Tonus Peregrinus

I’m loving it. Aren’t you? The opportunity to chant the Tonus Peregrinus, that is? The ‘wandering tone,’ so called, I think, because it has over the centuries shown up in so many places. While there are many pieces of music, of all genres, that I like, symphonies, sonatas, classic rock, bluegrass, and country music ballads, one of my most enduring, if not my very most enduring, favorite is the Tonus Peregrinus, followed as a close second by Psalm Tone 8, as in the setting for Canticle 3 in S185 in “The Hymnal 1982.” It is a haunting melody that gets into your psyche. Its distinctive “double tenor,” that is, that the first and second reciting notes are different, a whole tone apart, is part of what gives it that haunting, eastern character.

The Tonus Peregrinus occurs six times in “The Hymnal 1982,” all occurrences being in the Service Music portion in the front of the book: S151, a setting of the Fraction Anthem; S177, Canticle 1, Benedicite omnia opera Domini (A Song of Creation); S190, Benedictus Dominus Deus (The Song of Zechariah); S208, Cantemus Domino (The Song of Moses); S228, Benedicite omnia opera Domini (A Song of Creation) Contemporary language; and S242, Magnificat, (The Song of Mary). This might be the greatest frequency of any melody in the Hymnal. No hymn tune occurs more than three times. Clearly, someone intends this to be sung and often.

At more than 2000 year of age, from pre-Christian Judaism, the Tonus Peregrinus might well be the oldest melody in the Hymnal. Music of this kind connects us to our past. Eric Werner, in his marvelous work “The Sacred Bridge: The Interdependence of Liturgy and Music in Synagogue and Church in the First Millennium” writes about how music bridges cultures by being a continuity of melody as different words come into use. Of the Tonus Peregrinus he writes “The Tonus Peregrinus displays two distinctly oriental features: the double tenor and the closing formula. It has numerous parallels in Jewish chant. In the Gregorian tradition it is connected mainly with Ps. 114 ‘In exitu Israel’. The same tone is used for the very same psalm by the Lithuanian Jews during the Passover season (version a); Version b is the Oriental Jewish chant of Ps. 137, ‘On the water of Babylon’; version c is the Yemenite chant of the Song of Songs, paralleling the second Gregorian version, which Wagner quotes from the Salisbury Antiphonal. The first version resembles also the Jewish counterpart of the first Psalm Tone. Many similar structures will be found later on in the modes of Lamentations. Under these circumstances we are justified in the assumption that the Tonus Peregrinus is, as already suggested by P. Vivell, a direct remnant of ancient Jewish tradition. This appears really to be an inevitable conclusion, since the mode occurs in almost all Jewish centers, and is used with the same text as in the Church, during the very same liturgical season, Eastertide(22). And in footnote 22, he adds “The version (a) of the Tonus Peregrinus is sung at Passover night; the In Exitu usually during the Easter season; and, to complete the picture, Gastrou’s Gregorian example is ‘Afferte Domino,’ which is sung at the vigil of Holy Saturday, the eve of the Christian Passa that is Passover’s counterpart. How unbreakable sometimes is the chain of liturgical tradition!”

Our publication, The Plainsong Psalter, is true to this tradition by using Tonus Peregrinus with Psalm 114, In exitu Israel.

I love it that I am so often pleasantly surprised at a service at St. Alban’s. Last week there was Ash Wednesday and a portion of Psalm 51 to the Tonus Peregrinus, then the First Sunday of Lent with Psalm 32. This coming Sunday will be Psalm 121. Thank you Deborah, Sonya, and Sophie. Thank You.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 11-March-2014.

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