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Volume 15, Issue 4: Musica

The Decalogue

Duck Schuler

One of the features of Cantus Christi, the psalter and hymnal of Christ Church, Moscow, is the third section which is made up of "service music." I plan to write a series of articles describing the music in this section and how it may be used in worship. Most of the texts are quite ancient and have been used by the church for many centuries in various liturgies.

I will begin with a setting that is used as a response to the reading of the commandments. The music, found in Cantus Christi, p. 386, is by Thomas Tallis and is taken from his Dorian Service composed probably around 1550 under the influence of Cranmer's English Reformation. The Dorian Service was originally written for a choir and most likely for the Chapel Royale, however because of Cranmerian reform which required sung texts to be easily distinguished, it was written in essentially a four-part homophonic style, i.e. it is set like a very elaborate hymn. Because of this it is not out of the reach of a congregation's ability to sing if they are willing to stretch themselves musically.
It is called The Dorian Service because the music is set in the Dorian mode which is the white note scale from D to D. Thus the scale has its half steps between the third and fourth degrees of the scale and the sixth and seventh degrees of the scale. It sounds like a minor scale with a flat seventh instead of a leading tone seventh which approaches the tonic by a half step. Tallis considered this mode the mode of devotion. He described it as "devout to see." Its sister mode, the Hypodorian, which is the same scale but using more low notes, was considered by Tallis as majestic. The Dorian mode is the predominant scale used in church music during the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, our church music aesthetic of the last hundred or so years has been dulled by the overuse of the major keys and for many people, major keys must be used in order for them not to think of the music as "dirge-like." The depth of our musical emotions has become shallow indeed.
The responses to the commandments were first introduced in The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) in 1552. The first BCP of 1549 did not have these responses; rather it had the traditional "Kyrie eleison" followed by the "Gloria in excelsis" which had been part of the Roman service. The responses thus replaced the "Kyrie" and "Gloria."
The instructions were that the priest was to "rehearse distinctly all the x. Commaundmentes: and the people kneyling, shal after everye Commaundement aske Gods mercy for theyr transgression of thesame, after this sorte." Thus the priest would begin by saying, "God spake these words, and said: I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me." The people would respond by singing, "Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law." The second commandment and each subsequent commandment would then be read and followed by the same response. After the tenth commandment, the reponse was lengthened to, "Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these Thy laws in our hearts, we beseech Thee."
The reading of the Decalogue is found in the first part of The Order of Holy Communion in the Anglican service. The service opens with the Lord's Prayer followed by a Collect for Purity. Then comes the commandments and the responses. It acts like a confession and is used as such. The BCP is the first liturgical use of the commandments in the main service of worship in the history of the Christian church as far as I can tell. The commandments had been taught all along by the church, but they were not a part of the Mass in any ritual sense. The "Kyrie" and the "Gloria" wonderfully relate and contrast our sinful lives with Christ's sinless life, and in the song of the angels at Bethlehem (Gloria in excelsis Deo), we are reminded that Christ is the God/man and tabernacled among us for a while. Thus he revealed his glory and power directly to us. The Decalogue does much the same, but it does so by taking us back to Sinai where God revealed Himself in glory and power to the Hebrews. The nature of God and His perfection is embodied in these ten words and reminds us that, as image bearers, we are to be like Him, and yet how unlike Him we are. Thus we fall upon His mercy which He freely bestows on those who ask.
Christians often complain that the commandments are not part of the public sphere in American culture. But how much are they a part of our own liturgical culture? When I have participated liturgically with the commandment-response reading of the decalogue, I have found that it helps me to remember particular sins that need confessing. It allows for me to call upon God's mercy which I need greatly. But what I particularly like about the response is the words, "and incline our hearts to keep this law." It is one thing to confess sins but a greater to confess and seek not to do it any longer. The liturgical action of the response places great responsibility upon the confessor, much like a vow. If this liturgical action is done on a somewhat regular basis, the commandments come to mind much more readily throughout the week. In this way liturgy becomes part of everyday life. God remakes and renews us through His word.

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