On my way to work I am driving mainly through rural areas until I reach the outskirt of Luxembourg city and the first traffic jam. Mid-October we had fair weather for several days and I crossed the countryside shortly before sunrise. Nautical twilight is the technical term, the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon. It bathes the landscape in a mesmerizing bluish light, and on several occasions I caught myself thinking: “How beautiful this is! How lucky I am to see this.” Such a simple joy: nature, the sky veering from black to blue and orange, the shadows of the trees against the light… Such a serenity! Though I knew I would be late for work, I stopped on more than one day to shoot a few pictures. Work will not run away, these magical moments however… Better be quick!
It was on one of those mornings that I listened to Domenico Scarlatti’s Missa Breve “La Stella” (The Star). I was able to see a couple of stars in the twilight, I admired the peacefulness and the simple beauty of all that was around me. What a gift! Scarlatti’s mass seemed to be the right way to begin a new day. It was. Happiness filled me, and that was all that I was looking for. A happy start into the day. The mass has been recorded by the UK ensemble The Sixteen under Harry Christophers.
Scarlatti wrote this mass in 1707/08 when he assisted his father Alessandro Scarlatti at the cathedral Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, some seven years before he wrote his famous “Stabat mater”. Though the Scarlattis are known as a Baroque composer, the mass “La Stella” seems to belong to a different era, the time of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, that is the 16th century. It is written for choir only in the “antique style”, a style imitating 16th century counterpoint*. Its structure follows the traditional Catholic liturgy: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Cibavit Eos, Agnus Dei.
I must confess I had to look up the “Cibavit Eos” (He fed them…). I found the text in the Gregorian chant book “Graduale Triplex”, and sure enough this prayer was part of Gregorian masses in the late Middle Ages. Today it seems to be sung only at the Feast of Corpus Christi expressing the belief that Jesus Christ’s body and blood are really present in the Holy Communion. This is traditionally celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.
Do you find this theological stuff boring? I consider it fascinating! One of the many issues I have with the Catholic church is the fact that so many prayers and songs – as beautiful and uplifting as they may be – are hard to understand, especially when they are in Latin, and thus may loose their relevance for church-goers. I wouldn’t sign a document I don’t understand, why would I publicly sing a song whose content and meaning I am ignorant of? Latin masses confer a unique serenity. The music quenches my emotional thirst. But it doesn’t satisfy my spiritual curiosity. I want to discover their meaning. How did the songs and prayers come to life and what was their original meaning when they were written? How does it square with today’s life? Has it any meaning for me?
It is an undeniable fact that music and liturgy have been intertwined in Europe for more than 1500 years. One cannot be interested in one and not study the other. Am I a scientifically interested believer? A believing scientist? Is this a contradiction? I don’t know.
© Charles Thibo