(Feature image above: “The Virgin Mary”, detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan van Eyck c. 1430)
We have seen before that some well-known sacred music settings often start life as secular songs. That was the case with “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” our Music Monday selection last week. The two most famous musical accompaniments to the Ave Maria, the tune by Schubert and the setting adapted by the composer Gounod from an earlier piece by J.S. Bach (“The Bach/Gounod Ave Maria”) were both also created for secular lyrics.
Today’s selection is a little different. The soaring melody was composed explicitly for these words celebrating the Resurrection of Christ at Easter:
Let us sing
That Our Lord is not dead,
And in glory
Has opened the tomb!
Let sing praise
That our Lord is risen
And today is gone up
Into the glory of Heaven!
Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto.
Ei fulgente ha dischiuso l’avel,
Inneggiamo al Signore risorto
Oggi asceso alla gloria del Ciel!
This magnificent piece is a little like the Treasure Hidden in a Field from Jesus’ parable (see Matthew 13:44). Pietro Mascagni composed it as part of his opera Cavalleria Rusticana, a turgid account of betrayal, jealousy, and murder. At one point in the drama, however, the inhabitants of the little Sicilian village where these unsavory events unfold sing this beautiful hymn in the village square while the choir inside the church intones the traditional Catholic prayer, Regina Coeli, Laetare (“Queen of Heaven, Rejoice”). It’s an unexpected reminder that grace breaks through even in the ugliest of circumstances.
Regarding the Regina Coeli, a prayer traditionally associated with the Easter season, I have more information below the video clip.
The prayer Regina Coeli, Laetare is of ancient origin. Our oldest record of it comes from the twelfth century, but the website ourcatholicprayers.com tells us:
According to The Golden Legend, a famous 13th century work about the saints, Pope St. Gregory the Great heard angels singing the first three verses from the Regina Coeli during a procession in the 6th century and was inspired to add the fourth line “Ora pro nobis deum” (“pray for to us to God” in Latin). Although this story is itself considered to be a legend, it is, as Father Herbert Thurston once put it in his book Familiar Prayers, “inseparably associated with the Regina Coeli.”
We pray this prayer in place of the Angelus during the season of Easter, at which time it also serves as the the Marian Antiphon at the end of Compline (Night Prayer). I have posted the prayer it in both English and Latin below:
Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia.
The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia.
Has risen, as He said, alleluia.
Pray for us to God, alleluia.
V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.
R. For the Lord has truly risen, alleluia.
Let us pray.O God, who through the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ gave rejoicing to the world, grant, we pray, that through his Mother, the Virgin Mary, we may obtain the joy of everlasting life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Regina cæli, lætare, alleluia:
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia,
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia,
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.
Gaude et lætare, Virgo Maria, alleluia.
Quia surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia.
Deus, qui per resurrectionem Filii tui, Domini nostri Iesu Christi,
mundum lætificare dignatus es:
præsta, quæsumus, ut per eius Genitricem Virginem Mariam,
perpetuæ capiamus gaudia vitæ.
Per eundem Christum Dominum nostrum. R. Amen.