Sicut Cervus – Baptismal Music for Easter Vigil

 

Spiritual longing is like animal thirst. Palestrina’s two-part motet, Sicut cervus / Sitivit anima mea, sets the first three verses of Psalm 42 for Easter-Vigil baptism:

There is much in Psalm 42 that is dark and desperate. Palestrina’s setting is not, though. To modern ears, the second part of Palestrina’s motet, setting verses 2 and 3, might even sound incongruously chipper (you can listen to both parts of the motet here). Perhaps for this reason, many choirs perform only the first half of the motet, focusing entirely on the first verse of the psalm. I shall do likewise.

Palestrina’s motet opens with a simple stepwise motion from the tonic and back again, on Sicut cervus (“As the deer”). This nearly motionless entrance creates a stable foundation for the motion that follows, more rapid notes with a distinctive dotted rhythm on desiderat (“desires”) ascending to a plagal climax on fontes, with the dotted rhythm on fontes aquarum (“flowing water”) echoing the dotted rhythm of desiderat.

This opening subject is passed from voice to voice rather irregularly, creating counterpoint that’s highly imitative, but not rigidly structured, fluid, like flowing water. The lack of a rigid relation between entrances of the opening subject makes each entrance a bit of a surprise, like sunshine gleaming through clouds on a windy day, each gleam a fixed point around which the voices already in motion swirl.

Fire is not overtly mentioned in this motet, but it’s nonetheless present, and not only in the sense of gleaming light. Both the distinctive dotted rhythms in the opening subject and lambent melismas in its development link desiderat to fontes aquarum, desire to the living water desired, depicting how similar the dancing flames of desire are to the swirl of the water that quenches them.

The next subject to enter begins in the bass with similar simplicity, just a step down from a prolonged tonic on ita, the grammatical counterpart to Sicut, which frames the analogy between animal thirst and the longing for God. (Sicut X, ita Y means “As X, so Y”.) After the soprano’s entrance on ita, each voice below follows with its entrance in a chain of descending fifths, setting up a similar pattern of descent, rich in prominent suspensions, for the words anima mea (“my soul”).

Anima enters with plagal descent, hearkening back to fontes in the opening subject, and anticipating the final cadence on Deus (“God”), which is also plagal. (The plagal cadence is the classic “Amen” sound, which most of us recognize when we hear it, even when we don’t know its name.) Plagal motion thus anticipates the union of the soul (anima) with God (Deus) the living water (fontes). Moreover, the increased prominence of suspensions beginning on anima heighten the ear’s desire for their resolution, allowing our senses to participate in the intensification of the soul’s desire for God.

It’s not difficult to imagine Psalm 42 set to music that brings out its plaintive desperation. The great Anglican composer Herbert Howells set it thus. It’s not difficult to imagine using Gesualdo’s tortured mannerist counterpoint, with its eerie chromaticism, to set Psalm 42, either, just as Gesualdo set so many Tenebrae Resonsories.

Palestrina’s setting is different, though. In it, desire is not agonized, but serenely anticipatory, a fitting prelude to baptism, which is, after all, a homecoming, the seal of no longer being lost and desperate, but found; a sacrament in which desire loses its sorrow, but not its fire: Instead, desire gains the confidence that its fire will be met by the living water, that God will water our thirsty souls.

Happy Easter!

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  1. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Beautiful! Thank you :) I know you said you sang this. The ending was always a killer for us.

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Instead, desire gains the confidence that its fire will be met by the living water, that God will water our thirsty souls.

    I love this. It echoes the desire we have for heaven and Christ’s return.

    • #1
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Stina (View Comment):
    Beautiful! Thank you ? I know you said you sang this. The ending was always a killer for us.

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Instead, desire gains the confidence that its fire will be met by the living water, that God will water our thirsty souls.

    I love this. It echoes the desire we have for heaven and Christ’s return.

    Thanks!

    It was good to take some time on Easter weekend to contemplate the lessons in this piece – to put myself in the presence of music that does not depict the longing for God expressed in Psalm 42 as tortured and forlorn, but as no less longing for all that.

    • #2
  3. Roberto Member
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    I’m afraid I have no ear for this type of music, however I do find it pleasant.

    You’re an archaeologist of musical appreciation midge. Perfect music for Easter it seems to me.

    • #3
  4. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Absolutely lovely, Midge.  Thank you!

    • #4
  5. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Beautiful.

    • #5
  6. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Thanks for introducing me to Gesualdo, and your original post on him 3 years ago.

    • #6
  7. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    As one who has struggled all his life to find a transporting faith, I can say that the closest I come is moments of hearing choral sacred music like this. I am particularly moved by music of this period. Thank you for your touching exposition.

     

    • #7
  8. I Shot The Serif Member
    I Shot The Serif
    @IShotTheSerif

    I’ve sung [1] in Latin and [3] in Hebrew.

    • #8
  9. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    civil westman (View Comment):
    As one who has struggled all his life to find a transporting faith, I can say that the closest I come is moments of hearing choral sacred music like this. I am particularly moved by music of this period. Thank you for your touching exposition.

    Choral music was my “gateway drug” into faith as a youngster, so I understand.

    • #9
  10. Julie Snapp Coolidge
    Julie Snapp
    @JulieSnapp

    Finally getting a chance to sit down, listen, and appreciate this. I’ve always been sad that Baptists don’t do Latin during singing. This is absolutely beautiful! Before I got a chance to hear it, I was thinking of another hymn that starts out the same (as far as lyrics) in English, but as lovely as I find that one, it pales in comparison to this. There’s just something about the Latin that gives me goosebumps.

    • #10
  11. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Julie Snapp (View Comment):
    Finally getting a chance to sit down, listen, and appreciate this. I’ve always been sad that Baptists don’t do Latin during singing.

    As my Episcopalian aunt-in-law used to say, “Too Popish!”

    • #11
  12. Grosseteste Thatcher
    Grosseteste
    @Grosseteste

    Beautiful!  I have some happy memories of this piece.

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Palestrina’s setting is different, though. In it, desire is not agonized, but serenely anticipatory, a fitting prelude to baptism, which is, after all, a homecoming, the seal of no longer being lost and desperate, but found; a sacrament in which desire loses its sorrow, but not its fire: Instead, desire gains the confidence that its fire will be met by the living water, that God will water our thirsty souls.

    Just so.  Thanks for the post, your analysis was great to read!


    This conversation is part of a Group Writing series with the theme “Water”, planned for the whole month of April. If you follow this link, there’s more information about Group Writing. The schedule is updated to include links to the other conversations for the month as they are posted. There are a couple of dates still available if you wanted to sign up.

    • #12
  13. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Beautiful.

    • #13
  14. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Excellent post Midge.  I think your understanding of Palastina’s intention is correct though.  The psalm is nearly all a lamentation.  I was about to comment that Palistrina completely misses the mark in his setting, but I wiped all that out.  I think he is justified in this interpretation from lines seven and eight of the psalm: “(7) My soul is downcast within me; therefore I remember you from the land of the Jordan and Hermon, from Mount Mizar, (8) Deep calls to deep in the roar of your torrents, and all your waves and breakers sweep over me.” [NAB translation].  In the psalmist’s remembrance of the Lord (“deep calls to deep” – love that phrase) he finds that God has not abandoned him.  I don’t think he’s just anticipating the Lord’s return but I think he actually remembers Him there in the present moment.  The rhythmic flow of the piece recreates that joy sweeping over him.

    • #14
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Manny (View Comment):
    “(7) My soul is downcast within me; therefore I remember you from the land of the Jordan and Hermon, from Mount Mizar, (8) Deep calls to deep in the roar of your torrents, and all your waves and breakers sweep over me.” [NAB translation]. In the psalmist’s remembrance of the Lord (“deep calls to deep” – love that phrase) he finds that God has not abandoned him.

    “Deep calls to deep” is a haunting phrase. There’s something paradoxical about describing the violent motion of water as a reminder that God does not abandon us.

    The roar of torrents is a hollow, lonely sound, even as it’s awe-inspiring. All God’s waves sweeping over us could easily drown or break us. Water doesn’t just give life in the desert. It’s also the symbol of primordial chaos –  of what’s absurd and alienating, without regard for human life. But God’s water is the living water.

    Listening to the roar of waterfalls or of the surf, it’s possible to feel alienated from God and very near Him at the same time. Psalm 42 reflects that poignantly – the thirst, the awesome, even destructive, power of what quenches that thirst, and a lamentation of alienation that nonetheless knows alienation isn’t the final word – and just knowing is a kind of homecoming:

    Manny (View Comment):
    I don’t think he’s just anticipating the Lord’s return but I think he actually remembers Him there in the present moment. The rhythmic flow of the piece recreates that joy sweeping over him.

    Yes.

    • #15
  16. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    Listening to the roar of waterfalls or of the surf, it’s possible to feel alienated from God and very near Him at the same time. Psalm 42 reflects that poignantly – the thirst, the awesome, even destructive, power of what quenches that thirst, and a lamentation of alienation that nonetheless knows alienation isn’t the final word

    Yes, especially when you consider how important the rains were to the Israelites and to desert people in general.  The psalms often refer to it, there is the primordal creation as you note, the passage through the Red Sea, and the flooding with Noah.  Water is both life and death.

    Also keep in mind, and this is something we Christians see as a foreshadowing, one of Christ’s last words on the cross were “I thirst.”

    • #16

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