Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Reflections on Singing a Polyphonic Kyrie During Lent

by Jeff Ostrowski, President of Corpus Christi Watershed

The following quote has been attributed to St. Augustine: "The only thing you can take with you to Heaven is music." Whether St. Augustine spoke these precise words or not, it is certainly true that Sacred music has an amazing ability to lift our hearts and minds to God. Sacred music reminds us in a powerful way of the purity of God and the unspeakable beauty of our Creator. Therefore, before I go further, let us listen to a short excerpt of the Kyrie from Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut (†1377):

This beautiful recording was created by Matthew J. Curtis, who himself recorded all the vocal parts. Since 2010, Maestro Curtis has created more than 650 practice videos for polyphonic choral works, found at Corpus Christi Watershed has been blessed to collaborate with Maestro Curtis for several years now. Those who enjoyed the excerpt above will be interested in the PDF score, and are encouraged to listen to the complete recording by Matthew J. Curtis.

As the holy season of Lent approaches, many Catholic choirmasters will be searching for polyphonic versions of the Kyrie Eleison. As we know, the Gloria is not said during Lent, so musicians can "get away" with using a slightly longer Kyrie without risking a "heated discussion" with the Pastor after Mass (I wish it were not this way, but in many of our parishes, this is the case). An added bonus would be a Kyrie that also involves the congregation. Even better would be a relatively easy polyphonic setting, so that amateur church choirs could sing with confidence (as it is better to sing a simpler piece very well than to sing a more difficult piece poorly).

One good choice might be Kyrie cunctipotens genitor Deus (Trent Codex 90), which has polyphony for three voices as well as Gregorian sections for the congregation. I strongly recommend that anyone considering Trent Codex 90 read this fantastic article (PDF) by Dr. William Mahrt of Stanford. The article appeared in Sacred Music, Journal of the Church Music Association of America (Summer 2011, Volume 138, No. 2), and managing editor Jeffrey Tucker has done church musicians a tremendous service by providing hundreds of issues for free download in the CMAA archives. Getting back to the Trent Codex 90 Kyrie, Matthew J. Curtis has provided seven (7) practice videos to help your choir members master this piece. In addition to much other valuable information, Dr. Mahrt's article also addresses possible ways to perform this piece.

Another beautiful choice (for SATB choirs) might be this Kyrie after Joan Brudieu (†1591). Just as in the previous Kyrie, a possible format for all three invocations would be: Cantor / Congregation / Choir (polyphony). Corpus Christi Watershed has provided five (5) practice videos to assist choir members who do not read music well.

The first two versions of the Kyrie presented above are based on Kyrie IV (see Dr. Mahrt's article on this). This third version is based on the Requiem Kyrie, so this is the chant provided in the score. However, those who do not wish to sing the Requiem chant during Lent should realize that one could just as easily sing the "Lenten" Kyrie (Mass XVII):

Incidentally, all of these Kyrie chant melodies are provided in the Vatican II Hymnal, which contains more than 100 pages of Mass settings (English & Latin), more than 200 beautiful hymns, and the complete texts of the Sung Propers, readings, psalms, and Alleluias for Sundays and Holy Days during all three Liturgical years.

To go along with any of these versions of the Kyrie, choirmasters might consider this Sanctus & Agnus Dei (PDF). Both are based on the Ave Maris Stella of Guillaume Dufay (†1474), and are practically identical. Here is an audio excerpt: Audio Excerpt of the Sanctus (MP3)

Some might be interested to see how these versions of the Kyrie work in a "real" environment, so here (2010) is the Brudieu Kyrie sung by the Corpus Christi Cathedral choir (directed by Lee Gwozdz), and here (2009) is the Dufay Sanctus sung by the Corpus Christi Cathedral Schola Cantorum (directed by Jeff Ostrowski).

For those who wish to learn more about the phenomenal singing abilities of Matthew J. Curtis, I encourage you to look at Kevin Allen's Motecta Trium Vocum, as Maestro Curtis provides 56 practice videos for the special collection of 3-voice motets. Kevin Allen recently released an SATB collection, as well, called Cantiones Sacrae Simplices, and Maestro Curtis has recorded more than 140 practice videos for these masterpieces. Watershed was honored when Dr. Mahrt included this Foreword, which is "required reading" for anyone who cares about Catholic sacred music.

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