Monday, November 23, 2020

Interviews with Catholic Composers — (7) Henrique Coe

It is my great pleasure to resume the Composer Interview series that has already featured six other Catholic composers (a full listing may be found at the end).

Tell us about your musical background: when and how you began singing or playing instruments, your most influential teacher, how your interest in composing sacred music was enkindled. 

Henrique Coe:
I was born in Niterói, Brazil, in 1986. Although my parents are not musicians, they introduced me to music education when I was a child, including piano lessons. In grades 6-12, I studied at Colégio Salesiano Santa Rosa, the Salesian school in my hometown. The school was founded in 1883 and its wind band was founded in 1888. About a century later, the wind band was performing a symphonic repertoire of high complexity. In 1997, right after entering the Salesian school, I joined the symphonic band, which was conducted by Brother Affonso Gonçalves dos Reis (1916-2011) for many decades and by his assistant conductors.

In the symphonic band, after experimenting a few instruments, I started learning the alto saxophone. I really enjoyed playing my new instrument, and the possibility of going to an international competition with the band motivated me to study even more, as I needed to improve quickly to play the required repertoire. Indeed, I would study hours and hours a day. We ended up not going to the competition due to financial reasons, but those myriads of hours of practicing were extremely important for my development as a musician.

In the following years, while I was still playing in the symphonic band, I have also received music formation by other means and played in other ensembles, notably the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira Jovem (Brazilian Youth Symphony Orchestra). I had private lessons with Cristiano Alves, a famous clarinetist (who also plays the saxophone) from important orchestras in Rio de Janeiro and who used to play in the Salesian symphonic band in Niterói. With other teachers, I studied jazz and Brazilian popular music, flute, guitar, music theory and functional harmony. The latter had a great impact in my career, as I started sketching my first melodies and harmonies. As a side note, I started studying the violin in this year of 2020 (better late than never).

By the time to applying to university, I was not motivated to pursue a career as a classical saxophonist for a few reasons, including the lack of opportunities to play the saxophone in orchestras. Thus, I decided to study economics and management, although I did take some credits in conducting at university. I had the opportunity to conclude my management degree in France, where I was introduced to the boys’ choir Petits Chanteurs d’Aix-en-Provence. I was very impressed with kids singing in such a high level.

Additionally, during my teenage years I did not go to Mass very often, but just before going to France I started going to Mass again. When meeting the boy’s singers, I could appreciate not only the quality of their singing, but also the spiritual aspect of a great part of their repertoire, and I could also sing at Mass with them. Back to Brazil, a priest invited me to start a children’s choir in his parish and so we founded the Pequenos Cantores de São Judas Tadeu.

While working in Rio de Janeiro, I went back to music school and concluded a degree in music education at Conservatório Brasileiro de Música. During this degree, I also studied subjects from the degree of composition, notably harmony, fugue, composition, and counterpoint. The last two were taught by Prof. Armando Lôbo, who introduced me to different composition techniques, including medieval techniques, which became part of my style.

In 2013, I moved to Canada, where I did a master’s degree in composition at Université de Montréal, having studied with Profs. François-Hugues Leclair and Alan Belkin. Right after, I did a doctoral degree in composition at the University of Toronto, having studied with Profs. Christos Hatzis and Norbert Palej. At first, I was surprised that my sacred pieces and my instrumental pieces based on religious themes were being well accepted at university and in the music environment in general. But I also realized that, in addition to its spiritual value, sacred music is an essential part of music history, and that many of the most important composers in the past and in present time write sacred music.

Defend Us in Battle – chamber orchestra version

Is there a sacred music composer—or are there several composers—whose work you find most captivating, either as a source of delight, or as direct inspirations and models for your own work?

Gregorian chant clearly has a great influence in my work, both choral and instrumental. Indeed, many of my compositions are based on Gregorian chant melodies or quote some of them. Yet this influence is not limited to the reproduction of melodies. Indeed, the sonority of Gregorian chant has a great influence in many of my compositions, notwithstanding other techniques that may be used at the same time.

One of the main struggles of contemporary composers is “not to sound like a 19th century composer.” Although almost all orchestras in the world mostly perform tonal music, composition students usually feel pressure at university not to write tonal music, even if there is no written rule prohibiting it. As a result, composers feel they need to “move forward” in their style. Despite the overall aesthetics that emerged in the 20th century, there are modern and contemporary techniques that are very interesting, and I do use some them in my pieces. However, one should realize that “moving backwards” or combining past and new techniques is another way of developing a style.

In my work, very often we find modalism instead of tonalism, although I do like tonal music very much. Another feature present in many of my compositions is what I call the “Medieval sonorities” of parallel fifths and octaves, which were vastly used in the first polyphonies composed by Medieval monks. Interestingly, those are sonorities that we learn to avoid in tonal music, but they are potent and can sound very beautiful when used intentionally in a modal context. In other words, it is an elegant aesthetics based on Medieval polyphony that does not sound like tonal music.

Counterpoint from the Renaissance and from the Baroque has also a significant influence in my writing. I admire the art of the fugue and have learnt much from it. Despite my background in functional harmony, it is common for me to think more of intervals than of chords when writing some passages. Although I do not try to imitate it exactly, I consider the music of Palestrina and his contemporaries as models of sacred polyphony. As stated by Pope Saint Pius X, “Classic Polyphony agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music” (Tra le Sollecitudini, n. 4).

Finally, my work is also influenced by the music of Classicism and of Romantism, and by modern and contemporary music. There are occasions in which I may not enjoy a piece or an entire concert that I attend, but as a composer I can find something interesting in it that could be used differently within another context. Nevertheless, I have in mind that beauty is more important than techniques.

Three pieces for the Dedication of the Montréal Cathedral

If you were given an unlimited budget for musicians for a solemn pontifical Mass, what works would you include?

Many are the possibilities of great works that would serve very well a pontifical Mass. I personally like the sound of boys’ choir very much, with boys singing soprano and alto, and teenagers or adults singing tenors and basses. I also like the sound of a schola cantorum formed by a few men singing Gregorian chant. I love orchestral sound, but I do think the organ has a more “liturgical sound” than an orchestra, although orchestral instruments are not completely excluded from the liturgy. Therefore, I would have a schola cantorum singing Gregorian chant for the Propers, a boys’ choir singing sacred polyphony a capella for the Ordinary and for Offertory and Communion motets, and an organist improvising on Gregorian chant melodies in some parts of the liturgy.

The language of sacred music, as of Catholic worship in general, remains a controversial subject. What are your thoughts about the place of Latin in the liturgy?

As a composer having lived in different countries, I find it more practical to use texts in Latin than in vernacular languages. The sacred texts in Latin can be sung in Brazil, in Canada, in the United States, and anywhere in the world. If the texts were in English, maybe the compositions would not be sung in the liturgy in Brazil, for example. While I appreciate having the translation of the texts, the universality of Latin in sacred music is remarkable. And even secular choirs sing in Latin because Mozart and so many others used texts in Latin in their compositions, which constitute a great part of the choral repertoire.

Exultet Gaudio
In recent years many have been pointing out the strong generational dynamics in the Catholic Church: older people seem to want the popular or secular styles of art, while at least some younger people are intrigued by traditional forms that have an archaic feel to them. Have you encountered such dynamics in your own life and work?

Music attracts people, and, as the name suggests, “popular music” is usually more popular than art and sacred music. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine why some well-intended people would like to have more popular-like music in the liturgy. 

In the 21st century, information became very easily accessible, although it is not always easy to find the good sources. Young people have been discovering the treasures of Tradition. At some point, they find the treasures of sacred music, especially Gregorian chant. A similar phenomenon has been occurring with nutrition. The younger generations have been discovering the benefits of having a healthy diet, and eating habits have been changing, at least to some extent.

My case is particularly interesting. Despite my music background, I did not know much about sacred music and I did not like to listen to Gregorian chant (that was my situation back then). I was in my early twenties, had recently returned to practice the Faith, and had good intentions, but still had very limited knowledge about Doctrine. I entered a Catholic bookstore and saw a book about sacred music with a red cover. Being Catholic and being a musician, it immediately drew my attention. I started reading the book, which was a compilation of Church documents on sacred music, including documents of the Second Vatican Council. Astonished was I when I saw so many exhortations to sing Gregorian chant. I thought to myself: “If the Church says Gregorian chant is so good and important and I don’t like it, I must change.” And I started trying to like it, notably listening to recordings of Gregorian chant, but this was not being very effective, that is to say, although I agreed with the Church by obedience, I still was not able to enjoy Gregorian chant very much.

However, one day some friends started bringing me to the Traditional Latin Mass in a diocesan chapel in Niterói, and I started experiencing Gregorian chant at Mass more often. Gradually, I started liking it and understanding how appropriate it is to the liturgy. Once I moved to Canada and regularly attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, it was clear that Gregorian chant became part of my life. It is worthy saying, nevertheless, that Gregorian chant is also sung in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, but not as frequently in most parishes.

The Assumption for string orchestra

If you have experience with the “traditionalist” movement, what are some strengths and weaknesses you see in it, particularly from a musical point of view?

Music for the liturgy has been developed over the centuries. The structure and music options for the traditional liturgy are outstanding. Singers do not have to “choose” the pieces for Mass, as there are already Gregorian chant antiphons for each Sunday Mass. There are also so many beautiful polyphonic pieces for the traditional liturgy. Whereas Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony should also be present in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, unfortunately this usually does not happen very often in most parishes. When it does, most of the time the same chants are chosen for the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.), which may not be a bad idea due to pastoral considerations. The antiphons are rarely sung, despite the work the monks of Solesmes did in the 1974 Graduale Romanum for the Ordinary Form of the Mass. If we think of the antiphons in the vernacular, it is still a more complicated situation from the perspective of music, because the treasures of sacred music composed in so many centuries were written in Latin. Additionally, as I mentioned before, from a compositional perspective, using texts in the vernacular in new compositions basically limits their use to the liturgies celebrated in that language. 

All that said, I do appreciate having the translations of the Propers of the Mass, as it may help the sanctification of the faithful. Many people bring their own missal to Mass, but there are also people who are not very experienced with the Traditional Latin Mass. So, we should also think of those people. But many parishes already do this one way or the other.

Cantate Domino

What are you doing now in the realm of sacred music?

Sacred music is an integral part of my work both in composition and in music education. I teach at a French Catholic school in Toronto with a program specialized in the arts. Upon my arrival in 2019, the school has been implementing the music theory method I developed, which includes Gregorian chant, and they started calling it “La Méthode Coe” (“The Coe Method”). Although I don’t exclusively teach sacred music, it has a great importance in my teaching.

Joining composition with music education, I have recently composed seven sacred canons. After starting teaching full-time, I realized how important canons are, and I decided to write some canons that could be sung in the liturgy, but that are also pedagogical. Indeed, the first canon is easy and only demands a small vocal register. Gradually, the canons become more challenging, but they are still easy to learn until canon six; the last one is more developed. 

In this year of 2020, I could join the Brébeuf Virtual Choir, which is formed by singers who have attended the Sacred Music Symposium in Los Angeles. We have recorded pieces from many composers. Among our projects, they asked me to write a piece and I wrote Hi Sunt, the Introit for the Feast of SS. Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues and Companions. We recorded it in August. I also composed the music for the other Propers for this Mass.

Hi Sunt

What are some of your future plans as a composer?

Continuing composing for the liturgy is certainly in my plans, although it is an honor I do not deserve. Composing three pieces for the Dedication of the Montréal Cathedral in 2017 was an outstanding experience. Writing sacred music is a source of joy for me.

While at university, I enjoyed very much being a composer-in-residence with a few ensembles. It was during one of those residences that I wrote The Assumption for string orchestra. I also had similar opportunities outside university. For example, when I composed Defend Us in Battle for orchestra and Romaria Brasileira for winds, I was working with specific ensembles. I look forward to having more opportunities like those.

How can people get in touch with you?

Videos of my compositions can be watched on my website and on my YouTube channel. My email is

Other interviews in this series:
1. Nicholas Lemme
2. Mark Nowakowski
3. Tate Pumfrey
4. Ronan Reilly
5. Nicholas Wilton
6. Paul Jernberg

Also pertinent:
Interview with Elam Rotem

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