet is accompanied by an harmonium! The piece that the choir is singing this Sunday uses note clusters a.b.c,d,e,f#,g etc. throughout the composition. In addition, as the cluster held the composer subtracts notes so that at the end of the phrase the organ is playing an a and d.

You will notice that at the 11:00 am Mass on Sunday the Marian Antiphon has changed from Salve Regina to Alma Redemptoris Mater. It was composed by Herman Contractus (Herman the Cripple) (1013-1054). It is mentioned in The Prioress’ Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which testifies to its popularity in England before Henry VIII. Contractus composed it from phrases taken from the writings of St. Fulgentius, St. Epiphanius, and St. Irenaeus. At one time Alma Redemptoris Mater was briefly used as an antiphon for the hour of Sext for the feast of the Assumption, but since the 13th century it has been a part of Compline. Formerly it was recited only from the first Sunday in Advent until the Feast of the Purification (Feb. 2), but with the revision of the Liturgy of the Hours, it can be recited anytime during the year. [From the Roman Breviary.]