New Compositions Website

At the colloquium in 2008 in Chicago, I showed a sketch of a Gloria to Kevin Allen one afternoon. It was incomplete, but I wanted to get some feedback from him.

“Well, it’s basically done,” he said. “Finish it before the comp reading on Saturday. What are you waiting for?”

Awhile later I was out in front of the chapel feverishly scribbling onto the score. Wilko Brouwers walked up to me, and after I told him what I was up to, and how I was behind schedule because of my obsessive self-doubting, he said, “You spend too much time behind bars.”

That powerful phrase stuck with me, but I was still behind those bars until June of 2012, when a former boss of mine died suddenly. I told Kile Smith that I was thinking of writing a composition in my boss’s memory.

“But I don’t know what it is with me and composition. I can’t just write things down that I hear in my head, and I don’t wanna be a finger composer.”

Kile seemed perplexed by that comment.

“Who says you can’t be a finger composer?”

And then he stuck out one index finger, and then the other, like the way my uncle used to play chopsticks on our piano.

“I’ve been composing like this my whole life.”

After this little pep talk, and another with a friend of mine about the importance of carving out the time to be creative, I’ve finally hit my stride and finished more than a dozen pieces in the past six months or so. It has been a true joy.

I’ve decided to self-publish, and a number of my works are already up at my new site. Not everything will be sacred, although right now that’s all I’ve got up there. Add me to your bookmarks, etc, to stay up to date with new additions, and please check back frequently for technological improvements, which will be made as they become feasible.

Music for St. James: Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles

Joby Talbot is one of many rising composers in 21st century England, but he is perhaps distinguished from the rest by an uncommon versatility. Having written music in a variety of styles, including pop, for films, orchestra, chorus, and dance, he is a living reproof of the old adage that the jack of all trades is the master of none.


I came to know Talbot’s music by hearing his Path of Miracles, which was commissioned by Tenebrae under the direction of Nigel Short. Written for a cappella chorus, it tells the story of the pilgrims who made their way to Santiago de Compostella, using texts from the Codex Callistinus, other Galician texts, and the work of Robert Dickinson. The work offers something of a rapprochement between modernism and traditionalism, making tuneful melodies but also using the singers for instrumental sound effects, along with minimalist developmental techniques at the micro level while the piece has definite formal direction. Talbot leaves no one in the dark about where the climax of the piece is, and it’s a thrilling moment when Jacobsland comes into view.

The libretto makes use of several languages and includes a particularly interesting phrase, Eultreya esuseya, which for all intents and purposes is untranslatable. Eultreya in modern Spanish means “persevere,” but as for esuseya, scholars are left wondering as to its meaning. Notes that I have from a performance by The Crossing indicate that this second word may refer to God. It seems safe to say that this is a slogan of encouragement, one that I often think of during a long run.

This piece is best heard with the video presentation that goes along with it. Like all curmudgeons, I generally eschew multimedia presentations, but this one is worth it. At the very least, you’ll want to get your hands on the text in order to fully understand the piece.

I don’t know if Joby Talbot has written any sacred music, strictly speaking, but it would be thrilling to find out that he has written a Mass, or even a motet or anthem, that sounds like this. It might offer an interesting moment of agreement between people of widely divergent musical inclinations.

The Changing Moods in the Chants for Palm Sunday

I have to admit that Palm Sunday isn’t exactly my favorite day of the year. There’s just so much that can go irreparably wrong. I’m lucky that I now work in places where this liturgy is well organized, so the circus-like atmosphere is minimized, but learned reactions are hard to undo, so I’m a grump.
In spite of my cantankerousness, though, there is one thing about it that always gets to me, one of those moments of art that batters my heart whether I want it to or not. It concerns the transition from the procession to the Mass itself.

This liturgy, as we all know, begins with fireworks, with the chant Hosanna filio David. Then there are upbeat narratives such as Pueri Hebraeorumthat eventually give way to the unbounded praise of Gloria, Laus, et Honor. The choir and congregation take the part of crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. Then, as the procession enters the church, or comes to a close, the schola chants Ingrediente Domino, another narrative, but one of a more subdued musical character. It’s as if the music is leading us down the mountain, into Jerusalem and into the Passion narrative.

Ultimately, though, the Introit finishes off this process, taking us from red to purple hues. “Oh Lord, remove not thy help to a distance from me…deliver me from the lion’s mouth.” The hushed beginnings of this mode 8 melody have something of desperate urgency in them which ultimately crescendos into begging. Earlier the congregation and schola sang the words of the narrator and the crowds, but whose words are these in the Introit? There is something of Gethsemane in them, as if they are meant to be the words of Jesus himself. It’s a powerful effect and yet a smooth transition from the pomp that preceded it to the Passion that is to follow. Start at 1:31:00 in the following video to hear both Ingrediente and the Introit:

Anyone who thinks that all Gregorian chant is relatively monotonous ought to study this succession of antiphons for Palm Sunday in order to test their theory. I always know this transition is coming, but I can never get through the first line of Domine, ne longe without a quiver moving up my back and meeting the lump in my throat. And then I realize it’s probably not such a good idea to be grumpy about complicated liturgies after all. 

Latin American Sacred Music: An Overview

At the mere mention of Latin American music, most wouldn’t think of the “classical” music [1] that has been written there starting in the late Renaissance. Many may only think of mariachi bands, the tango, and other rightly well-liked indigenous music, but such a constricted view gives short shrift to the breadth and depth of this great culture. Some dismiss this polyphonic tradition, which was brought to the New World from Europe, as being the “music of the conqueror,” but this raises some rather inconvenient questions. Does this mindset make Catholicism the “religion of the conqueror,” therefore to be ignored? In other cases, the inroads of Evangelicalism in the Global South have convinced some to lay aside the Western Tradition in favor of more populist models in Catholic worship, and it wouldn’t be surprising if American political interference in the 1970’s and 80’s [2] made an impact in this respect, too. Nevertheless, even through the 20th century and today, music in the European mold continues to be made in Latin America, although, like all good music, it is not merely a copy of antecedents but has its own distinguishing characteristics.
Now that the College of Cardinals has elected the first pope from Latin America, it would seem to be a good time to delve into some of this music, particularly since Pope Francis’s namesake loved music, and, as was noted here earlier this week, the order he founded has contributed much to the practice of Gregorian chant.
It seems uncertain whether or not this music has stirred up a whole lot of interest among performing ensembles, and this is too bad. Much of it deserves worldwide recognition and can stand alongside many of the greatest works of the so-called Western Canon. Here are only some composers among many that might be considered.
Hernando Franco (1532-1585):
Franco was born in the Old World and immigrated to New Spain most likely in the 1550’s, starting out in Guatemala before taking the position of Maestro di Cappella at the cathedral in Mexico City, where he is buried.
Franco’s style is lucid and simple and more closely resembles that of Palestrina than that of his fellow Spaniards such as Tomas Luis de Victoria, who may also have studied with Franco’s teacher, Gerónimo de Espinar. His music is also easier than that of his contemporaries, perhaps because of the choristers with whom he was working. Twenty motets survive, but interestingly, no Masses; there are also a number of Magnificat settings which some say were influenced by Cristobal de Morales of Spain.
Franco’s Circumdederunt me was sung at the Requiem Mass at the 2008 CMAA Colloquium in Chicago. Jeffrey Tucker wouldn’t stop talking about it. It’s an odd piece in that the text is so morbid and yet the music is ecstatic. I could never understand this, but a colleague of mine helped me figure this out unwittingly one night at dinner. A cancer patient, he has no idea how long he has to live. “Maybe death is exhilarating!” he mused, his eyes glowing almost with anticipation. I think that’s what this piece is about, the exhilaration of death. Just before he died, Steve Jobs stared off into the distance and gasped, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” [3] Maybe that’s what Franco was saying with this piece. Surely it’s one of his finest.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959):
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Heitor Villa-Lobos was somewhat self-taught, eschewing formal study just as European music was losing its dominant grip on Brazilian culture in the wake of social upheaval. He learned to play guitar, cello, and clarinet, and in the early 20th century studied the indigenous music of his culture. He played in everything from street bands to the opera orchestra, and while his music did owe a lot to European influences, most of it nonetheless favored the native approaches of Brazil.
In a certain sense, Villa-Lobos’s music is an excellent example of how successful a synthesis between American and European music can be. It is inculturation at its finest, not a mere pastiche of clashing influences. His Pater noster from 1950 illustrates this well. Though much of it seems indebted to the French, perhaps owing to a visit from Darius Milhaud in 1917, the theme is nonetheless of a folk character, and it’s hard to know if the chromaticism in the second half of the piece is merely an avante garde post-tonal approach or the result of spicier South American flavors.

Gutierrez Fernandez Hidalgo (c.1553-1620):
Hidalgo is considered by Robert Stevenson to be the most important South American composer of the 16th century. Not much is known about his early life, and it seems as if he had as much trouble getting along with church authorities as J.S. Bach or W.A. Mozart. The earliest known event in his life is his arrival in Bogota in 1584, where he took up a post that only lasted a few years before the situation soured. Incidentally, Hidalgo’s only surviving manuscripts are from the Bogota Cathedral, his other works having apparently been lost while en route to Europe to be published. From Bogota, Hidalgo moved south to Quito, where he worked at the seminary and cathedral, again only for a short time, before running along to present-day Sucre, where he was finally able to settle down and occupy a position until his death in 1620.
CPDL has published Hidalgo’s Magnificat Quarti Toni, which is easily within the grasp even of many small ensembles, the voice distribution of the choir being mercifully simple. Here, also, is his Salve Regina:

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983):
It’s only fitting that we should end up in Buenos Aires, where Ginastera was born in 1916 and received his early musical training. He studied with Aaron Copland for a while before returning to Buenos Aires to found the League of Composers. In 1968 he moved to the US once again, and then went to Europe in 1970, and died in Geneva in 1983.
Ginastera’s work is diced up into three periods: Objective Nationalism (1934-48), Subjective Nationalism (1948-58), and neo-Expressionism (1958-83). Written in 1947, his Villancico, Toccata, and Fugue dates from the first of these phases and makes use of indigenous rhythms and forms, while using a B-A-C-H theme for the fugue. What’s not to love about a piece like that?

Ginastera also composed a gigantic setting of Psalm 150 for chorus and orchestra, which I highly recommend for a listen, even if it’s out of bounds for most parish music programs.

Ginastera is only one representative of a great music culture in Argentina. Even the art of organ building has thrived there. At the Buenos Aires cathedral and in many other churches in the country there are fine Walcker organs from the 19th century. Joseph Mansfield has discussed a similar treasure of organs in Oaxaca, Mexico in Sacred Music. [4]
This isn’t the place for a more thoroughgoing investigation of the music of Latin America, but these four composers are figures as good as any to start with. In particular, Villa-Lobos and Ginastera offer not only a model of inculturation but also perhaps some laudable approaches for the creation of new music, music that is not afraid to go its own way but which stands on the shoulders of the giants of the past, in the Old World and the New, nonetheless.

—–

Notes:
1. Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, offers an excellent take on the regrettable nature of the term “classical” music in his book, Listen to This, pp. 3ff.

2. For background consult, among other sources, Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, and Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent.

3. Steve Jobs on Gregorian Chant.

4. Sacred Music, Volume 133, No. 3, p. 14.

The Pedal as Bass Drum

Few subjects invite controversy in organ circles like the topic of hymn playing. I’d almost rather discuss tonal philosophy with someone who came of age in the midst of the Orgelbewegung. Almost. Nonetheless, I will forge ahead and hope I don’t regret it later, since, in my dotage, I don’t have much energy for arguing about insoluble matters of taste.
I often wonder what would happen if organists were coached not in “hymn playing” but in “song playing” or “music playing”. Use any term except hymn playing. It lulls the mind into thinking in a very tightly circumscribed box and promotes obsession with the accidents rather than the substance of style. “How do you register hymns?” and “What’s a good hymn tempo?” are two questions that are symptoms of this mindset. Contingent matters—the tonal design of the organ, the acoustics of the room, the harmonic tempo of the piece, the texture, the words (hello!), etc.—are often not given their due influence. Accordingly, what I recommend below needs to be applied carefully only to situations in which it’s appropriate.
About ten years ago, an experienced organist told me to think of the pedal as the bass drum. One might also compare the pedal to the tympani. He didn’t put any parameters on this, though it seems this technique is best used in pieces with a lively tempo and a broad harmonic rhythm; it is not an approach to be used in Brightest and Best (Morning Star), for instance.
In order to do this right, it’s important to know what not to play. Take, for example, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (Hymn to Joy). This is a hymn that requires vivaciousness, lest it wither on the vine and become Sorrowful, Sorrowful, We Implore Thee. This bass line is ripe for the drum treatment. Generally, I only play every other note, so that the bass line, for most of each phrase, is in a quarter note, quarter rest pattern. Toward the ends of phrases, I add more notes, which is where the tympani effect comes into play. It’s often tempting to try to lend life to a piece, or even maintain the tempo against the lugubrious assaults of the congregation, by playing detached or even choppy, but with this bass technique, one can combine the determination of the pedal with a calmer, more reasonable articulation in the upper voices.

An exercise like this can be a starting point for further experimentation. Every hymn deserves to be taken on its own terms and not suffer from a uniform treatment advocated in one technique book or another. Hymns should be given all the love and consideration of a Chopin Nocturne or a Schubert song. In short, each is a piece of music, and a tasteful interpretation comes out of the music itself, and therefore serves it. I hope this suggestion will be one valuable musical tool out of many.

Music in English at the Latin Mass

Most readers of this site are aware of the requirement that all music sung at a High Mass (1962) must be in Latin, unless it’s before the Asperges or at the end of Mass. I am at peace with the idea of a sacred language—-much like Hebrew was a sacred language used in the Temple but not on the street in the time of Christ. Latin has a place as the sacred language of Catholicism, and I’m not arguing against that.

All the same, it strikes me as regrettable that language limitations also take a large chunk of really good music off the table for the Latin Mass. Perhaps some day, when liturgical debates have settled down a bit and a compromise might seem fruitful, there could be a rule that all the Ordinary and Proper must be in Latin but that extra motets can be in any language. It’s just a thought. The sermon can be in any language, as well as parts of the marriage ritual and various and sundry announcements about this week’s bingo game.  What’s the harm in a motet?
Until that occurs, though, one is left with only a few possibilities. I’ve resorted to two for the few motets in English that we do. A few times a year, instead of doing a hymn, we’ll sing a motet or anthem in its place. Every Advent IV we end the Mass with Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come. In Lent, we’ve done Lord for Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake, written either by Richard Farrant or John Hilton, depending on who you believe. 
We’re also lucky to have a Latinist in our schola who’s given us another option: translating a composition from English into Latin. He has done this with Herbert Howells’s motet Here is the Little Door. This took hours of preparation and likely strikes a lot of people as going way over the top, but I have to say it was worth the effort. We’ll be singing it on Epiphany.
I can already hear the objections. What!? All that great Latin polyphony and you want to do English??? Well, for one thing, we only have four, possibly five, parts to work with. I think some people would be surprised at how much repertoire that takes away. For another thing, a lot of this English stuff is really good music, work that deserves to be heard. Much of it is modern but melodious and demonstrates that good accessible music can be had without pandering to the lowest common denominator of taste. Harold Friedell’s Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether comes to mind.
But a lot of this music is Protestant!!! If Tallis and Byrd could pull their little balancing act with Queen Elizabeth, I think we can afford to relax a little. Yes, Cranmer wanted syllabic polyphony so that the words could be more easily understood—presumably motivated by Protestant evangelism—but how is this significantly different than similar demands made by the Council of Trent, which took issue with the florid polyphony of the likes of Josquin? I speak under correction, but I’m not sure stylistic differences between denominations are all they’re cracked up to be. The congregational hymns that Lutherans sing are similar to the ones German Catholics sing. Amusingly, many who don’t want Protestant music in church are perfectly ok with hymns that came from Protestant churches; they evidently don’t know their origin. Then there was the school teacher who approached me one day after we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name and suggested I should be doing more Catholic music. A teachable moment, to be sure. At the same time, I suspect she would have missed the likely unintended American Baptist feel of To Jesus’s Heart All Burning.

Olivier Messiaen and the Language of Love

Reposted from Cantare Amantis Est, which, alas, I long ago abandoned:

“I have waited, waited for the Lord…and he heard my supplication, and he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God.”
One of the most extraordinary pieces in the Gregorian chant repertoire is the Offertory, Expectans, expectavi.  Like many melodies of this idiom, this one changes modes, so that it ends on a different final than one would expect from the clues offered at the beginning.  The uniqueness in this situation comes from the word painting that results from the modulation, as the key changes with the text “a hymn to our God.”  The effect is utterly exhilarating and perhaps an admonition that if we really want God to put a new song into our mouths, we have to be prepared to sing in a new mode, to accept the unexpected.
Such a posture is fitting, even necessary, when approaching the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a French composer who is probably the most important church musician since J.S. Bach, and whose birthday is today.  A devout Catholic, Messiaen’s work represents the apex of musical creativity in the Church in the late 20th century; yet he remains misunderstood by many.  His interest in ornithology (the study of birds), theology, and exotic musical styles give his work a high degree of individualism.  It is nearly impossible to mistake his work for someone else’s.
It has been said by some that Messiaen never intended his organ works to be performed in church.  This seems to be a mirror image of the myth that Luther got all his chorale melodies from the town drunk.  While Messiaen did say that, as an ideal, the only truly religious music is Gregorian chant, he did not rule out the performance of his own music at the liturgy.  In fact, in his conversations with Claude Samuel he admits to keeping his ambitions in the early organ works in check owing to their eventual performance at Mass.  Messiaen’s output encompasses far more than sacred music, but for purposes of this essay, that’s what we’ll focus on.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about Messiaen’s music.  It has been called “dissonant.”  One organ professor who was a fossil from the very late Romantic era called it sour.  A friend told me that it didn’t have any logical structure.  Someone else told me that there is no joy in it, which I must admit certainly requires a tremendous effort at selective listening.  These misunderstandings motivate me to offer this attempt at explaining how this music really works.  In doing this, I’m relying heavily on the work of Claude Samuel and Jon Gillock, who have both given us books that are incredible resources on this musical giant.  Because this is complicated music, I will break it down into some of its more important components and discuss each one in isolation.
Harmony
Messiaen based his compositions on what he called the modes of limited transposition.  These are exotic-sounding scales which make use of unusual relationships between the intervals.  Two examples are the whole-tone scale—a six-note scale in which the intervals are whole steps (C, D, E, F#, G#, A#, C)—and the octatonic scale, in which half and whole steps alternate (C, C#, D#, E, F#, G, A, A#, C).  As the name implies, these scales can only be transposed a limited number of times before running out of new notes, unlike the major scale, for instance, which can be transposed 24 times.
The harmonies that Messiaen employs, however, are not based on these scales the way classical harmonies are based on the diatonic scale, with the tonic chord consisting of the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, for instance.  The harmonies in this case are invented according to the specific sound that Messiaen wanted in a given instance.  He based his decisions on color and timbre, using his synesthesia-like condition to help him make choices.  (Messiaen associated modes and harmonies with colors, which he saw in his mind’s eye as he heard the sounds.  The color complexes which he saw were usually quite intricate.)
Just as the specific sound or timbre of a musical instrument is determined by its particular overtone series, the unique sounds of Messiaen’s music are the result of his “weird” harmonies. The whole sound, therefore, must be listened to in order to hear the effect that Messiaen was after.  Focusing on the “dissonance” of the individual notes would be like listening to Louis Armstrong and picking out the separate overtones of the trumpet.  In this sense, Messiaen’s music needs to be listened to telescopically, from a distance.  Listen with a new paradigm, and think of a kaleidoscope.
Somewhat related to Messiaen’s harmonic system is the use of organ registration.  The organ features a number of stops that play the fundamental tone, the note that is perceived by the listener.  Other stops, however, play various partials—the octave, the twelfth, fifteenth, etc.  Messiaen liked to experiment with registrations which removed the fundamental, hence many of the high-pitched settings that you’ll hear during his music.
Melody
Olivier Messiaen employed many bird songs and Gregorian chant melodies, especially the jubilant Alleluias, in his works, yet much of what he wrote does not contain a melody as such.  This is nothing revolutionary, though.  In all honesty, much of the music of even Palestrina and Victoria contained themes rather than melodies, material developed polyphonically by several equal voices.  This is not exactly Frank Sinatra; such music cannot be jotted down in a fake book.  It is important to remember that Messiaen relies heavily on imagery and the musical manifestation of ideas.  He is communicating, albeit in new and unexpected ways.
Rhythm
Rhythm figures very prominently in Messiaen’s music.  He even anticipated that this aspect of his work would be his most important contribution to future composers.  To him, music is rhythm.
Yet his music doesn’t have that tyrannical thumping sound like club music or a badly played Bach fugue in which all the downbeats are summarily slaughtered.  This comes from Messiaen’s use of devices that do not rely on metrical divisions like much Western music does.  Instead, he uses Greek and Hindu rhythms, the Hindu material being called deci-tales, or regional rhythms.  The Greek rhythms make use of longs and shorts, like a line of Shakespeare.  This might be the system that most closely resembles the rhythms in Gregorian chant, which has a primary, indivisible beat so symbolic of unity, eternity, and divinity.
Messiaen offered some interesting viewpoints on this subject.  He considered Mozart a very rhythmical composer, but neither Bach nor jazz because the rhythms simply droned on with no changes to the fundamental beat.  Even syncopation didn’t impress him.  I myself want to look more into this, particularly his insistence on Mozart’s rhythmic qualities over and above other Western composers, especially in light of Mozart’s generally broad harmonic rhythm.
Form
With Messiaen, we must abandon the Classical forms and their Romantic imitators.  It is often said that all music is about departure and return, but Messiaen’s music seems to be more about leaving a lower plane of existence in favor of a higher one.
I’m reminded of the observation of Richard Weaver (1910-1963), literature professor at the University of Chicago, that artists have used stories not to re-tell the story but as a basis for form.  In Messiaen’s case, a similar principle prevails, though he doesn’t really use chronologies.  Rather, certain ideas around particular events are brought into interaction with each other and made not into stories, but meditations and sometimes even syllogisms.  In his Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a work for chorus and orchestra, Messiaen quotes an entire section of St. Thomas Aquinas!
It seems best to use a concrete example.  Let’s take a look at Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us, 1935, for organ), which is fitting for this time of year.
At the top of the first page, Messiaen posts the text which is the basis for the musical meditation:
[Words of the communicant, of the Virgin, of the whole Church:]  Then the Creator of the universe laid a command upon me; my Creator decreed where I should dwell.  The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.  My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.  (Some of this translation comes from the New English Bible.)
The music begins with the introduction of three themes:
  1. Descending chords followed by a roaring pedal line which represents the descent of the Second Person of the Trinity.
  2. The communion, the theme of love, played on the undulating string and foundation stops of the organ.
  3. The theme of joy, Mary’s Magnificat, which, as Jon Gillock points out, evokes bird song.
After the introduction of these themes, the first and third begin a back and forth dialogue , the theological story line of which seems rather obvious—the Child descending into the Mother’s womb and the Mother rejoicing.  This is followed by an ecstatic development of the Magnificat theme in two-voice counterpoint that dissipates into the heavens.
Now the theme of love returns, in a frantic sort of way, punctuated by descending notes in the pedals.  One person has told me that this represents the busy-ness of Paris, which Messiaen hated, interrupted by the grace of God coming down to mitigate the worldly garishness.  This theme of love culminates in a restatement of the first theme, which, after its descent, is repeated in reverse—in ascending motion.  Gillock wonders if this isn’t a hint at the Ascension, which introduces much opportunity for reflection on the relationship between the Incarnation, the Ascension, and the destiny of man (apologies to Reinhold Niebuhr!), all of which Messiaen may be commenting on in the exuberance of the toccata that follows.
This toccata (at 5:15 in the linked video), according to Messiaen himself, is really where the piece begins.  Everything else that comes before serves as an introduction.  It makes use of the Hindu rhythmcandrakala and the fourth Greek epitrite.  While the hands play sparkling passages, the feet restate the first theme of the piece.  The toccata builds into a whirlwind of activity, until concluding triumphantly so that even the stone pillars of the church rejoice.
Messiaen’s music is difficult to play, but his approach is driven neither by the taste for virtuosity nor musical eggheadedness.   Rather, its genus is in the communication of ideas. He uses his language to talk about God, and therefore his language is not of the concert hall or the academy or the museum piece; it is the language of love.  His faith is at the heart of every note Messiaen ever wrote.  For him, his work was not a means to vainglory, but a vocation, the way in which he was to work out his salvation.  “I am not a saint,” he told Claude Samuel, “but I would have given up all my musical works to be Mother Teresa.”

Visita Quaesumus by William Byrd

It is customary in music to speak of the three B’s—-Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. All of these composers have given us inexhaustible works of art; even so, I would like to propose that we add a fourth to this list: William Byrd. What a group! Move over, Mount Rushmore.

There is so much that makes Byrd a singularly great composer, not the least of which is his melodic and rhythmical agility. There is a lot of both in this gem of a motet, Visita Quaesumus, the Collect for Compline. I have to confess that I haven’t been able to figure out why Byrd wrote this text polyphonically. Presumably it couldn’t be done in liturgical context this way. If there is another place where this text appears, I’m unaware of it. Or perhaps it’s a Sarum thing. 
In any case, I’ve managed to find an appropriate use for it. Given the peculiar challenges of finding motets for the “Green Sundays” of the year, I scour all of the liturgical texts. One can of course make use of a polyphonic proper, but beyond this it can sometimes be difficult to find something specific for the day, which is hardly necessary all the time but desirable nonetheless. When I was planning the music for October, I read the Collect for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (which was today in the 1962 Roman Missal):
O Lord, we beseech Thee to keep Thy household in continual godliness: that through Thy protection it may be free from all adversaries, and devotedly given to serve thee in good works, to the glory of Thy Name. Through our Lord, etc.
I immediately thought of the Visita Quaesumus:
Visit, we beseech Thee, O Lord, this dwelling, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy: let Thy holy Angels dwell herein, to keep us in peace: and let Thy blessing be always upon us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Originally set for soprano, alto, and two tenors, I lowered the piece to F major so that it could be done, with some adjustments, by a standard SATB ensemble. It’s not an easy piece, but it’s worth however much time it takes to put it together. I could envision this text being used not only for this particular Sunday but also when the Gospel story of driving the money changers from the Temple is read, or at the Dedication of a Church or its anniversary, or even at a house blessing, if such things are still done, which would recall the domestic setting in which Byrd’s Catholic works were sung.



I wonder what was going through Byrd’s mind when he wrote this motet. Scholars have commented that his works often had “double meanings” owing to the religious persecution going on in England in his time. If memory serves, Vigilate is given as an example. It seems the text of Visita Quaesumus would also be well-suited for such a treatment, Byrd’s relative legal immunity notwithstanding. 

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.

Kevin Allen’s Missa Rex Genitor

In his Missa Rex Genitor, Kevin Allen uses Renaissance polyphony as a model, but from the inside out rather than from the outside in. This approach is reminiscent of what Arnold Schoenberg says in his book Style and Idea, in which he argues against obsession with the surface impressions of music. Start with a good idea, he says, and the style will take care of itself. Allen has begun with a good idea and developed it in solid but not antiquated ways, and the end result is satisfying and well within a lively tradition that embraces the past and present. In this particular respect his work is more like Reger’s and Rheinberger’s and less like Prokofiev’s First Symphony or any number of the works of Perosi.

As the title suggests, Allen bases this work on Mass VI, Rex Genitor, in the Liber Usualis. In many sections, the polyphony makes use of the original chant melodies, but thankfully more by intimation rather than slavishly accurate transcription, and the harmonies venture off to interesting places without putting the piece out of reach of a group of somewhat respectable skill.  

Allen makes use of plainchant passages throughout the Mass. The Kyrie is set in a straightforward alternatim way, which is an attractive approach. Other movements are not set alternatim as such but have extended chant passages, which this writer has somewhat mixed feelings about. Chanting “cum Sancto Spiritu,” etc, in the Gloria seems to steal the momentum from the energetic passage just before it. This result would seem to be less likely if the chant and polyphony were to alternate more frequently and regularly. Or perhaps polyphony would be preferable all the way through.

In the chant passages of the score, modern notation is used. This is likely due to limitations of music publishing software. Of course, one can easily make use of square note notation from an appropriate resource—an advisable approach, given the expressive neumes which simply don’t convert very well into modern notation.

Written for two tenors and bass, this piece is perfect for a choir of limited resources, or for an occasion on which someone calls out sick. But it is too well-written to be relegated to the stack of music labeled “In Case of Emergency.” A lot of music like this tends to sound glee-clubbish, as some of this reviewer’s own work demonstrates, but the approachability of this particular piece comes not from cheapening the musical content but through the use of chant and judicious repetitions of polyphonic material, particularly in the Kyrie and Agnus Dei. It deserves a regular place in the church music repertoire, the aforementioned peripheral reservations not withstanding.