IOGO DIAS MELGÁS is a name that, until last week, meant nothing to me. I had never heard of him, nor had I heard any of his music, so far as I am aware. That changed during a concert given by the combined choirs of The Catholic University of America at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in downtown DC.
Melgás was a Cuban-born Portuguese composer of the late Renaissance, having lived in the seventeenth century. He first became acquainted with sacred music as a choirboy at the Cathedral of Évora. He died blind and poor, remaining relatively unknown until the publication of his complete works in modern notation in 1978.
What caught my attention during this concert was not, at first, Melgás. It was, rather, the text of the Salve Regina, which is one of my favorite prayers. Because I like the text so much, I thought I would listen extra hard. That extra listening effort was rewarded both by the quality of the performance and by the ingenuity of the composition.
The treatment Melgás gives to this prayer is very affective—an example of extreme word painting. This style is likely to turn off some listeners. For me, however, I found it particularly appropriate that such an affective prayer should receive an equally affective treatment.
Three sections of the piece especially strike me. First is the four-bar section that creatively presents the words spes nostra salve. The pitter-patter of alternation between the keys of D minor and A, combined with the rhythmic opposition of soprano and bass against the interior voices, creates a brief passage with a very playful sound.
The second section that I find delightful is the nearly staccato setting of the words ad Te suspiramus, followed immediately by the flowing richness of the phrase gementes et flentes. The contrast makes the sentiment come alive.
The third section of this work that inspires me is the meditative approach to the words O clemens, O pia, O dulcis. These are, in my opinion, among the sweetest words of any of our traditional Catholic prayers. They deserve an equally sweet musical treatment, and this they receive at the hands of Melgás.
T STRUCK ME during the concert that this particular setting of Salve Regina is great not merely because it is inventive or novel or musically interesting. It is a great piece of music because it clearly emanates from the heart of a composer who had a fertile interior life. This is the sort of setting that could only have derived from faith and grown out of the experience of praying these words repeatedly and fervently. Personal faith, without a doubt, contributes something intangible to the composition of sacred music.
For an excellent recording of this piece, check out this YouTube video.
To obtain a free copy of the score for the piece, visit the Choral Public Domain Library here.