A Communion Chant Oddity
  • One of my most satisfying accomplishments has been the founding of a Gregorian chant ensemble made up mostly of people with no music background. After almost a decade of singing they can now read almost anything at sight. There are, however, occasional chants that cause them to stumble - one being the communion “Cantabo Domino” scheduled for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (March 3rd) in the novus ordo calendar.

    The melody is designated mode ii but behaves nothing like mode ii. When I first read through the chant I thought surely the editors had mistakenly inserted the wrong clef since the usual mode ii dominant-final (FA-RE) is nowhere to be found. (The psalm tone by the way ends on LA and the antiphon begins on FA.) Then, following a friend’s suggestion, I read Dom Dominic Joyner’s comments in The Chants of the Vatican Gradual and realized “Cantabo Domino” is indeed an oddity with the first phrase being intentionally transposed a fifth in order, so Joyner opines, to emphasize more expressively the melodic rising culminating with the words “Domini altissimi.”

    My schola is not entirely convinced by this argument and prefers to think the composer more likely just spent a bit too much time in the wine cellar before putting quill to parchment. Since my schola does not sing every week we’ve had time to accustom ourselves to the mode change, but I’m curious how others respond to this chant. What was your reaction when you first encountered it?
  • It is clearly a transposition. Ignoring the TE for a moment, if the clef were placed on the top line of the staff, you'd have a start of RE and termination of FA with a dominant of LA.

    The first half of the melody is not unusual per se. The second half (et psallam to end) sounds strange because of the transposition and the range that it encapsulates. There are a number of melodies with similarly surprising half-step intervals (regardless of mode) so, while unusual, this is not unique. (My recollection of similar examples is largely from the Responsories from various Matins or Tenebrae, but occasionally from other Propers).

    In the EF, the Communion verse to which you refer occurs on the Sunday following Corpus Christi. It's been some years since I've sung it... now-a-days, we mostly celebrate Corpus Christi on the Thursday and then the Solemnity on the Sunday... but I do recall it as an unusual verse.
  • The chant in question appears to be one of mixed mode. As Incardination suggests, there are others like it, for example, the Communio Passer invenit, which begins as a mode III melody but shifts halfway through, ending in mode I. Cantabo Domino begins in the Deuterus, the word Domino cadencing in typical mode IV fashion. But at "qui bona" there is a definite shift to the Proteus, with a typical mode II intonation figure on "qui" leading to recitation on the minor third above the final.

    The transposition up a fifth, as in the Vatican edition, avoids the necessity of employing both a B-flat and and E-flat to notate the melody. The Graduale Novum, however, does exactly that, using two flats and the FA clef in its untransposed version.

    Chants in mixed modality do sound strange to us. Were they originally meant to sound strange? If so, what would be the motivation? Something in the text? Or, alternatively, are we missing something about the nature of chant melody when we rationally expect each chant to be a textbook model of the modal expectations we bring to it?