As Men Rejoice at the Harvest
From The Tender Land
Catholic and Protestant Reformers both sought to preserve the intelligibility of the text in sung church services, the text medieval music sometimes obscured.
Paul had dealt with a similar problem in Corinth, where speaking in tongues seems to dominate the liturgical assemblies. He expresses strong reservations about speaking in tongues, because they are not intelligible:
“Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. 15 What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; 19 nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
But there is another tradition in the church which does not confine praise to intelligibility.
In addition to the music that does not conflict with the intelligibility of the text (e.g. Merbecke’s Mass setting), Mount Calvary also uses Gregorian chant settings of the Proper of the Mass, settings that contain melismas (many notes on one syllable), as well as anthems in Latin (which even for us who have a smattering of Latin are not immediately intelligible) as well as organ preludes and postludes that have no text at all, and sometimes no reference to a hymn tune. These represent types of church music that fell into disfavor, especially among Calvinists, shortly after the English Reformation, but were revived by the Oxford Movement.
The melismas, especially at the end of the alleluia, may have a direct ancestry in the jubilatio (although musicologists are uncertain about this) but in any case they resemble the jubilatio. What, may you ask, is a jubilatio?
In the early church there was the gift of tongues, which seems to have died out by Augustine’s time (354-430), but there was another type of singing which did not use human words. In his commentary on the psalms Augustine describes it and implies it is a practice in the church:
“I am about to say what ye know. One who jubilates, uttereth not words, but it is a certain sound of joy without words: for it is the expression of a mind poured forth in joy, expressing, as far as it is able, the affection, but not compassing the feeling. A man rejoicing in his own exultation, after certain words which cannot be uttered or understood, bursteth forth into sounds of exultation without words, so that it seemeth that he indeed doth rejoice with his voice itself, but as if filled with excessive joy cannot express in words the subject of that joy.”
“To manifest his joy, the man does not use words that can be pronounced or understood, but bursts forth into sounds of exaltation without words… What is jubilation? Joy that cannot be pronounced or understood, but bursts forth into sounds of exaltation without words.”
Jubilation is a natural activity, an expression of deep and profound joy. Augustine explains why we do it and should do it:
“See how He Himself provides you with a way of singing. Do not search for words, as if you could find a lyric which would give God pleasure. Sing to Him “with songs of joy.” This is singing well to God, just singing with songs of joy.
“But how is this done? You must first understand that words cannot express the things that are sung by the heart. Take the case of people singing while harvesting in the fields or in the vineyards or when any other strenuous work is in progress [play Copeland’s The Promise of Living]. Although they begin by giving expression to their happiness in sung words, yet shortly there is a change. As if so happy that words can no longer express what they feel, they discard the restricting syllables. They burst out into a simple sound of joy, of jubilation. Such a cry of joy is a sound signifying that the heart is bringing to birth what it cannot utter in words.
“Now, who is more worthy of such a cry of jubilation than God himself, whom all words fail to describe? If words will not serve, and yet you must not remain silent, what else can you do but cry out for joy? Your heart must rejoice beyond words, soaring into an immensity of gladness, unrestrained by syllabic bonds. Sing to him with jubilation.”
John Chrysostom (349-407) praises jubilation:
“Do not look for words, as if you could put into words things that please God. Sing in jubilation: singing well to God means, in fact, just this: singing in jubilation.”
Centuries later the Benedictine Rupert of Deutz 1075-1130 A.D.) sees jubilation as an essential part of praise:
“By the term jubilus we understand that which neither in words, nor syllables, nor letters, nor speech, is it possible to express or comprehend, namely, how much man ought to praise God.”
Jubilation became rare, but Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) seems to have experienced it:
“Amongst these favours, at once painful and pleasant, Our Lord sometimes causes in the soul a certain jubilation and a strange and mysterious kind of prayer. If He bestows this grace on you, praise Him fervently for it; I describe it so that you may know that it is something real. I believe that the faculties of the soul are closely united to God but that He leaves them at liberty to rejoice in their happiness together with the senses, although they do not know what they are enjoying nor how they do so. This may sound nonsense but it really happens.
Augustine knew that “words cannot express the things that are sung by the heart.” We feel a joy that is not irrational, but that is beyond words. Jubilatio is a song of praise without words. Absolute music, whether by means of the human voice or instruments, is not a way of imparting doctrine, but is a way of expressing something that is not contrary to reason, but beyond it.