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Glorious Music for Our Glorious Co-Redemptrix

It is necessary “to snatch the Rosaries from the hands of the old ladies!” How can we forget this declaration from Cardinal Michele Pellegrino (1903-1986), Archbishop of Turin between 1965 and 1977, to his clergy and often heard during the Roman youth of this article’s author? It comes to mind especially in the month of October, which is called the month of the Rosary precisely because of the “spiritual cadence” derived from the liturgical Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7).

Far from those who, now adult and emancipated, do not “waste time” with this devout practice “which Christians have ever found to be of marvelous avail,” instead we welcome the invitation through the Rosary to let ourselves be guided by the Blessed Virgin, the model of faith, in meditating on the mysteries of Christ: “in the Rosary all the part that Mary took as our co-Redemptress comes to us, as it were, set forth, and in such wise as though the facts were even then taking place.”[1]

An invitation to applaud Mary as “freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation” is found in the third stanza of the splendid hymn O gloriosa domina, which opens the Morning Prayer (Lauds) in the Marian feasts (Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary), that testifies to how in the sensus fidei of the People of God — that sort of supernatural instinct which guides Christians —  has been rooted for centuries.[2]

The text is attributed to Saint Venantius Fortunatus (530-607), Bishop of Poitiers in France; who is also the author of elegant hymns to the Holy Cross, such as Pange lingua… certaminis (that one for Good Friday) and Vexilla regis prodeunt.

O glorious Lady, thron’d in rest,
Amidst the starry host above,
Who gavest nurture from thy breast
To God, with pure maternal love.

What we had lost through sinful Eve
The Blossom sprung from thee restores,
And, granting bliss to souls that grieve,
Unbars the everlasting doors.

O Gate, through which hath pass’d the King,
O Hall, whence Light shone through the gloom;
The ransomed nations praise and sing
Life given from the Virgin womb.

All honour, laud, and glory be,
O Jesu, Virgin-born to Thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To Father, and to Paraclete. Amen.

This hymn, almost a small treatise of Mariology, is dear to the hearts of so many saints and faithful. It was the favorite of Saint Anthony of Padua, who sang it with a weak voice just before he died in the convent of the Arcella, just north of the city of Padua, Italy, on June 13, 1231. So the Portuguese Jesuit Emmanuel Azevedo writes about it in his hagiographic masterpiece:

After a brief pause for silence he wanted to make a sacramental confession; then, like a swan near death, he began to sing, as some report, the hymn O gloriosa Domina, which he used to often recite against the demons and in the tribolations.[3]

Even today this hymn is performed at the Saint’s tomb every Friday.

Far from Luther, who in a sermon of 1525 urged the elimination of Marian feasts and celebrations, since they were not mentioned in the Scriptures and obscured the primacy of Christ, great composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), Orlando di Lasso (1530 or 1532-1594) and William Byrd (1543-1623) were closer to the true faith and therefore to the special prerogatives of Mary: immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, the Virgin’s role of co-redeemer.[4] And they set the hymn O gloriosa domina to music.

In 1589 Musicæ princeps — the “Prince of Music” according to the words inscribed on Palestrina’s coffin in the Vatican Basilica — made of it a twelve-part motet in three choirs for the Cappella Giulia, the choir of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican which, together with twelve-part Salve Regina, is probably among the composer’s first works for more choirs.[5] Each of the three choirs sings alone a stanza of the poem before combining in the final doxology. “The first stanza” Giuseppe Baini, the nineteenth-century first biographer of Palestrina, writes,

is sung in 4 parts by the first choir with melodies and harmonies of such fine taste and such a clarity of ideas, only the verse Qui te creavit is sufficient to conclude that only the prince of music could have composed it. The second choir sings in 4 parts the second stanza: Quod Eva tristis abstulit with completely new phrases and highly refined modulations, easy though, and natural, without fatigue, and without effort. The third stanza: Tu Regis alti ianua is sung by the third choir, which however lacks the alto, with a vigor of nobly happy concepts, to invite anybody to applaud the Co-Redemptrix of the human race. The three choirs are joined in the last stanza Gloria tibi, Domine, qui natus es de Virgine: and here the very great and easy ideas stand out, whence a surprisingly marvelous effect is produced, proportionate to the incomparable sublimity of this composition.[6]

Those saddened by anyone who considers Mary a simple woman, mother and disciple, moreover mixed race and never Co-Redemptrix, or anyone who says that attributing a new privilege to Our Lady would be a waste of time, might be consoled with the hymn O gloriosa domina, which condenses those privileges.


Image: women praying at Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn in Lithuania via Wikipedia commons.

[1] Leo XIII, Iucunda Semper Expectatione, September 8, 1894.

[2] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Lumen gentium, 56.

[3] Vita di Sant’Antonio di Padova taumaturgo portoghese, Venezia 1788, p. 143.

[4] Cf. Contra Festum Nativitatis Mariæ in J. Conchlæus, Duo sermones de beata Virgine Maria, Basle 1548.

[5] Cf. F. M. Torrigio, Le sacre grotte vaticane, Roma 1635, p. 166. L. Bianchi, Le composizioni latine a 12 voci, vol. 32, Istituto Italiano per la Storia della Musica, Roma 1972, pp. 44-55.

[6] Memorie storico-critiche della vita e delle opere di G. Pierluigi da Palestrina, vol. 2, Roma 1828, p. 336.

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