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The Triumphant Return of the Melisma

Since returning to New Orleans, I’ve had the opportunity to tune into my favorite Christian radio station again: Lifesongs 89.1 FM (God is good, all the time…) and am thoroughly surprised by the return of that medieval eccentricity so prevalent in Gregorian chant: the Melisma.
What is a melisma? According to dictionary.com, a melisma is “an ornamental phrase of several notes sung to one syllable of text, as in plainsong or blues singing.” If you’re having trouble picturing (or, rather hearing) that, think Aaron Nevilles’ style minus the falsetto. In western culture, it was originally employed by Christian hymnographers to accent the significant theological word or liturgical phrase of the song. Since the enlightenment, it had gone out of vogue with mainstream music, being erroneously associated with the more affected operatic style of singing. As with all such corrupted simplicities, the melisma has since only been used by the lower class folksong-writers, singing “with full and naïve conviction that the whole meaning of a song lies in the words and that the tune comes of itself, and that apart from the words there is no tune…”(I quote Tolstoy, War and Peace, 7vii) After all, the blue collar bard’s pedigree is of that noble breed of artists who believe that style is at the service of substance and not the other way round.
Yet in our day, when art-for-art’s-sake seemed to have reached its triumph, the melisma is making a return! Matt Maher, Chris Sligh, Sufjan Stevens, and Regina Spektor are just a few of the Lord’s singers who’ve resurrected this device in their worship. This reappearance of the melisma is a consoling sign. In the very least, it demonstrates that there are songwriters that have more concern for communicating their message than emphasizing their vocal ability. After all, the melisma is a silly device and would never make a diva out of anyone. My fellow schola members can attest that something of your ego dies when, instead of singing a simple Ave Maria, the chant notation forces you to sing AveeEEEEeeeEEEEeee MaaaAAAaaarIIIIiiiiIIIIAAaaa. In addition, it’s much easier to picture the Blessed Mother smiling benevolently at something melismatic in comparison to, say, the belting of Shubert’s AAAAAAAAAAve Mariiiiiiiiii—-iiiiiiiaaa (which, I am convinced, usually leaves her rolling her eyes.). In short, the Melisma strikes down any attempt by the cantor to shift focus from the meaning of the song to the sound of his/her voice.
The other advantage to the melisma is that it leaves little room for variation outside of its own leaping and bounding. A group using melismatic chant is forced to listen to the words and listen to each other if the singing is to be successful. This focus plugs the individual into the community’s attempt at worship and translates into an encounter with the transcendent.
With the falling and rising of the notes, one must let go of the internal ups and downs that plagues one in the moment and, as a result, is connected to the rhythm of the rest of the room. Physically, this effect results in the uniting of breathing, pitch and even bodily movement. Spiritually, there is that amazing realization that occupancies all profound worship; namely, that the whole body (both one’s own and the Body of Christ) now stands before God in harmony.
Then there is this third attribute of the melisma, namely, that it is unnecessary. The very sight of its notation makes this evident. Over an ‘a’ or an ‘e’ there is this besplattering of ink that looks like a doodle from high school algebra class. Only this doodle represents, not daydreaming, but its close kin: contemplation. For nothing so confronts and defeats the utilitarianism of our day quite like prayer. And when substantial prayer is made long and frilly, our hearts, purified of our stresses and schedules, are left to bask in that most unnecessary action of God: His overflowing love for us.

St. Philip in His Disciples

Being that today is the Feast of St. Philip Neri, who is the patron of my home parish I felt I would share with you a hymn written by one of Philip’s spiritual sons, John Henry Cardinal Newman.


St. Philip in His Disciples

I ASK not for fortune, for silken attire,
For servants to throng me, and crowds to admire;
I ask not for power, or for name or success,
These do not content me, these never can bless.

Let the world flaunt her glories! each glittering prize,
Though tempting to others, is nought in my eyes.
A child of St. Philip, my master and guide,
I would live as he lived, and would die as he died.

Why should I be sadden’d, though friendless I be?
For who in his youth was so lonely as he?
If spited and mock’d, so was he, when he cried
To his God on the cross to stand by his side. {313}

If scanty my fare, yet how was he fed?
On olives and herbs and a small roll of bread.
Are my joints and bones sore with aches and with pains?
Philip scourged his young flesh with fine iron chains.

A closet his home, where he, year after year,
Bore heat or cold greater than heat or cold here;
A rope stretch’d across it, and o’er it he spread
His small stock of clothes; and the floor was his bed.

One lodging besides; God’s temple he chose,
And he slept in its porch his few hours of repose;
Or studied by light which the altar-lamp gave,
Or knelt at the Martyr’s victorious grave.

I’m ashamed of myself, of my tears and my tongue,
So easily fretted, so often unstrung;
Mad at trifles, to which a chance moment gives birth,
Complaining of heaven, and complaining of earth. {314}

So now, with his help, no cross will I fear,
But will linger resign’d through my pilgrimage here.
A child of St. Philip, my master and guide,
I will live as he lived, and will die as he died.

Check out a song I wrote

You can find it here.

Here Sumtin Sumtin

Here’s a song I’ve been working on.

It’s called Rose of God’s Love: A Canticle to St. Therese of the Child Jesus
Chorus:
O Rose of God’s own love
So innocent, so pure
You bore your cross with Christ
Help me bear mine
Verse 1
You say it is in the simple things
That we find our Lord Almighty
It is through prayer and suffering
That we will see His face
Chorus
Verse 2
Light of Carmel, this mountain we walk
Is towards Christ, our loving Lord
You walked with Him on Calvary
Intercede for us who lack your faith
Chorus
Bridge
Shower us with your sweet roses
While on our pilgrimage
We await the wedding feast of the Lamb
Where with you we will dwell in Him
Chorus

Little Sumtin Sumtin

Here’s a song I’ve been working on.

It’s called Rose of God’s Love: A Canticle to St. Therese of the Child Jesus
Chorus:
O Rose of God’s own love
So innocent, so pure
You bore your cross with Christ
Help me bear mine
Verse 1
You say it is in the simple things
That we find our Lord Almighty
It is through prayer and suffering
That we will see His face
Chorus
Verse 2
Light of Carmel, this mountain we walk
Is towards Christ, our loving Lord
You walked with Him on Calvary
Intercede for us who lack your faith
Chorus
Bridge
Shower us with your sweet roses
While on our pilgrimage
We await the wedding feast of the Lamb
Where with you we will dwell in Him
Chorus