ORE THAN ONE THING can be true at the same time. Certainly I have advocated very simple music for church; and the Brébeuf Hymnal is full of beautiful melodies that fit the bill. I have emphasized that Brébeuf makes it possible for a congregation to get through the entire liturgical year, even if they only know one solid tune. That’s because it provides a solution where common melodies can be shared with different texts. Just last Sunday I was using it with my choirs, and it literally saved my life. (I would stand on my head to make this point!)
At the same time—in conjunction with these simple hymns—I fully endorse “complicated” polyphony. At present, I direct more than fifty singers in two different choirs, and every singer learns polyphony. I, therefore, “put my money where my mouth is” in terms of complex polyphony. (We don’t sing it unless we’re prepared.)
I don’t know a greater piece of polyphony than this Magnificat by Guerrero, which will be sung at this year’s Sacred Music Symposium:
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HOSE WHO READ this blog already know how difficult the life of a choirmaster is; I don’t need to repeat that. We have challenges that often seem insurmountable: physical challenges, musical challenges, psychological challenges, and so on. On a personal level, I struggle to communicate (what I consider to be) basic concepts to our readers. I talk so much about common melodies and how important they are for a Catholic choir—yet, I don’t think I’m articulating this concept well. I believe there is so much that could be accomplished, if we can all stick together; and part of sticking together is communication. A few days ago, I was thinking about how difficult it must have been to implement the document of Pope Pius X. After all, this was long before the invention of television, internet, xerox copy machines, and so forth. The airplane had just been invented; and it really was such a different time. Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by mistake. (The initial attempt failed, hitting people behind him; but when he went to the hospital to see how they were doing, he accidentally ran into the same assassin while sitting in traffic; and that’s how he was assassinated, which began the Great War.) The Great War ended up causing the Second Sino-Japanese War and also World War II—and 150 million people died as a result. Read about what it was like to fight in the trenches: bizarre and horrible! In those days, they wouldn’t give the wounded first aid. Instead, they would place wounded men on a train and transport them to a city which had a hospital, even if that city were far away. During the Great War they began to realize this was insane; so they started to have better medical stations on the actual battlefields. The United States ended up entering the Great War, but can you imagine? Can you imagine loading thousands of USA soldiers on a boat to take them to Europe so they could fight for countries they’d never visited? Again, this was all going on around the time of the Motu Proprio of Pius X. Yet, they had choirs back then, in spite of having virtually no technology at all. I guess if they could do it, we should “soldier on” as well…pardon the pun.
Finally: Why do I love Guerrero’s setting so much? It has to do with the fact that my parish sings Solemn Vespers every Sunday. I’ve fallen in love with Vespers, and this Mode 1 psalm tone is frequently used. What Guerrero does with it—in spite of all the other settings by other composers, such as Lassus (who wrote something like 200 Magnificat settings)—is truly remarkable. The entrance of the Alto at the beginning: Powerful. The way he uses contrasting themes—some ascending, some descending: brilliant! The way he will often have one voice just repeat the same notes while the others are going nuts: clever! The Alto canon at the end: not to be missed! In particular, what Guerrero does with this melody is beyond anything I could imagine; after all, it’s just a psalm tone, right? But it went into Guerrero’s brain and look what comes out! Truly marvelous. We will discuss all these things at Sacred Music Symposium 2019.
My friend Nancho sent me the original part books for this piece. Here’s how it looked in the 16th century (Verse 6, Fecit potentiam in brachio suo):
Do you see how Nancho (wisely) preserves the ligatures in his editions? Look at the section in yellow. That’s a ligature. By this time, it was done mainly through tradition—because different ways to form those notes were also available in the time of Guerrero. Still, it’s a nice reminder not to disaggregate that syllable! And it reminds us this comes directly from a psalm tone.