Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Stunning Setting of ‘O magnum mysterium’

Around this time of year choir directors tend to start thinking about December, choosing carols and planning Christmas music lists. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the height of the summer is always a strange time to be looking ahead to Christmas, and as I write, appositely enough from Bethlehem in the middle of a choir tour to Palestine, the dusty heat makes snow seem unimaginable. However, the idea of a cold and icy landscape still serves in a figurative sense, representing the world before Christ.

One of the most well-known Christmas texts, 'O magnum mysterium', has inspired many composers for centuries and there are several beautiful settings in the repertoire, notably by Victoria, Gabrieli and Poulenc. Another one which I recently came across is by Frank La Rocca, the Emeritus Professor of Music at California State University and a leading Catholic composer. His is a very powerful contemporary setting, immensely beautiful and of great integrity. There is a very strong sense in his music that his primary focus is to serve the text and illuminate its meaning, rather than use choral effects for their own sake, a route sometimes taken by other modern composers.

His paper The Apologetics of Beauty, which focuses on his 'O magnum mysterium', attempts to answer the question of what defines the concept of beauty in sacred music. He writes:

1. That which arouses in the beholder a longing for the transcendent; that which serves as a bridge from the material to the spiritual world to unite us to the transcendent.

2. That work of art which possesses attributes of harmony, integrity, proportion and clarity appropriate to its subject.

Ave Maria by Robert Parsons (excerpt)
In the same paper he goes on to talk of the kreuz motif which was used by J.S.Bach as a melodic representation of the Cross. This is a musical shape generally built around four consecutive notes, the second of which is lower than the first, the third rising above both, and the fourth returning to the original pitch of the first note. There are many variations of this musical shape, and a possible precursor to Bach's kreuz motif can be found in the extended Amen of the beautiful Ave Maria by the Tudor composer Robert Parsons. This contains a series of melodies which bear a cruciform resemblance, perhaps intended as a sign of the cross at the end of the prayer. La Rocca's use of this device in his setting is a very powerful way of turning our mind to Christ's ultimate purpose on earth. Below is the first page of his piece with the cruciform melodies marked:

You can listen to the piece beautifully rendered by the Artists Vocal Ensemble directed by Jonathan Dimmock in the YouTube clip below. This comes from a CD of works by Frank La Rocca entitled 'In This Place' which was described by American Record Guide as containing 'luminous sacred introspection, transcendental effect, and breathtaking beauty'. You can buy the CD from Amazon, and Frank La Rocca's website is here.

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