Friday, April 25, 2008

A lost piece of Mexican Polyphony

Here you see the Introit for Septuagesima in the extraordinary form, which is the text for the Office of the Dead and, I think, appears in the ordinary form on Saturday in the fourth week of Lent. The translation is: "The sorrows of death surrounded me, the sorrow of hell encompassed me: and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice from His holy Temple."

Why talk about this during Easter? Well, last night at our schola practice, we enjoyed the incredible pleasure of reading through a setting of this text by Mexican composer Hernando Franco (1532-1585) who worked as a cathedral musician in Guatemala and Mexico. No it is not published, yet anyway, not until June. A Spanish scholar named Javier Marín, specialist in Mexican polyphony, has gone through newly discovered folios on Franco's music and produced a draft of a motet on this text from original manuscripts. He submitted it to Sacred Music. We had it reset for publication in the Summer issue and it will be "debuted" at the colloquium.

One of the pleasures that comes with being in an editorial position with the magazine is that I get to see these things in advance of publication, and so I figured, oh why not sing it? I oddly felt selfish in doing so, but I'm not sure why. Maybe because no one else has the opportunity? I don't know. In any case, we passed it out and read through it. My goodness, this music is so indescribably great. After the first read, we were all swooning at how sweetly tragic it is, and also, from a musical point of view, how inevitable the whole thing feels. We ended up singing it four times through, and we might record it soon too.

I don't know enough about composition theory to say whether it is brilliantly simple or simply formulaic, but whatever it is, it sure does hold up after 500 years. It is as fresh and glorious as if it just appeared -- which it did in some way. Of course the feeling of being the first to hear a particular combination of notes that form sacred music in 500 years is a special treat, and probably only happens once in a lifetime for those of us who are not musicologists.

Singing this piece really underscores what it means for music to be universal. It is truly universal in the sense that it transcends not only space but time too. It contains not the slightest hint of ego, no tricks to show off technique or passages designed to conjured up some popular idea in the culture. The link to the chant is obvious. The composer has served only God in his work here.

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