Monday, April 07, 2008

The magic and mystery of Lully's Liturgical Music

I have zero experience with 17th century French music other than having listened to it for years on recordings. I'm captivated by how completely different it sounds from Italian, German, and English music of the same period. It seems strangely affected to the point that it would be nearly impossible for non-professional singers. The trills, glissandos, and special effects are woven into the very fabric of the music. It strikes me as a job for French professionals -- Lully in particular (Charpentier might be more possible). But this is also one reason it is so endlessly captivating to listen to. As pure art, it is dazzling.

But Lully's Petite Motets on liturgical themes raise another question. Is this music really suitable for liturgy? Much of it seems to stray very far afield from the chant sensibility. I've wondered if it might not be ruled out completely on grounds that Pius X spelled out. In short, is it too showy, too "operatic," too entertainment-driven to be suitable? I'm not sure that there is a final answer to this question but some of the material on the CD of these motets, as directed by William Christie, seems like a stretch in a parish environment. I know that in my own parish, people would be rather puzzled to hear such music at Mass!

Yet I was reading the liner notes to this CD over the weekend, and an interesting fact turned up. This music wasn't composed for a parish or a cathedral, a fact which I should have intuited by the prominence of virtuosic treble solo voices. It was written specifically for convents, which were apparently filled with fabulously talented women looking for challenging music to sing. They sang this material in liturgy that was open for the public. People would come to Mass or Divine Office and the nuns would sing this material in addition to the chants and propers of the Mass.

Now, this puts matters in a different context doesn't it? What might be heard as something suggestive of a secular sense suddenly sounds like the exuberant joy that one associates with episodes in a cloistered life in a convent. To just imagine this context makes the music sound completely different. So keeping this in mind, pieces such as "Omnes Gentes" and "Dixit Dominus" make sense. And the more contemplative pieces such as "Salve Regina" come across like liturgical classics.

I highly recommend this CD to you, then, not only as great art of a world we will never know, but also as an example of how the extension of the liturgical sense can take on new meaning in a variety of contexts and settings. It is available on Amazon. And at this link, you can also listen to clips so you can see what I mean.

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