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Music in The Harrowing of Hell

Much of the music used in the production of the Harrowing is derived from the Liber Usualis. This book, compiled by the monks of the Abbey of Solesmes, contains the most commonly used Gregorian chants sung in the Catholic Church since at least the sixth century. The complexity of the plainsong reflects the relative importance of the characters. At the beginning of the play only Christ sings. His Latin words, as he challenges Satan and hell, are based on the antiphon which precedes Psalm 23 (Authorised Version Psalm 24), on which the dialogue with Satan is based, in the Holy Saturday liturgy, ‘Elevamini, portae aeternales, et introibit Rex gloriae’ (Liber p. 723, Antiphon 5a, ‘Be lifted up, you everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in’).

The subsequent play is supported by eight comments by the Narrator, all set to the same psalm chant, the fifth tone with the first ending. This rather simple plainsong serves to identify the Narrator as a lesser, but unifying, character in the play.

Three plainsong hymns are sung by the Ancient Righteous led by Abraham. The melody of Pange lingua gloriosi  proelium certaminis (‘Sing my tongue the glorious battle’) is sung as the souls are released from hell. This is fitting here, since the Latin hymn was used in the adoration of the cross in the Good Friday liturgy and hence represents the souls’ longing to escape from hell. The second hymn, Conditor alme siderum (‘Creator of the stars of night’), was sung during Advent and similarly anticipates the souls’ reunion with Christ, (Liber p.324). The final processional hymn, Vexilla Regis prodeunt (‘The royal banners forward go’), takes the whole cast as the ‘army of Christ’ towards the altar.

The two major mortal characters are Adam and Eve and consequently their music is more lyrical. Adam’s song before his chains are struck off begs for pity for his crimes in lines based on Psalm 73, and is represented by an introit based on the same verses (Liber p. 1032, Introit 7). His song of blessing after his release from his chains is, appropriately, drawn from music of an Alleluia for Easter Monday (Liber p. 784, Antiphon 8).

However, it is Eve’s songs which are represented by the most complex pieces of plainsong. Eve’s first lament is based on the hymn, Ave maris stella (‘Hail, star of the sea’, Liber p. 1259). Her second song, ‘I call on you now, Lord, for your handmaid Saint Mary’s sake’ is sung to the music of the great hymn to Mary, the Salve Regina (‘Hail, queen, mother of mercy’, Liber p. 276, Antiphon 1).

Music notes by Angela Robley.