The word “Gradual” comes from the Latin word gradus, meaning “step” and referring to one of the higher steps of the ambo from which the subdeacon delivered the Epistle that precedes this chant, and where the soloist charged with beginning this chant usually stood. Graduals thus function as a musical response to the Epistle reading; in this Mass for St Donatian, the Epistle extols a great priest, and the text of this Gradual, drawn from Psalm 20:4-5, continues his praise.
Like the Introit, the Gradual is a Proper chant of the Mass whose text and melody varied according to the feast day. Then as now, this particular plainsong was sung within Masses honoring saints categorized as “confessor bishops,” a category to which St. Donatian belonged. And like the Introit for this category of feast, this Gradual text does not name the specific saint whose feast it is.
Domine prevenisti belongs to the core repertory of Graduals created in Rome during the 8th century and, like all Graduals, is an ornately melismatic responsorial chant. The opening section, called the “respond” and usually drawn from the Psalms, begins with a soloistic intonatio and choral continuation, after which the psalm “verse” is delivered by the soloist. A return to the respond, sung by the choir, brings the chant to a close.
Domine prevenisti explores the rare Mode 4, the Phrygian mode with the final on E but whose ambitus extends both well above and below the final. This melody reaches a seventh above the final (d’) and dips to the filth below (A), encompassing a total range of an eleventh.
This Gradual is sung according to the version preserved in the Sim-Donaas Gradual, a 15th-century manuscript of chants for the Mass made for the church of Sim-Donaas in Bruges. Click below to see the original manuscript.
To learn more about Gradual chants, see:
McKinnon, James W. 2001 “Gradual (i).” Grove Music Online. 17 Jul. 2018. www.grovemusiconline.com
Hiley, David. Western Plainchant: a Handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1993. See in particular pp. 76-82.