Sacred Sunday: “Resonemus Hoc Natali,” Anon.

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I am, as you’ve no doubt guessed, a big fan of early music.  I love its simplicity, I love its richness, and, to me, it is very centering.  Whenever things get overwhelming and I need to create an eye in the storm, I put on this piece.  It sounds mysterious, and therefore timeless.  Also, because its melody follows the Dorian mode, it is neither happy nor sad – which is what makes it such a good piece to listen to when you need the universe to just quit it for a second.  (Quick music theory tutorial!  A “mode” is another word for scale, a scale being a succession of eight notes in ascending order of pitch.  What makes the Dorian mode cool is that it includes both minor and major tonalities.  For example, a D scale is in the Dorian mode.)

“Resonemus Hoc Natali” is a very early example of the use of polyphony – polyphony literally meaning “many sounds,” and in more common terms, the use of harmony.  Like many early music pieces, we don’t know who wrote it exactly, but we do know it hails from the old region of France called Aquitaine in the 12th century.

Aquitaine!

Hey!  It’s Aquitaine!

When the words begin to describe the reason behind God taking human form – “that he might bestow aid to the human race, the heavenly assembly is astonished at this” – the rest of the choir falls away, hushed like a gasp, to leave a singer solo to tell the story.  Gets me every time.

The final reason I love early music?  It’s old.  When I listen to this piece, I contemplate the number of men and women over the last nine centuries who have heard it, too, and the joys and sorrows they carried with them as I carry mine.  That comforting connection makes me feel immortal.

Resonemus hoc natali
cantu quodam speciali,
Deus ortu temporali
de secreto virginali
processit hodie,
cessant argumenta perfidie.

Magnum quidem sacramentum,
mundi factor fit sic mentum,
sumens carnis indumentum,
ut conferat adiumentum,
humano generi,
cetus inde mirantur superi.

Post memorem redit risus,
aperitur paradisus,
et in terris Deus visus,
lapis manus ne precisus,
quem vidit Daniel,
quem venturum predixit Gabriel.

Hic est noster angularis,
spes iustorum salutaris,
hic est noster salutaris,
potens celi, terre, maris,
facture condolens,
quam premebat tirannus insolens.

At this birth let us sing out
with some special song,
God comes forth today in temporal birth
from virginal mystery,
let the disputes
of the faithless cease.

Indeed the mighty maker of the world
thus is made the sacrament of the spirit,
taking on the cloak of flesh
that he might bestow aid
to the human race,
the heavenly assembly is astonished at this.

After mourning, laughter returns,
paradise is opened,
and God is seen upon the earth,
the stone uncut by human hand
which Daniel saw,
whose coming Gabriel foretold.

This is our cornerstone,
the healing hope of the upright,
this is our saving power
over the heavens, earth, and sea,
consoling by his act
those whom the insolent tyrant oppressed.

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