EGEND HAS IT that Mozart would gladly have traded all his works if he could claim to have written the first line of the Exsultet. Even Wikipedia states, “Here the language of the liturgy rises to heights to which it is hard to find a parallel in Christian literature.”
But singing this can be intimidating! Six pages of endless notes and words? As singing the Exsultet is the rightful role of the Deacon, it may also be sung by a priest or a cantor. What if your deacon, priest, or cantor is not a professional musician? Here is an opportunity to work closely with them. Meanwhile, let’s break it down and “de-mystify” some of this as to better proclaim the mystery.
OR STARTERS, here are some essential practice videos. You can listen and follow the score at the same time. The first recording is sung by Fr. Jonathan Gaspar:
The second resource is a wonderful page compiled by Jeff Ostrowski. Here you will find his recordings and practice videos in higher and lower keys. You will also find additional recordings and scores including the “Shorter Form” of the Exsultet:
EXULT, LET THEM EXULT
The first page which evokes great rejoicing, consists of three “verses” or “psalm tones” (labeled in my notes) that are exactly identical in form. Learn the first two and a half lines, and you have now learned nearly the entire first page! Furthermore, the characteristic leap of a fifth, unique to this section, evokes the joyful fanfare of the trumpet—“…let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!”
INVOCATION OF GOD’S BLESSING
Next (in parenthesis, which is skipped if sung by a cantor—N.B. the rubrics on Pg. 1) the deacon or priest invokes the mercy of God so that he may worthily proclaim “this candle’s perfect praises.” This parallels the Orate, Fratres which prays that our efforts will be worthy and pleasing to God. Labeled in my notes as “V1A” and “V2A” it uses the same melodic elements of the previous three “verses.”
THE NATURE OF A PREFACE
Have you ever sung the Preface? Have you heard it sung? Then the rest will sound very familiar! The next section is taken verbatim from the Preface Dialogue. It serves to introduce the main body of the proclamation, the “Praeconium Proper” which takes on the nature of a Preface. In fact it even begins “It is truly right and just…” Again, the parallels to the Liturgy of the Eucharist are unmistakable and point to heightened solemnity.
As such, this section uses the same melodic formula as a Preface. This Preface tone continues throughout the rest of the chant. Jumping off from “A”, the reciting tone is on “C”. There is an accent on “B”, which is frequently used as an alternate reciting tone. This sets up the characteristic cadence of the Preface tone. Therefore, it may be helpful for for non-musicians to think of “A” as a landing spot—the chant’s strongest gravitational pull, along with “C” and “B” as additional points of gravity. (See my notes on page 2.)
I’ve marked what appear to be three “verses” or phrases. Quite remarkably, the third “verse”/phrase (page 3) describes Christ’s sacrifice as the Passover Feast—connecting the Old Covenant with the New: “These then are the feasts of Passover, in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb, whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.”
THIS IS THE NIGHT
Halfway down page three, I’ve marked what I like to call the “Litany of This is the Night.” This is the night is referenced no fewer than seven times, often heightened with melismatic phrases. This emphasis is warranted, as this section conveys some of the most extraordinary implications of the Exsultet.
Again, the Old Covenant is connected with the New, from liberating Israel’s children from slavery in Egypt, to present day: “This is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart…from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace…..” In this light of the present day, be especially mindful, that for Elect and Candidates of the Church, this indeed is the night of great importance in their lives!
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Exsultet follows shortly: “Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.” This leads to a dramatic admission of God’s mercy through Christ’s redeeming power with this astounding assertion:
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
ACCEPT THIS CANDLE
As a bookend to the invocation to worthily “sing this candle’s perfect praises,” the Exsultet concludes with prayers that God may “accept this candle, a solemn offering…this gift from your most Holy Church.” In conclusion, there is a prayer for perseverance for the candle, that it may serve to “overcome the darkness of this night” and that “this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: The one Morning Star that never sets…”
OME FINAL RECOMMENDATIONS: Most every line is a gem. But while trying to concentrate on the notes, make sure you allow the boundless blessings of this text to supersede all that you communicate to the faithful. Here’s how:
• Patience. Revel in the text and do not worry about mistakes. Make them and move right past them. Even the best of singers will make plenty of errors on this holiest of nights.
• Sing it a few times for the music director who should listen in various parts of the church for pacing and diction. Diction will be much more important than singing each note perfectly. If you feel your pacing is too slow, your diction over-enunciated, it is probably just right!
• Take the long view: The Easter Vigil comes around every year. You may have opportunity to sing this again in the future. It will get better and more comfortable each time. More importantly, the text will take hold hold of your heart for the rest of your life!
It is an honor to sing this. Anyone who does will be indelibly changed in spirit. For those who listen, allow its breathless beauty to steal your heart!