Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Music with Catholic Texts

Music historians acknowledge the central place of the Christian liturgical text in the development of music for the last 1000 years, providing a universal textual and dramatic landscape for artistic development. It provided a chance for composers to make gifts to the world they hope will become immortal, and even many of the most secular composers, often toward the end of their lives, would attempt to set the Mass.

The concern over what would happen to these compositions, and what would happen to the future of musical development in the Catholic world, were two of many overlooked concerns in the drive toward vernacularization in the late 1960s. With the text of the English Mass changing yet again in the near future, we are again reminded of a problem associated with the instability of the vernacular. There is the additional problem of the fashion that conceived of the liturgical text exclusively as a source for "people's music"--as interpreted by folk fads from the 1970s--rather than serious art.

The good news is that the move toward the universally stable Latin inspires composers, and every year at the Sacred Music Colloquium there is a large new music reading session in which many of these are sung. In my book Sing Like a Catholic, I attempt to make a case for the Catholic Church to begin become a patron of the arts, with emphasis on its liturgical texts.

The above thoughts are prompted by two items concerning serious music that have come to my inbox in the last day. The first is from the Philippines, a performance of Missa Caelestis by Jerry Dadap, Jr., that is now on youtube. It is a very interesting and exciting work, performed by the Philippine Madrigal Singers.

The second is from St. James Cathedral, Seattle, which has hired Patrick Stoyanovich as its resident composer. The fact that such a position exists at all I find thrilling. Someday I hope we can look forward to a time when all cathedrals and parishes will realize how centrally important it is to make music in liturgy a financial and professional priority.

On April 10, 2009, the Cathedral will premiere Stoyanovich's new composition the "Seven Last Words" for women's choir, vocal soloists, string chamber orchestra and organ. It is part of an amazing lineup of concerts and recitals that seems to be ongoing.

In an interview, the composer offers some very interesting points:

The “Seven Last Words” is a liturgical composition. I would most humbly hope that it would in some small way help the congregation experience the sacred nature of the service more completely. The music is part of the devotional sequence in the Treore; I hope to enhance those devotions. Included is the text I have chosen, plus some supplementary text supporting the main points....

I am a believer in music with a function. To write liturgical music and sacred concert works seems one of the last best places to write deeply serious music. Art in this fashion has real function for the listeners. What more profound subject could one ask for, in my own case, then the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus Christ? I am honored and humbled by this opportunity.

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