Lessons for the choir from Saint John

For us charged with the choral office, the feast of Saint John the Baptist bears paramount importance. It is on this feast when, at vespers, we once again sing the hymn that became the basis of the names of the notes of the mediaeval hexachord. Paul the Deacon, to whom authorship of the hymn is ascribed, saw in the 8th century the parallel in his and Zachary’s situation when, scheduled to sing the Exsultet in the Easter Vigil, he instead came down with a sore throat that very day. Needless to say, the anecdote confirms that, indeed, Paul’s throat was healed.

Stanzione - El nacimiento del Bautista anunciado a Zacarías
Annuncio a San Zaccaria della nascita di San Giovanni Battista | Massimo Stanzione | c. 1635

Six months after John’s birth, our Lord was born. Shortly after the birth of the Messiah, Herod the Great ordered the massacre of all male infants, two years and under, in Bethlehem. Only two survived. Christ, Whom Joseph and Mary spirited quickly to Egypt, and John, whom Elisabeth and Zacharias hid in the wilderness. And this nourishes our motley experience in promoting sacred music, our steadfast commitment to preserving Gregorian chant in the life of the Church.

Stanzione - San Juan Bautista se despide de sus padres
San Giovanni Battista dice addio ai suoi genitori | Massimo Stanzione | c. 1635

Our isolation in this seemingly inhospitable part of the Lord’s vineyard, which other workers attempt to compromise by diverting irrigation (Goodbye, 2000-ish-year-old chant! Let’s support music that people want to hear!), adulterating fertiliser (Away with Latin! Nobody understands it these days!), or substituting crops (Hello, alius cantus aptus!) is not for naught. Sweeter is triumph at the height of adversity.

Stanzione - Predicación del Bautista en el desierto
La predicazione di San Giovanni Battista nel deserto | Massimo Stanzione | c. 14635

Sacred music is becoming a stranger in its own home. It is as if we are continuously encouraged towards holiness from one side, and expected to act on this resolve while hearing in the liturgy music bordering on the wanton. Popes, bishops, concerned liturgists have spoken in favour of sacred music. To some Catholics, however, who harbour other notions, obeying such pronouncements, even those enshrined in the blueprints of reforms they so cherish to the point of canonisation, is a pill far bitterer than a quashed ambition. Germane thoughts of solidarity ripple across the vineyard. But when the stewards, his foremen, and their concerned labourers turn to other problems, the determination fizzes out, and we are left again in the wilderness of obedience. The head is willing but the members are weak.

Stanzione - Degollación de San Juan Bautista
La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista | Massimo Stanzione | c. 1635

But what immensely fortifies us most in the duty to which have been called and to which we have responded is the reality of persecution. Every day we labour is a day lived in martyrdom. Not necessarily with blood. Let us not shirk away from this reality, and call upon the guidance of the Precursor of the Lord, whose birth loosened the tongue of his father.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

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