Music for Corpus et Sanguis Christi — Sunday, June 6, 2021

Tantum ergo (Quatre motets, Op. 9) – Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)

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Tantum ergo is a portion of St. Thomas Aquinas’ hymn Pange lingua, which was written c. 1264 at the request of Pope Urban IV for use in the institution of the new Feast of Corpus Christi. The fifth stanza and the closing doxology form a separate hymn which has been prescribed for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Pange lingua is found at 268 in The New English Hymnal, and at 50 in Common Praise, with translations by John Mason Neale and Edward Caswall, respectively.

In the 750 or so years since Aquinas penned it, many composers have written choral settings of this hymn, including Marcel Dupré. Dupré was the son of a distinguished organist, and his path in life was mapped out almost from birth, for he was only three days old when the bearded figure of the Parisian organist Alexandre Guilmant peered into his cradle and pronounced: ‘He will be an organist.’ Acquainted from an early age with both Cavaillé-Coll, the revolutionary organ builder (who called him ‘le petit prodige’) and Widor, Dupré became the most gifted organist of his generation. During the First World War he wrote a set of four motets. This enigmatic Tantum ergo, for choir and two organs, seems to be a deliberate departure from more conventional versions of this text. The converging chromatic lines recall the Kyrie of his teacher Louis Vierne’s Messe solennelle, and the dedication to Abbé Renault may indicate that Dupré had Notre-Dame in mind, for it was about this time that he began to deputize there during Vierne’s protracted absence due to recurrent problems with his eyes.

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Præstet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui

Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et Jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.

Therefore we, before him bending,
This great sacrament revere:
Types and shadows have their ending,
For the newer rite is here;
Faith, our outward sense befriending,
Makes the inward vision clear.

Glory let us give and blessing
To the Father and the Son,
Honour, might and praise addressing,
While eternal ages run;
Ever too his love confessing,
Who, from both, with both is one. Amen.


Le Banquet céleste – Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

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Olivier Messiaen was a towering figure in 20th century European music. His highly personal musical language drew heavily on the natural world, the music of Eastern cultures and, above all, his devout Catholicism. A talented pianist, Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 at a remarkably early age, and in 1927 joined Marcel Dupré’s organ class, although he had never previously set eyes on an organ console. Dupré spent the first class demonstrating the instrument, and Messiaen returned the following week, having learnt Bach’s Fantasia in C minor to an impressive standard. In 1931 he was appointed Organist at the Eglise de la Sainte-Trinite (La Trinite) in Paris, with support for his candidacy from Charles Tournemire and Charles-Marie Widor—two of the city’s eminent organists. He would remain at La Trinite for more than sixty years, until his death.

Le Banquet céleste(The Celestial Banquet), Messiaen’s first published organ work, is a tender meditation on the Eucharist. It reworks the slow second theme of an incomplete symphonic poem, Le Banquet eucharistique, which Messiaen began in 1926 while a student of Dukas. Astonishingly, this youthful work displays many of the mature characteristics of the composer’s style: the long-breathed and extremely slow phrases are given momentum by avoiding any resolution of the dissonant, yet rich, harmonies. The rhythmic pulse remains integral to its expansive twenty-five bars and is underlined at the entry of staccato ‘drops of water’, played in the pedal. As with many of Messiaen’s works, this piece is inscribed with a quotation from scripture. In this case, it is from today’s Gospel lesson: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56)

Gerald Harder