Saturday 30 May 2009

The Hymn and Sequence of Pentecost

Devotion to the Holy Ghost, it is sometimes claimed, was in ecclipse before the Second Vatican Council. With the multiplication of sins against the Holy Ghost and the loss of understanding of what they are, we might wonder if the Holy Ghost would agree. At any rate, what is unchallengable is that the music of Pentecost in the Gregorian Rite is among the most powerful of invocations and tributes that man has to offer to God. The Hymn of Pentecost Veni Creator Spiritus and the Sequence of Pentecost Veni Sancte Spiritus are among the most memorable pieces of the Church's repertoire. The first clip presents the familiar Gregorian Chants.

In the second clip, we hear Maurice Duruflé's variations on the theme of the Veni Creator. The French School of Organists, perhaps the supreme expression of Organ music, and of which Duruflé (1902-1986) and Dupré (1886-1971) were possibly the last giants, is famed for its variations. Even in it's basic forms, such as the Noël, variations upon Christmas Carols, the French School prides itself upon the skill of variations upon a theme. To obtain a post as 'titulaire' or official organist of one of the many great Cathedrals of France, it would be necessary to improvise, or create a spontaneous variation, upon a theme before the examiners.

Duruflé himself, friend of the great Louis Vierne (1870-1937), transcribed three improvisations by Vierne, who, as 'titulaire' of Notre Dame de Paris, was the acknowledged master of improvisation. In the third clip, we hear Dupré improvising upon the theme of Veni Creator at the organ of St. Suplice, where he was 'titulaire' for 37 years. Dupré's compositions, which include several Noëls and other variations, were declared by the great organist Widor to be unplayable, such was their complexity and technical difficulty. In a similar vein, when Vierne first heard the improvisations of Dupré, he declared that they sounded composed.

The great traditions of Ecclesiastical Organ Music have been lost almost entirely to the Church. Like Gregorian Chant, we may all have the opportunity to hear recordings in our own home but it is a rare thing that we have the opportunity to hear the Organ played fittingly in its own proper setting and played to the glory of God in our own Parish Churches.

To look, for a moment, to other forms of art, the next clip is taken from an odd but oddly Catholic 1948 film 'Portrait of Jennie,' a vehicle for Jennifer Jones who had played St. Bernadette in 'Song of Bernatette' five years earlier. It is the story of a painter who finds his inspiration in the apparition of a girl, the eponymous Jennie, who reappears to him, each time grown a little more. The theme is one of time and its interaction with eternity but hardly an orthodox treatment. However, the film co-stars Ethel Barrymore, from the great Catholic Hollywood dynasty and features the great Lillian Gish, herself a past pupil of the Ursuline Nuns, as Sister Mary of Mercy, one of Jennie's teachers. In this clip we see Joseph Cotton, the painter, drawn by Jennie to her Convent school to witness the profession of some of the Dominican Sisters while the students sing the setting of the Veni Creator composed by Fr. Lambiotte, S.J.

The final clip shows part of the controversial film 'A Nun's Story'. About three minutes in, there is a snatch of the Salve Regina. Towards the end of this clip, the ceremony of first profession contains both an improvisation upon the hymn and the first verses of the Veni Creator itself. As an aside, this film is a fairly faithful account of the traditions of Western religious life - a universal and living tradition at the time it was made in 1959. It is also a relic of a time when Hollywood took pains to present the Church's practices correctly. It was produced at the end of the era of Fr. Daniel A. Lord, S.J., and the Legion of Decency, an era when men were men and Popes were Pius.