Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Composer on Composer - Roman Hurko Reviews Paul Jernberg’s Mass of St Philip Neri

I am no expert on these things, but when listening to and singing Paul Jernberg’s music for the liturgy, especially his Mass of St Philip Neri, I am excited by a number of things. This music is accessible to the ear - in my opinion it has beauty and dignity appropriate to the Mass, so that, without compromising on traditional principles, I have noticed that even congregations who are not schooled in traditional chant and polyphony enjoy it.

It is also, I find, accessible for the singer - I would say that most parish choirs could sing this well (although not all perhaps as beautifully as the professional choir on the CD). I could also hear different influences in his style, especially liturgical music for the Eastern rite. Nevertheless it seems wholly appropriate for the Roman rite for which this is written.

I was curious therefore to know of the opinion of an established composer in the Eastern rite, Roman Hurko, so I asked him what he thought about it and, if he liked it, would he write a review of it for us.

Roman writes for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic liturgy. I have put a recording of his music at the bottom of this article along with some of Paul's music (both would make a good present for someone!) You can hear more at www.romanhurko.com, and if you want to purchase his music on iTunes, then the link is here.

Roman wrote as follows:

‘Composer Paul Jernberg has composed a new setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for a cappella choir. It was recorded this past summer with the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle in Chicago under the direction of Maestro J. Michael Thompson, and is now available for purchase at: www.pauljernberg.com

‘I find this Mass setting very beautiful; very contemplative. As a composer from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church tradition, I feel very much at home in its aesthetic, one that I would characterize as eschewing the harshness of electric light in favor of the soft glow emanating from candlelight.

‘As in the Eastern church tradition, this Mass setting is sung completely from A – Z by priest, choir, and readers. Mr. Jernberg’s musical transitions between priest and choir are stylistically coherent and seamless. I would recommend that all young composers study Mr. Jernberg’s organic setting, as I have often found it jarring when a priest sings chant and is then responded to by the choir in a completely different musical style.

‘Another eastern rite similarity is the use of a melody over an is on, or drone. This essentially monophonic device is complemented in this setting by polyphonic consonant harmonies, with a judicious use of suspensions and appoggiaturas, often ending with stern, medieval sounding open fifth chords. However, no matter the harmonic texture, the text of the prayers is always clear to the listener (kudos to Maestro Thompson and his choir!), and is always served beautifully by the music. Clearly, Mr. Jernberg was guided in his compositional process by the principle of Noble Simplicity, and although there are similarities to the Eastern polyphonic style in this setting, it is clearly grounded in the greatness of the Western tradition.

‘Finally, in a mere forty years, the year 2054 will mark the millennium of the Great Schism between the ‘two lungs’ of the church: Eastern and Western. To my mind, Mr. Jernberg’s setting helps bring these two traditions closer together. Kudos to Mr. Jernberg and kudos to the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle under the direction of Maestro Thompson!’

A couple of notes: when Mr Hurko refers to the  ‘polyphony’ of Paul's music I understand that he is using the word in the broadest sense, i.e.  ‘many sounds’, rather than the narrower meaning some will be used to, which refers to the form of music dominated by counterpoint as in for example, the polyphony of the High Renaissance. Some might use the word  ‘homophony’ to apply to Paul’s music instead.

Also, if anyone like me didn’t know, an appoggiatura is a non-harmonic tone that happens on a strong beat or strong emphasis in the melody and ultimately resolves into the main note. Paul uses these judiciously, but in way that adds greatly to the beauty of the overall piece. Without knowing the technical word, I could hear that he was momentarily  ‘stepping out’, so to speak, in order add to the sense of resolution when he steps back in again at the end of a phrase.

Below we have the Our Father from Paul Jernberg’s Mass, and below that Holy God from Roman Hurko’s Liturgy No.2

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