Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Two Compositions by Normand Gouin

Norm Gouin is the Music Director at Old St. Joseph's Church, a thriving parish in Old City, Philadelphia, where, in an alley hidden from conspicuous view, Catholics first cautiously put down roots amidst a less-than-welcoming atmosphere.



I would like to discuss two of Gouin's pieces, which were commissioned by Dr. John Romeri, Director of Music at the Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul, and which I got to know while working under Gouin this past spring.

Having spent a good deal of time as a musician in monastic settings, Gouin takes an approach that is steeped in Gregorian chant. Steeped, but not buried. This is most clear in his composition Christ Has Become Our Paschal Sacrifice, an adaptation of Pascha nostrum, the Communion antiphon for Easter Sunday, with verses. This piece is part of a set of Communion antiphons for the Easter season which is meant to complement similar antiphons for Advent and Lent that were previously composed by James Biery for the Morning Star Cathedral Series. It has a gentle persistence which comes from a consistent employment of rhythmical groupings of twos and threes just like in the rhythm of chant. The composer maintains this approach not only in the antiphon, which is a tuneful adaptation of the Gregorian melody, but also in the originally-composed verses.

All the same, this composition is not a mere genuflection to history. Rather, it is a synthesis of styles into an individual approach. Gouin employs close harmonies reminiscent of Maurice Durufle and other 20th century composers. Some of the melodic writing in the verses is slightly angular, too, which stands in relief to the mostly stepwise antiphon. This is not the most obvious contrast, but a little bit of subtlety these days is welcome.

As much as this piece explores relatively modern approaches, it is decidedly practical. Most of the verses, which are sung by the choir, are in unison. The linear writing, while sometimes tricky, hardly makes for an impossible task, and the few verses of harmony can be mastered with a little extra rehearsal time. The ambitious are encouraged to make use of the soprano descant included in the last three antiphons which is set to the Latin text of this piece. Most importantly, perhaps, the antiphon can be learned quickly by a reasonably intelligent congregation, and yet, in my experience, this piece, which runs pretty long, never gets tiresome. My understanding is that it will soon be available through Morning Star.



Whatever one may ultimately think of the new translation of the Roman Missal, it has perhaps encouraged new compositions of the Mass which might not otherwise have happened. Many of these are distinct improvements over much of what was out there before. One of these works is Gouin's Mass of Ss. Peter and Paul (the title of the local cathedral).  A portion of this Mass was heard at the installation last summer of Archbishop Charles Chaput. Written for choir, cantor, congregation, and organ with optional brass and timpani, this piece is judiciously constructed so that a sturdy rendering can be given even by modest forces.

The Kyrie is based on the chant from Mass XVI and is set in both Latin and English; the conductor can choose which version to use. Looking at these two versions side-by-side, it's interesting to note how the ictus placement changes with language. Each section of the English version begins on a downbeat, but in the Latin setting, all the phrases begin on an upbeat. Yet the Latin version doesn't include eighth rests which might make the inherent rhythm more apparent. At the risk of appearing pedantic, I might suggest a little bit of revision, which may also impact the accompaniment, to accommodate this. I'm also curious about the absence of the horizontal episemas which this chant usually has, although there could be good reason for this, for all I know. None of this is to say that the chant should be slavishly copied; in fact it seems wise to me that Gouin does not make use of the last Kyrie of this Mass, which always ends in disaster, as the final melisma takes people by surprise. My small reservations aside, this is a delightful movement with tasteful harmonizations for choir and organ.

Gouin does an admirable job of smoothing over the clunky new English translation of the Gloria, particularly the first few lines, which don't exactly lend themselves to musical composition. A moderate tempo is key to the success of this movement, lest certain parts farther on end up sounding rushed. The middle of this piece modulates to g minor, a welcome technique of variation which is often overlooked in congregational music. I don't know how frequently Glorias are being composed with refrains these days---If I recall correctly this approach is supposed to be avoided---but one of the virtues of this work, to my mind, is that it is through-composed without being perfunctory. Anyone who has attempted to write a piece like this knows that this is harder to pull off than it seems.

The Holy, Holy is marked "With majesty," which makes for a fun way to sing the sweeping melodies that Gouin comes up with. This movement is one of several in which the flat seventh is employed---a small piece of harmonic variation which doesn't outstrip the capabilities of the average ear. Three Memorial Acclamations are provided: We Proclaim Your Death, which is stylistically similar to the Gloria and Sanctus; as well as When We Eat This Bread and Save Us, Savior, both of which, are, as far as I can tell, chant-like original melodies very much stylistically akin to the Kyrie and Agnus Dei.

Like the Kyrie, the Agnus Dei is set both in English and Latin. A setting of the melody from Mass XVIII, this movement may well be the best of the entire Mass. This is where Gouin's skill comes out: he takes a melody that has been thoroughly trodden and refreshes it with new harmonies and an organ accompaniment that includes a lovely prelude and a tag at the end.

As a music director, few things fill me with dread quite as much as having to teach a congregation a new Mass setting. Pastors complain if the people aren't raising the roof within two weeks, and the people complain because they'd rather just sing something they already know. Such undertakings only seem worthwhile if the new material is to last for a long time. In Normand Gouin's Mass of Ss. Peter and Paul, one will find music that is within the grasp of the congregation and sturdy enough to serve a parish for years to come. What is more, it is almost guaranteed to be an improvement over existing repertoire. Also a part of the Cathedral Series, it can be found here.



Norm Gouin's music, in its synthesis of traditio and tradere, is a model worthy of study, to encourage us to embrace the best of the new and the old. It proves that, for those with the courage to lay aside less-than-helpful terminology that creates false dichotomies, there are creative ways to make art in modern times while still standing firm on what has been passed on to us. For this reason, and many others, I look forward to learning more of this composer's work.