Prepare the Way: An Analysis of Tu Puer

By Sywulka, Edward R. | Sacred Music, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Prepare the Way: An Analysis of Tu Puer


Sywulka, Edward R., Sacred Music


Anyone familiar with Gregorian chant knows the repertoire is massive and can afford to reserve special chants for specific days the year. Of these "propers," the most musically ornate tend to be used towards the beginning of the Mass, and the so-called "easier" antiphons find their place towards the end. It is providential if not intentional that the culmination of every Mass (the Eucharist) is accompanied by the relatively simpler sorts of antiphons. This allows more people to sing with less potential distraction, and possibly with greater purity of intention. The Church Music Association of America, in its publishing of Communio, acknowledges this group of chants as having some of the best potential for use by scholas and parishes who are just beginning to incorporate chant into their liturgies. Dr. William Mahrt has called the communion chants "a good place to begin," reasoning that "the antiphon can be sung in alternation with psalm verses, allowing the desirable repetition (a few times) to familiarize both congregation and choir with the chant." (1) One of these antiphons is the subject of this paper.

Tu puer is the proper communion antiphon for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, celebrated on June 24. The date only falls on a Sunday when chance occasions, as was the case in June 2007. This gave opportunity for a full High Mass to be celebrated. The words, the music, and their interplay provide for an exploration into some exceptional aspects of medieval creativity. A literal translation of the Latin text follows below, courtesy of Fr. Anthony Ruff, O.S.B. The Latin word order preserves that of the Vulgate (Luke 1:76), except for a minor omission of the "et" (which means "and") at the beginning of the verse.

Tu,  puer,  propheta  Altissimi         vocaberis;       praeibis
You, child, prophet   of-the-Most-High  will-be-called;  you-will-go

enim    ante    faciem     Domini       parare      vias   eius.
indeed  before  the-face   of-the-Lord  to-prepare  ways   his.

The organization is strikingly chiastic. Three main concepts appear, each having a divine and human element. "You" and "his [God's]," self and other, the contingent and the Creator: this confrontation presents a most intense paradox and frames the entire verse. It is this relationship of God and man (or God and child, here) which the scripture means to illuminate. The chiasm will be addressed further below, but first a cursory sequential exposition of both tone and word is advisable, both to give attention to the flow of the text and to accustom the reader to an older form of musical notation.

I am grateful once again to Fr. Ruff for guiding me to a revised version of the melody from Beitrage zur Gregorianik.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The most recent Vatican-approved editions of chants, such as the Graduale Romanum or Graduale Triplex (they differ only in annotation) present melodies that, over time, have been somewhat changed. For example, in the Tu puer antiphon, the Graduale gives D as the starting note, which is the final tone of Modes I and II. How much more expressive it is, however, to delay that defining tone until the first nine notes have passed, and start on a very weak degree (E) instead. In fact, compared to the melodic reconstruction, the Graduale eliminates all the Es until the very end. The four alterations are marked in the example below.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Let us turn again to the "corrected" version. The first three notes, which deceivingly hint at some form of the deuterus mode, accompany a strong plosive "t," all of which declare this "tu" ("you") to be very mysterious and important. Until the second word is uttered, it is not clear to whom the "tu" applies. Is he a sinner, or a holy man, or a way of referring to all the faithful? He is a child, "puer." Here the chosen pitches begin to clarify the mode, as the E and G of "tu" give way to the A and F of "puer.

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