Communion: Beatus servus

The Communion is the last Proper chant of the Mass ceremony. Like the Offertory, the structure of the late medieval Communion reflected a trend toward shorter and less participatory Masses. In the early Middle Ages, the Communion plainsong was comprised of an antiphon and a psalm, during which both the priest and the congregation partook of the Eucharistic meal. But just as the Offertory was shortened when the offertory procession became less common, the Communion chant was reduced to just an antiphon as frequent congregational communions declined. As early as the 5th century, the majority of the congregation no longer received communion every Sunday, and by the 8th century it was common on only the most significant occasions, hindered by strict requirements for prior fasting and confession. By the 15th century, the abbreviated Communion chant primarily accompanied the communion of the

Beatus servus is one of the most frequently used plainsongs in the core repertory of 8th century plainsong, and like many Communion chants it draws its text from the Gospels – in this case, Matthew 24:46-47. Like the Offertory, the first person text references a blessed, but unnamed, servant of God; in the context of this memorial Mass for Donaas de Moor, that servant, described as watching and waiting for the Lord, seems to reference Donaas himself, now awaiting the Day of Judgment.

The melody is neumatic, with a range of a 9th. Its modal character is most unusual, and was much discussed by medieval theorists from the 11th through the 14th centuries. It begins unequivocally in Mode 3, the Phrygian mode, with its distinctive semitone step above the tonic, but the internal phrases of the melody, with their internal cadences on the seventh scale degree, employ the raised second scale degree of the mode; the final phrase then reasserts the lowered second scale degree. Were the melody to be notated using the normal Mode 3 scale based on E, the internal phrases would therefore require the use of the pitch F#, an impossibility in the conceptual framework of medieval modal theory whose gamut included only b-flat as a non-diatonic pitch. The prevailing solution, evident in the version preserved in the Sint-Donaas gradual, is to transpose the melody to begin not on E but on A, thereby accommodating the presence of both the lowered (b-flat) and the raised (b) second scale degree. If you click on the link below, you will see that the manuscript source thus indicates a b-flat signature at the beginning of the chant, but the flat signature disappears in the third and fourth lines, and is only introduced again at the close of the melody.

Anna DeLoi with M. Jennifer Bloxam

To learn more about Communion chants, see:
McKinnon, James W. 2001 “Communion.” Grove Music Online. 1 Aug. 2018.
Atkinson, Charles M. The Critical Nexus: Tone-System, Mode, and Notation in Early Medieval Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. See in particular pp. 163-67, 234-37, 242-44, 252-58.
Hiley, David. Western Plainchant: A Handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. See in particular pp. 116-20
Jungmann, Joseph A. The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, Vol. 2. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1955. See in particular pp. 343-400

View the original manuscript