S A COMPOSER and conductor, one must pay complete attention to the text. Recently, someone commented that a particular setting of mine was notably in tune with the text. To me this seemed like a minimal prerequisite of composition. Perhaps one of the biggest influences in my music, sacred and otherwise, is the influence of the Roman Rite in which the text is preeminent. The reason for such preeminence is profoundly displayed at the beginning of John’s Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” — John 1
I have written before that in the liturgy, the Word is preeminent. Likewise, the text drives all sacred choral music. In many choir rehearsals, I will point out that the placement of a melody upon a text is not accidental. Gregorian Chant almost always paints the text most intentionally. What word is on the highest note? What phrase or syllable is treated with an extended melisma?
Likewise, compare the treatment of the text of Ave Verum Corpus by William Byrd as compared to perhaps any other setting. Note the longing serenity and mystery of “O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu Fili Mariae” followed by the juxtaposition of F natural in the bass and F# in the tenor as the text pleads, “Miserere mei.” No detail of the text is left unnoticed by Byrd.
Furthermore, there is much raw emotion to be found in sacred polyphony. Tallis’ Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee displays a nearly twentieth-century-style “passing dissonance” on “Son of Man” (perhaps to illustrate his suffering). The phrase, “Except ye eat of the Son of Man and drink his blood” propels towards a declarative resolution during “ye have no life in you.” Tallis goes on to paint every word of John 6 with faith, love, and passion. So much said with so few, but essential, life-giving words of our faith!
EAUTIFUL AND UNIVERSAL sacred music is designed to receive and process the extraordinary emotions of the liturgy. This past Palm Sunday, the homilist emphasized that the liturgy of Palm Sunday was designed to receive all of our emotions, from joy to fear and confusion, and grief. This is a dynamic that we can see over and over again.
Consider the Requiem Mass. It is designed to receive the fullest spectrum of emotions, from fear, mourning and grief, to hope, joy, and love. The Dies Irae, a work of great sacred poetry, captures a wide range of emotions: fear and trembling of the Last Judgment, to hope, (“You who absolved Mary, and heard the Robber, gave hope to me, too…”) to the lyric Lacrimosa and Pie Jesu which implore God’s mercy to grant eternal rest.
Consider the confident joy in the text of Credo quod Redemptor: (Job 19:25, 26) “I believe that my Redeemer lives, and that on the last day, I shall rise from earth and in my flesh I shall behold God my Savior.” This is an extraordinary progression of emotion from the Dies Irae!
Finally, in the words of the In Paradisum: there is joy and comfort in God’s mercy. Regardless of who we are, this prayer welcomes home the sinner in extraordinary fashion: “May the Angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you and lead you into the holy city of Jerusalem…”
If we truly believe the words of the Requiem Mass, what emotions do they evoke? As Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
E CAN CLEARLY SEE THE PROFOUND emotions found in the words of the liturgy—the Requiem Mass or Palm Sunday simply being two obvious examples. But even the emotion found in the daily readings are profound! It is therefore incumbent on us to pay close attention to our pastoral responsibilities. Pay little heed to text, and the liturgy is watered down. Pay no attention to the musical setting of text, and the impact of God’s Word is potentially trivialized. Either does a great pastoral disservice to the faithful.
Treat the Word of God carelessly, and we will lose our orientation towards the Divine. It is therefore, a pastoral responsibility to ensure the God’s Word reaches the people:
1 • It is our pastoral responsibility that the settings of the music indeed contain the Word of God—and not a collection of personal thoughts and feelings.
2 • It is our pastoral responsibility to ensure these musical settings of sacred music are beautiful and universal and therefore their spiritual effects are lasting.
3 • It is our pastoral responsibility to prepare the liturgy very diligently, with love, with intellect, with emotion, and with an eye towards always improving our craft.
4 • It is our pastoral responsibility that our music not be self-serving, but that it draws attention away from us and towards the Word of God. This allows the Word to enter our hearts. This allows all to enter into the Mystery. This allows God’s Word to comfort the afflicted, which at one time or another includes us all.
From Maestro Michael Olbash:
November, 2: Commemoration of All Souls, Traditional Latin (EF) High Mass, Monday, November 2, at 7 p.m., St. Adelaide’s in Peabody, Massachusetts. Whether you sing in the choir loft or sit in a pew, you should come experience the complete Fauré Requiem in the liturgical context for which it was composed.
BE SURE TO CHECK OUT these Communion propers for Advent, published with World Library Publications. Recordings directed by Paul French.