Work: Sicut cervus
About This Work
To a sixteenth century Catholic mind, the Psalm text "Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum" would evoke two extremely important liturgical situations. The first comes once a year, during the Easter Vigil. The Church's celebration of
Christ's Resurrection took place on the night before Easter, with a splendid array of liturgical fireworks. The dark penintence of Lent and Holy Week end with the lighting of "new fire," the chant Exultet, the grand Litanies of the Saints, and a service that resounds with "Alleluias." During this service, new converts to the faith would be examined and brought forth for Holy Baptism, and would thus celebrate their first Communion on the day of Christ's victory. Sicut cervus serves as the Tract on this brilliant feast day, sung during the procession to the baptismal font. In this context, the
Psalm text resonates with the sacramental waters of Baptism as well as the living water of the Eucharist.
But the same chant also served many churches before the Council of Trent in another liturgy: the Requiem Mass. There the Psalm text takes on a completely different aspect. For the solemn liturgy of a funeral, for the anniversary of a death, or for the commemoration of all the faithful departed on November 2 (All Souls' Day), the Sicut cervus chant sings more of longing, hope, and aspiration. Tears are the singer's "bread, day and night," while the soul longs for its true home before the face of the living God. The aspirant rising leaps of the chant in this context raise the ritual prayers as incense before God, that mercy might be shown for the souls of the faithful in Purgatory, and for all souls on the day of judgement. Palestrina thus had two extremely rich events as possible contexts for his four-voiced motet on Sicut cervus. The characteristic polish and balance of his setting (along with easily accessible twentieth century publications of the motet's first half) allow it to continue as one of his most popular compositions. The motet's first half sets Psalm 42:1 (Psalm 41 in the Vulgate) in three distinct motivic sections. The opening melody echoes the aspirant arch of the plainchant, followed by melismatic peals evoking springs of water. The syncopation of Ita desiderat subtly echoes the soul's longing, while the conclusion balances the opening with falling melismas and a gentle plagal cadence. The second half moves more rapidly through greater lengths of text (Ps. 42:2-3).
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