Veni Creator Spiritus

Happy almost-Pentecost!

Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Apostles, found in the familiar story from the book of Acts, chapter 2:

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

Pentecost is observed on the Sunday that falls 50 days after Easter (hence the Greek prefix, pente-, or “fiftieth”), and it is one of the first celebrations of the Christian church, considered by many to be the “birthday” of the Church. This has resulted in a rich history of traditions and symbols from which the modern church can draw. The primary symbol of Pentecost is the color red, denoting the fire of the Holy Spirit; when we wear red in church that Sunday, we are symbolically clothing ourselves in the Spirit’s fire. Other symbols you might see are flames, the dove (recalling the Spirit’s descent on Jesus at his baptism, “like a dove”) and red plants or flowers, which symbolize the renewal of life that occurs with the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.

The church also has a rich heritage of musical traditions for this Sunday. The plainchant Veni Creator Spiritus is the traditional chant assigned to Vespers (I and II) and Terce of Pentecost, and is a popular source for liturgical music. It is attributed by most scholars to Rabanus Maurus (d. 856), Abbot of Fulda and Archbishop of Mainz, who lived during the reign of Charlemagne at the turn of the 9th century. It has, at different times, also been attributed to Charlemagne himself, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory, without real evidence or good arguments for either ascription; most substantiated manuscript evidence points to Archbishop Maurus. According to The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Maurus may have composed the chant for the 809 Aachen Synod at which the Carolingians (the successors to the aristocratic dynasty of Pepin and Charlemagne during the Franco-German empire) decided that “the belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (‘filioque’) is necessary for salvation.” The chant is “a rich tapestry of allusion to other hymn texts, liturgical prose texts, biblical texts, and texts relating to the ‘filioque’ controversy” and it would have been eminently fitting for a synod meeting about the Holy Spirit at the turn of the ninth century.

This plainchant is found in many modern hymnals, frequently with the translation “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,” including the United Methodist Hymnal #651, Evangelical Lutheran Worship #577, and The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal) #504. It has also been arranged for choir more times than can possibly be counted; many of these anthems are a standard part of a quality church choir’s repertoire. I suspect part of the reason for its popularity may be the ease with which the Latin text can be translated into rhyming, metrical English verse.

The chant melody of Veni Creator Spiritus has been set instrumentally far less frequently than it has when paired with a text. I’ve found, however, that instrumental versions of the chant are powerful in a different way. The most profound musical interpretation that I’ve found of this chant is Duruflé’s setting in his Choral Varié sur le theme du Veni Creator, Opus 4.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a bit about the political environment of the church in France during the plainchant revival, and that background is a critical part of understanding the context of Duruflé’s work as a composer, organist, and church musician– and the political implications of his most well-known liturgical music. Duruflé wrote this work for a composition class at the Conservatoire National de Musique et de Declamation in Paris, appending the preceding “Prelude” and “Adagio” movements in 1930 to complete the opus for submission to the composition contest sponsored by Les Amis de l’Orgue. He dedicated the work to his former teacher Louis Vierne with affectueux homage [affectionate tribute], and it became his second-favorite of his compositions for organ.

The chant itself is in Mode VIII, or Hypomixolydian, with a tonic F. To modern ears, this mode sounds like a major scale with a lowered seventh pitch, an E-flat in the key of F. Below is the basic melody of the Veni Creator Spiritus chant in modern notation:


Overall, Duruflé embraced the Solesmes method of chant singing that I previously wrote about, and he fully endorsed their reforms. Most importantly, he understood how to make the Solesmes chant tradition compatible with modern musical meter and notation, and his skill in reshaping the ancient melodies into works of simplicity and intensity can be found in both his choral and instrumental works.

In his setting, Duruflé retains the original phrasing of the chant, but he is skillful about placing the strongest notes of the phrase, using barlines to create natural points of stress within the melodic phrase. Below is his setting of Veni Creator Spiritus that he uses for this chorale and variations, as it is presented in the upper line of the Choral varié. You can compare his treatment with the original:


Four variations of this chant follow the chorale, each with its own treatment of the theme. The first variation presents the chant in the pedals, almost as a pedal cantus firmus, set against a countermelody in the right hand that’s loosely based on the chant itself, giving the illusion of a canon.

The second variation is for manuals only, and is a study on the juxtaposition of two and three. The right hand has the melody within an accompanimental triplet pattern, and the left hand has a duple-eighth-note countermelody almost serving as a walking bass line.

The third variation pits right hand and pedal against each other just as in the first, as a canon set a fifth apart, while the left hand fills in sustained harmonies between and below the two.

And the fourth variation takes elements of the three previous and pulls them all together into an ultimate presentation of the musical potential of this chant melody, with triplets as the inner divisions to a larger duple feel.

One of the most compelling aspects of this work is this extensive juxtaposition of triple and duple rhythms, within which it it is possible to see the interplay between the Trinitarian God and the human, or the interaction of the heavenly Holy Spirit in our earthly duple world. From this perspective, one way to understand this work is as an illumination of the Pentecostal story in Acts.

The initial presentation of the chant is in duple: we, as God’s people, are asking the Holy Spirit to “visit our souls with blessing” and to come into our hearts.

Variation one has constant triplet figures, with the only duple-triple rhythms coming when the triplets of the accompaniment fit against the duple of the chant: this is a representation of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

The second variation consists entirely of the two-against-three feel, with the duple as a foundation and the triplets an octave higher: in this variation, the Holy Spirit came down and rested upon the disciples.

“They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.” (Acts 2:3-4)

In the scripture, Peter stood up immediately this to proclaim the fulfillment of the prophecies of Joel and David, after which those present asked what they then had to do (Acts 2:37). Peter responded, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38). Fittingly, the third variation is nearly entirely in duple, which would relate to this human exchange. The one exception is the single triplet figure in the penultimate measure of the variation, which could be seen as his assurance of the Holy Spirit at the end of his speech.

The fourth variation, by far the most complex, sums up the entire work and, in the same way, represents the summation of the Pentecost story. They rejoiced, because three thousand people were baptized through witnessing the work of the Spirit and hearing Peter’s words (Acts 2:41). Musical elements from each of the preceding variations are found in the fourth; what is added in this final variation is a sense of victory, of celebration, and of rejoicing. The Holy Spirit took those who were merely human, “rested” or “alighted” on them, and worked within them to show God’s goodness, power, and mercy throughout the world, and that is certainly worth the kind of joy present in Duruflé’s fourth variation.

This is, without question, not the only way to understand this work, and there is absolutely no evidence that this was how Duruflé composed the work. But there is no evidence of any inspiration whatsoever that Duruflé had, outside of the plainchant. This work could just as plausibly be seen to facilitate an understanding of the Spirit’s activity in the life of the church, past and present. I find it interesting to explore ideas and parallels like this as I study a piece of music, because the conversation helps to open my mind to the many different ways God might speak to us through music.

As a Pentecost practice this weekend, take five minutes and listen to this work, and as you listen, take some time to think about the Holy Spirit’s work in your life.


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