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    The Immortality of the Misa Pastorela Bicolana

    You will permit me to postpone the conclusion to my previous article on Church-State relations in the Philippines in order to make way for this short column on an underrated Albayano cultural patrimony. With the beginning of the Misas de Aguinaldo, both at dawn (Misa de Gallo on 16 December) and at nighttime (Simbang Gabi on 15 December), choristers and faithful in Albay are again awakened by the somberly festive melodies of the Misa Pastorela Bicolana composed by the late Wilfreda Raquid, music professor and liturgical composer. Raquid composed her pastorela sometime in the early 1970s when the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) were being implemented in the Diocese of Legazpi, then under the tutelage of the dynamic translator and poet Teotimo Pacis, CM (1969-1980). “Filipino liturgical music” was defining itself during this period, with the Tagalogs having Eduardo Hontiveros, SJ and the Cebuanos, Rodolfo Villanueva. It was in the Diocese of Legazpi that the Bicolano translations of liturgical and biblical texts emerged, growing together with liturgical music under the magisterial batons of Raquid and Everardo Nery Napay, among others.

    Although “Filipino” in every sense of the term, it must be categorically accepted that liturgical music in the Philippines after Vatican II is saturated with Hispanic influence. The pastorela itself evolved from being songs of the troubadours (the French pastourelle) of the medieval period to a Christmas re-enactment of the shepherd’s search for the Christ child in Spain and colonial Mexico (the equivalent is our local pastores). In Spain and its territories, the musical settings used for Masses of Christmas became known as the Misa Pastorela, finding its way to the Philippines through the Spanish clergy. As a matter of fact, even before the Vatican II, liturgical music in the Philippines was already inculturated, albeit in Spanish terms which Filipinos themselves assimilated and localised.

    Raquid’s Misa Pastorela is comprised of the following: Kagurangnan, Maherak Ka (Kyrie), Pag-omawon (Gloria), Minatubod (Credo), Banal (Sanctus), and Cordero nin Dios (Agnus Dei). As with all pastorelas and villancicos, Raquid’s is in 6/8 time (other composers would do it in 3/4 time). What makes the composition unique and interesting is the use of the C minor scale for a supposedly joyful Christmas theme. The haunting melody of the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei reflects the vogue in Bicolano folk music which belongs to the greater Filipino musical form, the lowland kundiman; the emblematic songs of Bicol (Sarung Banggi, Si Nanay, Si Tatay, Ano Daw Idtong sa Gogon) all employ the minor scale. The theme however modulates to C major, then A minor, and finally A major in the Gloria.

    In itself the Misa Pastorela of Raquid is a mouthful: congregations are often confused when to stop or prolong notes, and choristers and their snotty choir masters dispute on the interpretation of the notation (if Raquid’s original was actually even consulted!). The version in Joroan, for example, can never be replicated in Albay Cathedral, nor can it be sung exactly in Ligao. Moreover, the range in which the Mass was written is way beyond the common range of the regular mass-goer: at one point, everyone must breathe deeply and heavily to reach that second-octave mi flat in the Kyrie. As Raquid was introducing the Misa Pastorela to her music class at Bicol University, one of her erstwhile students, Ramon Manjares (this anecdote is from him), complained: “this is too difficult to sing!” to which the sagacious teacher replied commandingly, “just sing!” (kantaha sana!).

    The Misa Pastorela Bicolana can never be sung perfectly as Raquid had written it, but its enduring and endearing presence in the Bicol liturgy, at least in the Diocese of Legazpi, is a testament to its immortality. Yes it is difficult to sing, but whenever the Misas de Aguinaldo commence, her work remains indispensable. The unfortunate revision of the Bicol Missal in 2008 which overhauled the creativity and ontological homogeneity of the first translation made by Pacis did not kill the popularity of Raquid’s pastorela; instead, it was adapted to the new translation, though it became more mouthful than before. Be that as it may, whichever translation will be used, the melody remains. Christmas in Albay is never complete without the Misa Pastorela. In fact, more than all the gimmicks and glamour that politicians and priests do for the holidays, it is the unassuming but heartfelt pastorela that helps draw the faithful to the manger.

    Gracious as Mary yet firm as Joseph, humble like the shepherds but triumphant like the angels, Raquid’s pastorela encapsulates feelings and emotions that weave the distant past of the Saviour’s nativity with the present existential questions of the faithful on Christmas midnight. Only music of the highest quality can accomplish this. Only songs of Divine inspiration can be timeless.

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