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The season of Lent is rich with a wealth of music—anthems, motets, and settings of the Ordinary, all of which serve to enhance the liturgies of this solemn season. Various musical changes to the liturgy take place—the Gloria in excelsis is suppressed, being replaced by the more penitential Kyrie eleison; likewise the Alleluia is omitted, being replaced by the Tract. Ite Missa est (Go, the Mass is ended) is also suppressed in favor of the more penitential Benedicamus Domino (Let us bless the Lord). Finally, Anglican Chant is replaced by Gregorian Chant for the setting of the psalm at the Gradual. During Lent, we will sing John Merbecke’s setting of Holy Communion, composed in 1550 for the First Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Merbecke was organist at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor (where Queen Elizabeth II's funeral was held last year) during the reigns of Henry VIII (Queen Elizabeth’s 14th great uncle through Henry’s sister Margaret Tudor, James I’s great grandmother) and his children. Over the centuries, this setting has undergone several revisions, including the updating of older Tudor spellings, and the text became standardized in 1662 at the Restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War. The new arrangement we will use reflects Merbecke’s rhythms—about which he was very specific—something many later arrangements failed to do. It’s a fascinating mix between the style of Sarum chant he grew up with and what is known as metrical composition (music using a notated (regular) rhythmic pattern) which he would have encountered in Protestant music composed in Europe for Lutherans and Calvinists. You will see four signs: a square note signifying the regular spoken pulse, an open square note which is twice the length of the former, a diamond-shaped note (amusingly called a “pycke” by Merbecke because of its shape…ouch!) signifying a short note, and an open square note with a fermata over it (a semicircle with a dot), indicating the longest value. While it may sound rather complicated, it’s actually a fairly intuitive system.
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