N TODAY’S MASS, both forms of the Roman Rite give us the account of the wedding feast at Cana. In the newer liturgical books, this passage only comes around every three years, which means that for many people this is the first time hearing this passage at Mass since the pandemic began. Certainly the readings which the Church gives us are often to our profit regardless of our situation. In my case, I was supposed to be traveling this weekend and hearing the schola of one of my colleagues here. My plan has been derailed like so much else in our lives lately; instead I am at home and have experienced some recent illness as well. In this case it is worth reflecting on the message of this passage, even at the simple level of knowing that the Lord wishes us to be joyful, even if it is not in the way we expect: joy on His terms and not ours.
The communion antiphon is a masterpiece of exegesis and is one of my favorites of the whole year, so even though it has been discussed on this blog in previous years, it is certainly worthy of yet another post. To sing it is to engage in a guided lectio divina. To begin, consider the brevity of the text. Much of the miraculous kernel of the story is distilled from the text around it in the most concise possible way.
Now consider the way the composer creates different voices among the characters in the scene by using vocal register. Have you ever noticed that in the famous Passions of J.S. Bach, our Lord is always sung by a bass? This tradition in Passion singing dates from the Middle Ages. In the most widely used melody for the passions sung in Holy Week in the Roman Rite, the chronista occupies the middle fifth of the mode F–C, with the Lord and the other speakers (the synagoga part) taking the lower and upper registers respectively. Precisely the same thing is at work here, with characteristically subtle use of modulation. Indeed, the only notes on which we reach definitive cadences here are F and G, but what a wide variety of character is possible within this simple framework!
There are five utterances by three speakers, narrator-Christ-narrator-architriclinus-narrator. The narrator opens with a simple identification of the next speaker, accomplished by outlining the modal third F–A and avoiding a cadence.
Christ’s speech begins in what seems to be mode 2, outlining D–F, in a clearly lower register. Only with his second command does he lead to a typical mode-6 cadence.
As in the gospel account itself, the miraculous transformation is described only with a participle phrase: “when the chief steward had tasted the water made wine.” Perhaps there is a subtle allusion to the transformation in the change from b-natural to b-flat. The narrator again sticks to the compass of the central modal fifth F–C.
The exclamation of the chief steward reaches much higher than the rest of the chant, as though sung by a different singer as during the passion. The ecstatic nature of his outburst is of course expressed by the triple repetition of the torculus on the highest notes. We are given only the essence of steward’s words. The cadence suggests the eighth mode.
The closing narrative again occupies the central fifth F–C.
I never get tired of this melody and I look forward to it every time it comes around. A rehearsal video for the whole chant is here: