OR THE Mass of the Second Sunday after Epiphany, the Church provides a gorgeous communion chant, Dicit Dominus. Both its text and its melody invite the faithful to deeper reflection on the Gospel of the day, which recounts the first sign worked by the Lord at Cana in Galilee. Appreciating this chant in all its fullness is made easier by James McKinnon’s seminal work on the chants of the Proprium Missae, particularly his 2000 book, The Advent Project: The Later-Seventh-Century Creation of the Roman Mass Proper.
Last month, I reflected on the lovely communio chant for the Second Sunday of Advent, taken from the Book of Baruch. An extended quotation from McKinnon’s book in that article helped to place the Advent-Christmas series of communio chants in context.
Today, another passage from McKinnon will help to reveal the uniqueness and beauty of this chant for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. He writes:
From a purely aesthetic point of view the Advent-Christmas sequence must claim pride of place. It takes the form of two distinct groups of greatly contrasting character. . . . The first group, consisting of the ten communions for the three Sundays of Advent (the fourth was of course a dominica vacat at the time), the three Ember Days and the vigil and three Masses of Christmas, form a homogeneous set of short lyric chants, all with texts from the Prophets in the more conventional sense or from David. The texts tell us either that the Lord is nigh or (on Christmas day) already at hand.
The second group could hardly be more different: all nine texts are from the New Testament; indeed, all are derived from the gospel of the day, except for Stephen’s Video caelos, from the Acts of the Apostles, a book serving generally as a sort of fifth gospel, and in this case as the only source of the story of Stephen’s martyrdom. The nine communions are colorful narrative chants, several examples of which employ a flamboyant dramatic style that plays fast and loose with the biblical original. The second Sunday after the Epiphany’s Dicit dominus, in particular, might be called a liturgical play in the shape of a communion antiphon. It is stitched together from five fragments of John 2.7–11, changing the language when necessary to produce a nicely coherent dramatic vignette of the marriage feast of Cana, employing even musical characterization with the solemn tones of Jesus, the excited exclamations of the chief steward and the matter-of-fact summing up of the narrator at the end of the piece.
That striking dualism between the lyric prophetic chants and colorful narrative ones remains the overarching truth of the Advent-Christmas communion sequence. 1
We have scores and a rehearsal video for this communion chant freely available from the online Saint René Goupil Gradual (here). See and hear for yourself the intricacy and cleverness McKinnon describes in Dicit Dominus.
The solemn tone used for the words of the Lord—hovering calmly within a stately, baritone register—immediately transports the listener to the Christus part of the chanted Passion. The ecstatic words of the headwaiter, by contrast, almost whimsically convey his joy at tasting the water that had been thrilled into wine.
Another author concurs with McKinnon about the exceptional nature of this communion chant. John Murrett’s fascinating book, The Message of the Mass Melodies, characterizes it this way:
The Gospel story is condensed for us here in a most unusual melody. Note the simplicity of Dicit, but the majesty of Dominus. Then the music of the next six words is very expressive. It even seems like the tones of a person talking very calmly but firmly, emphasizing his words so that they may be correctly understood: “Fill up—the jars—with water—and take—to the steward.” The next words are set to a very matter-of-fact kind of music until we reach the word dicit; then the steward seems to chide the bridegroom: “You’ve kept the good wine until now!” There is almost a smacking of lips on bonum, and a glad excitement seems to follow.
If the composer had a sense of humor—and it seems he did—he knew when to be serious, too. Hear the sober dignity in the words that follow: “This was the first sign that Jesus worked in the presence of His disciples.” The last notes of the music seem scarcely to end because, as we know, it was not the last sign. 2
McKinnon is right to call this proper a sort of “liturgical play.” There is much for our reflection, both in this communion chant and in the miracle of Cana.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 James McKinnon, The Advent Project: The Later-Seventh-Century Creation of the Roman Mass Proper (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 329.
2 John C. Murrett, The Message of the Mass Melodies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1960), 26-27.