06 May 2012

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’ ... the evening sun above the beach in Bettystown today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

We had a little taste of Heaven – perhaps a double taste of heaven – in Christ Church Cathedral this morning.

The Cathedral Choir sang Palestrina’s Missa Brevis at the Choral Eucharist. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) is one of the best-known Italian Renaissance composers of sacred music from the 16th century and he has had a lasting influence on the development of church music. His four-voiced Missa Brevis, dating from 1570, is one of the most frequently sung Masses in his oeuvre.

The title of this Mass has stirred considerable speculation as it is not particularly short – instead it is a substantial four-part work; perhaps Palestrina used the word brevis simply because no other title suggested itself.

Then, we had a further 16th century taste of heaven as the choir sang as the Communion Motet O nata lux de lumine by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585):

O nata lux de lumine,
Jesu redemptor saeculi,
Dignare clemens supplicum
Laudes precesque sumere.
Qui carne quondam contegi
Dignatus es pro perditis.
Nos membra confer effici
Tui beati corporis.

O Light of light, by love inclined,
Jesu, redeemer of mankind,
With loving-kindness deign to hear
From suppliant voices praise and prayer.
Thou who in fleshly form didst dwell
And deign to raise our souls from hell,
Vouchsafe us, when our race is run,
In thy fair Body to be one.

Tallis and Palestrina were contemporaries, and this anthem is a setting by Tallis of words from a 14th century Latin hymn at Lauds for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Tallis set only two verses from this hymn, yet he retains the mystical fervour of the feast of the Transfiguration. The very last cadence of the motet presents the most famous and pungent dissonance in all English music – one voice moves to F sharp right at the same time as a second sings F natural; the second then moves to E flat, another shocking dissonance with the bass D.

Perhaps Tallis is telling us that the mystical union with Christ’s body is not painless. But it was an appropriate motet as we were receiving the Body of Christ this morning.

After coffee in the crypt, two of us went north to Bettystown on the ‘Gold Coast’ of Co Meath for lunch in Relish. A butterfly was fluttering in the car park outside – and I thought of the chrysalis and the butterfly, metamorphosis and transfiguration, and the opening words of this morning’s Communion Motet by Tallis:

‘O Light of light, by love inclined.’

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’ ... a butterfly in the car park at Relish in Bettystown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From the windows in Relish, we enjoyed the views out towards the sea and the bright, sun-kissed beach.

This is the first summer bank holiday of the year, and after more coffee with friends who are staying in Bettystown for the weekend, we walked across the sand-dunes by the golf links on the Mornington road for a stroll on the beach.

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’ ... the sun-kissed beach in Bettystown this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As we came to the ridge of the dunes overlooking the beach, to the north we could see the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea majestically. Below us, the golden sands of the beach stretched for miles.

Despite some white clouds, there was a dominant blue in the sky and in the sea. It was 5, and the sun was still trying to burst through the clouds over to the west. And I thought again of the opening words of Tallis in this morning’s Communion motet: ‘O Light of light, by love inclined

There was still an early summer atmosphere as we left Bettystown to head back to Dublin. We stopped briefly at Gormanston, where the bank holiday weekend meant my old school was quiet and almost abandoned.

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’ ... evening light streaming through the windows of the chapel in Gormanston this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

And there was another taste of heaven as the light of the sun streamed through the modern stained glass windows of the college chapel and shattered in reflections on the polished floors of the side aisles:

‘O Light of light, by love inclined.’

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