I love the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am a relatively new Catholic (since 2009) and it took me a while, but I do understand why Mary is so close to our hearts. She is the mother given to the Apostle John at the foot of our Lord’s cross. By logic, or by the binding and loosing power of the Church, or by both together, she is our mother. She is my mother and so I love her like I love my natural mom. Additionally, Mary is the New Eve, whose heroic word, “let it be to me according to thy word”, cancels the theft of our other mother, the first Eve. Mary is the first to accept Christ, even before the apostles. Mary, as physical and natural mother of Christ, is the proof and guarantor of Christ’s true humanity, which is our astounding doctrine of the Incarnation. Mary is the great wonder of heaven reported in Revelation 12, crowned with many stars. In the Americas, she is the Virgin of Guadalupe who magnificently united the peoples of the new and old worlds. She is the queen-mother in heaven, and our delight. Many books have been written, and will be written in the future, about the magnificence of Mary, surely the greatest of God’s creatures.
So when I see the icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or hear the hymn known as the Salve Regina (Hail holy queen), my heart swells and I long to be part of her world and her Son’s.
This is why I want to tell you about a new musical arrangement of the Salve Regina, by Frank La Rocca, as part of the spectacular Mass of the Americas. If you wish to sing the Salve Regina at a new level, please take my advice and sing it (perhaps vicariously) with La Rocca. Those of us who are not trained singers in a classical choir can sing it in our hearts as we listen to its performance.
But first, in great detail, the Salve Regina hymn, as authored (probably) by a genius named “Herman the Cripple” and sung for the last thousand years, goes like this:
Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae: Hail Queen of Heaven, mother merciful, [tender heart]: Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve. Our life, our sweetness, and our hope, we hail you. Ad te clamamus, exsules, filii Hevae. To you we cry out, exiles, children of Eve [Eve’s line]. Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes To you we send up sighs, lamenting and weeping, in hac lacrimarum valle. in this [sad and] tearful valley. Eia ergo, Advocata nostra, Indeed, we ask, advocate [and] our [help]. illos tuos misericordes oculos those eyes of yours, your merciful [and tender] eyes, ad nos converte. to us return back. Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, And Jesus, blessed, [favored] fruit within your womb [born], nobis post hoc exsilium ostende. To us when this exile is past, present [him]. O clemens: O pia: O dulcis Virgo Maria. O clement, O loving, O sweet[est], Virgin Mary.
This is an old hymn which has been set to music many times. (The English translation here is from yours truly. You probably know different English.) The Gregorian melody, which is apparently the work of the Herman mentioned above, is sung today in many churches. I remember wandering the streets of Brussels (before a work conference) and being surprised by a nearby church’s carillon bells ringing out this version of Salve Regina: And suddenly I felt I was at home, in the still-beating heart of Europe.
The Salve Regina is one of a collection of hymns about Mary (“Marian hymns”). When the Church addresses the Mother in such a way, I think it may count as a small star in that crown mentioned in the book of Revelation. It has been my personal privilege and pleasure to meditate on and translate several Marian hymns, including the Alma Redemptoris Mater, the Regina Caelorum (Queen of Heaven) and (not the same) the Regina Caeli, the Gaudium Mundi, the newer Solis Virgo, the Veniens Mater, and of course the Salve Regina.
Frank La Rocca, the composer in residence at the Benedict XVI Institute, is the most recent world-class composer to set the Salve Regina to music. You can stop reading here and stream it from Amazon at http://amazon.com/dp/B0BCNV5V57. Or you can let me tell you what I love about La Rocca’s presentation of this lovely hymn…
- It is a dignified and majestic classical composition that honors the composition (1000 years ago) of Herman the Cripple, as well as the Virgin.
It is just beautiful to listen to.
When it comes to the words of the Holy Name, “et Jesum”, something musically extraordinary happens, which you just have to hear. (If you don’t know Latin, use the above as a cheat sheet.)
When it ends, the choir who has called Mary “clement, loving, sweet” stops on a single note, which is (to me) emblematic of her purity and simplicity of heart. …In a way that rends my own heart.
It may leave you in tears, even if you don’t fully understand the Latin.
It is the highest of high art, and (wonderfully, at the same time) an aid to deep worship.
I suppose I am biased about this work, because I was present (with my daughter and son-in-law) at the premiere of the Mass of the Americas in San Francisco, which was celebrated by the brilliant and controversial Archibishop Salvatore Cordileone. In a word, I was there and it worked. It worked as liturgy (the primary goal) and it worked as high culture. Archbishop Cordileone said at the time:
The Mass of the Americas is an example of continuity in Catholic worship, adhering faithfully to the principles laid out by the Second Vatican Council. This Mass treasures the beauty and solemnity of our Catholic patrimony while contributing to it in our own time.
There is a lot more to say about the Mass, but (I say) you should just listen. Close your eyes when you come to the Sanctus; if you are like me you might start to visualize what you are hearing. The South American (specifically Mexican/Aztec) influence is pervasive, although you might not always recognize it as such. But I think whenever the music shifts into a more human “Son of Man” tonality, the sound of the family room at evening instead of the concert hall, the children of St. Juan Diego and La Guadalupana are near at hand. In this way, it may be that the Mass presents the Incarnation, the integration of God and Man, in a truly new musical idiom.
There is a good article about the making of the Mass of the Americas by Maggie Gallagher on the sponsoring website. Another review that captures some of the excitement of premiere is by R.T.M. Sullivan, who also discusses the importance of such things for culture in general. A later performance at the U.S. National Basilica in 2019 was reviewed by Dr. William Mahrt, who also wrote the liner notes for the album. The album, by the way, was just released, which is why I am writing this now, instead of when the Mass was first performed.
I am something of a pessimist, because I think that humans do not normally produce works of high art. I think we are, usually, too much embroiled in our own sufferings and disputes to allow space for the impracticality of true greatness. Therefore, I think that, when we have true flourishing of art, it is something to be celebrated, and something of a miracle from God. I’ll go a bit further: I believe that, when all is said and done, the fertile periods of great art that we celebrate are quietly backed by a Church that is holding the center together, so that the artists can do what they do, unhindered. One small proof of this thesis is that the Mass of Americas, which deserves (or so I think it does) to stand near to Bach’s B Minor Mass, happened because of the vision and quiet support of an Archbishop of the Church.