Friday, January 21, 2011

Composers and the Catholic Inspiration

I write as a musician, but one who has never had an original melody be generated from within. A song is always on my heart but it is always someone else’s song. I can’t think of a song myself. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. The patterns of notes and the shape of the sound of something original and new are not part of my internal wiring. I don’t know why. It is just the way it is. All songs that I know already exist.

So I can only marvel at other musicians who think of new phrases, melodies, and while compositions seemingly out of thin air. They hear them in their head, new things that didn’t previously exist, and then they feel this burning passion to put them on paper and give them to the world.

How marvelous is that?

Just as some people have a “sense of direction,” some are good at math and others at reading, some people are drawn to detailed work like accounting and others like to run and jump in a sport, so it is with music. Even great musicians are not necessarily good composers, not matter how much training they . The capacity for conjuring up a melody is something very special. It surely must be some kind of gift from God. I don’t know how else to explain it.

How did Haydn dream up so many fantastic melodies that seem like real objects with three dimensions? Or consider Schubert’s songs, each of which seem to preexist when you hear them, as if the singer is revealing something that has always been there but you only now see. Where did Brahms get the structure of his melodies that he are already developing beyond themselves even after the first notes?

The process surely involves the intellect but not mainly. To dream up a beautiful melody or something as complex as a piece of polyphony and make it real mainly involves what is called the imagination. But it is an imagination of a particular sort, directed toward a particular end.

My father had this gift too. He wrote all kinds of songs, but he had a special passion for hymns. Some ten years after he died I was in a Baptist Church in Texas and the entire congregation sang one of his hymns at the conclusion of a service. Not one person who sang who knew or knew who he was, and hardly anyone even noticed the name of the composer. And yet there was evidence of the mark that my father left on the world, right there in the context of a community’s worship experience. To me, this is a very impressive legacy.

I think too of the thousands of composers of what is now called Gregorian chant. It is nearly always the case that once I get to know a particular chant really well, I find myself marveling at the melody that’s been created and how it is so beautifully crafted to not only serve up the text but also provide additional enhancements.

Look no further than two weeks ago when we sang Omnes qui, in which the high and low jumps seem to me to so beautifully characterize baptismal waters. Or consider the Omnis Terra introit from last Sunday, which offers such a pretty and expansive melody just as we are singing about singing. And two weeks from now, we experience something similar with Bonum est, in which we are offered during offertory the chance to “sing in honor of your name” with a steady stream of high notes that become more elaborate with each phrase.

If we think of music that has “stood the test of time,” these chants are the archetype. They sound as fresh and thrilling more than one thousand years, and perhaps much longer, after they first made an appearance. There is genius behind this. And the genius is not only due to its longevity but also the inspiration that the chant has provided for others. Countless composers in our history have drawn from the art of chant to influence their own creations, and the Church has always encouraged this.

I’m a consumer rather than a producer when it comes to new music, so I’m especially impressed at the floods of composition that seem to be appearing in the sacred music tradition. One wonders if we are in fact entering into a new Renaissance of Catholic composition today.

Jeffrey Ostrowski, a musician in Texas, woke up only last week with a new gloria in his head, one based on the new text that will become part of our liturgical experience beginning in Advent. He thought of this beautiful melody, wrote it up very quickly, and, thanks to technology, was able to post it later that day.

The structure is plainsong, just like Gregorian chant, but the melody is crafted to make the English especially beautiful. But because it avoids a strict metric, it has a floating and prayerful quality to it. It is in a major key but dances around the third of the tonic, and here it also ends with a strong suggestion that there is much more coming during the liturgy.

The responses to his posting were exuberant. “Very well done!” “It's a smooth, naturally flowing, interesting melody, well suited to the voice, and accompanied by a rich sort of contemporary harmony on the organ - yet it achieves a sense of continuity with the historical treasure of Church music.” “Absolutely beautiful. i just want to listen to it over and over and over.”

The next day, a cathedral musician was giving a workshop to priests and musicians and he made 150 copies of this Gloria and passed it out to everyone. They all sang it together and loved it. The experience of this composition, from the imagination to the singing in workshops, occcurred in less than 24 hours, revealing how the most modern technology has given flight to the most ancient of arts.

And this is only the beginning. Adam Bartlett has an entire book of propers on the way. Richard Rice has composed a Mass setting. Jacob Bancks of Chicago composed a Mass and is giving it away free online. Kevin Allen’s polyphonic music in Latin is being published and distributed at long last. Chabanel Psalms is offered 5 or 6 Psalm options per week for free download.

The new Missal text seems to codify a new seriousness about liturgical life. This means that serious musicians in the Catholic world are being drawn back into applying their gift to making our liturgical life more beautiful. This has been a dream of mine for a very long time, for it is obvious to music historians that most great musicians essentially stopped looking to the Mass as a vessel for their talents sometime in the 1960s. Those who stuck around were burned and burned again by constantly changing texts and fashions. We lost so much in these years.

But these are new times, and technology makes instantaneous sharing with the entire Catholic world a real possibility. The developments in this area are going to be proceeding at a breakneck pace in the years ahead. If we look at the new Missal chants as a foundation and build from them, we can get a fresh start with serious sacred music and look forward to the day when the Catholic Church leads the world in the creation of serious art.

God gives people gifts for a reason and the gift of the talent for composition is one particularly close to my heart, even though I do not possess it, or perhaps especially because I do not possess it. It is a glorious thing to experience the creation of something both new and beautiful, and even more so when that something is offered up as praise to God.