Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Looking for Accessible English Polyphony? Check Out English Motets for the Church Year

Every choir director knows the problem. You have a number of people of good will but they are not music majors or professional singers. They need to hear their part many times before they get it. And there isn't a lot of practice time available. Yet there is a great desire for beautiful music to elevate and dignify the liturgy. We love to sing chant, of course, but we also want to bring in the polyphony, in the spirit of the old masters. What do we do?

There's more than one way to solve this dilemma. For example, an organist can discreetly accompany polyphony on the organ; perhaps only the sopranos and altos will sing their parts, but the organ will play everything. Another solution is to find more easily accessible three- and four-part compositions. There are many warhorses in this regard, some of which favor homophony but break out occasionally into polyphony. Examples of this type include Tye's "Laudate Nomen Domini," Hassler's "Dixit Maria," and Tallis's "If ye love me."

But Heath Morber has added a new tool to the arsenal. He has already enriched the choral repertoire with his book Bread from Heaven (reviewed here) and now he is back with another wonderful collection of two- and three-part music, English Motets for the Church Year: Choral Works Adapted from the Renaissance Masters.

The concept is simple: Morber has carefully sifted through a vast array of Latin motets and Mass ordinaries, has chosen sections where the composers themselves thin their texture down to two or three voices, and then has carefully adapted the melodic lines to English texts. He subtly modifies the rhythms and cadences to reflect the character of the English language itself, and provides multiple versions of the motets for different voice ranges. As an experienced choir director, Morber knows what you need: since the refrains are relatively short in duration, he provides psalm verses to sing in between repetitions. The result is a balanced and beautiful whole.

I can certainly vouch that parish and chapel choirs would greatly benefit from adding pieces of this book to their repertoire, especially when trying to prepare for Masses week after week. Indeed, I can think of about ten thousand parishes in the United States that would instantly experience musical elevation and edification if only they could stretch their horizons and, acknowledging that something is missing, insert some Renaissance polyphony. And, while I know Morber would say "bring on Latin if you can," he also knows that not every place or every situation is ready for this venerable tongue. There is certainly a dire need for good English-language music, as well, and in many situations one can imagine this book scoring a tremendous success where a more uncompromising insistence on the original language would raise hackles or draw too much attention to itself.

The music is superb; the texts are from Sacred Scripture; the entire project is in perfect accord with Sacrosanctum Concilium's call for good, holy, and edifying sacred music. Thank you, Heath, for editing another winner.

A full table of contents may be viewed at this site.

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