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Friday, March 13, 2015

Songstories 42 - Two litanies for the scrutinies (and lament)

Scrutiny at St. Peter's, Fallbrook CA (from web)
Since we're in the middle of our celebration of the three scrutinies this Lent, I thought I'd write about a couple of attempts to write music for them.

In my previous job, in the early 1990s, we were looking for a better way to sing the scrutiny prayers than the "tired" intercessory formula that usually redounded to a form of the general intercessions, making them indistinguishable both in content and form, and consequently in execution, from those prayers. When trying to think about crafting a litany for the scrutinies it struck me that American blues music seemed like a genre to explore. The melody of "Litany of Deliverance" is pentatonic and sounds familiar, like chant or folk music. The harmonic structure of the music, though, is familiar in a  different way, and from a different environment.

The texts of the scrutiny litany embody the two-fold purpose of the rite, that is, to uncover and heal whatever holds the back from completely embracing the gospel and the cross in their life, and also to reveal and strengthen in them the gifts they have been given to build up the body of Christ in the world. Both parts, "purification and enlightenment," as it were, are integral to the rite. So the invocations have both kinds of petitions - "From fear and isolation, deliver us, O God," on the one hand, and on the other, "Bring vision to our blindness/Teach us to see as you see - deliver us, O God." In the final analysis, the issue for this litany might be that response, "Deliver us, O God," in that it might not let the "enlightenment" petitions shine as much as they should. Still, when it's possible to do this litany with the energy and conviction that it is possible to evoke with a good cantor and musicians animating an assembly, "Litany of Deliverance" works pretty well.

After a few more years of experience and learning in my parishes and with Forum, I took a different tack and came up with another idea. My second attempt at this tried to address that problem (the response) and the accompaniment issue, because, let's face it, not every ensemble can pull off that blues thing so well, and without it, "Litany of Deliverance" might not have enough oomph to lift it above any other tedious chant. So in the next incarnation of a scrutiny litany, I made the invocations more robust, with a chant melody that was adaptable to different line lengths and rhythms, and added some different possibilities of prayer forms so that churches and their RCIA and music directors could fashion their own invocations. These included invocations in these forms:

  • "Deliver them from anger and hatred...Deliver them from the idolatry of power..."
  • "In a world unsafe for the stranger...In a world unsafe for peacemakers..."
  • "Strengthen them in compassion and love...Strengthen them in devotion and solidarity..."

These invocations allow the community to pray against sin whether it is a weakness in the individual or systemic in society and civilization, while being very explicit about the virtues and activities in which these elect are asking to be strengthened. While I provide a couple dozen invocations, the form is friendly to others being added without much need to fuss with rhythm and meter.

The other assembly-friendly function of the newer litany is that the responses are always cued by the cantor, who sings the response before the assembly, and then twice leads the assembly into a new key a minor third higher with an easy sung figure. This allows the litany to build in intensity as the pitch rises throughout the performance. I got this idea from Leonard Bernstein's Mass, where the rising melody of a simple chant appears in "Secret Songs," sung by a boy soprano (and others) in the last movement of the piece.

I also opted to use a chanted "Kyrie eleison" as a response in this, because once we understand what is implied in those words we see that it is an appropriate response to "Deliver them from..." and "Strengthen them in..." petitions, because the thrust of its meaning is the confession of Christ as Lord of the universe, and thus able to answer both prayers in perfectly gentle strength. I wrote about this at length in a post on those words, so if you would like to read more about "Kyrie eleison," you can find that blog post here.

That's what I have to say about this installment of SongStories, about these two litanies published in 1991 and 2006. Thanks for reading.

Litany of Deliverance (from Stony Landscapes)
Litany for the Scrutinies (from Today)