XCELLENT recordings that combine truly sacred music of both the contemporary period and the Renaissance are rare. Liturgica, recently released by fellow blogger Chris Mueller, is one such recording. Mueller is organist and choirmaster at St. Louis Bertrand Church in Louisville, KY, having previously served as Director of Music at the National Shrine of St. John Paul II in Washington, DC.
Mueller also leads a creative & remarkable family schola, which has previously been featured here. It is a pleasure today to highlight his new recording, Liturgica.
The CD includes several original compositions written by Mueller, intermixed with uncommonly recorded works by great composers of the Renaissance (see track list below). The recording is available on many platforms, including Spotify and iTunes. Links to the various outlets are available here.
Following is an interview with Mueller, which discusses some of his compositional inspiration and his approach to liturgical music.
FR. FRIEL: What is Ars Mueller?
CHRIS MUELLER: Ars Mueller is a recording ensemble dedicated to the idea that there exists beautiful choral music for the holy Mass, music which should be available for people to listen to, be inspired by, pray with, and consider for use by the choirs at their own home parishes. It is simultaneously a vehicle for my own liturgical compositions, which we believe meet those criteria.
FR. FRIEL: Who are the singers on this recording?
CHRIS MUELLER: Ars Mueller comprises some of New York City’s and Connecticut’s finest professional choral singers—musicians I came to know over the course of almost twenty years singing and directing in NYC and environs. It’s a collection of friends and colleagues who, for modest remuneration, came together for the microphones and sang music that I had chosen. Because of the challenges of harmonizing talented people’s schedules, the ensemble’s personnel varied each night, and so I tried to select music that would sound the best with the people present at any given session.
FR. FRIEL: From what sources are the texts of your original compositions drawn?
CHRIS MUELLER: The texts are primarily Scriptural, as parceled out by the Church throughout the year. Hosanna to the Son of David is the opening antiphon for Palm Sunday, and its English text comes from the settings of Weelkes and Tomkins; Puer natus est is the Latin text for the introit of Christmas Day; Adam lay ybounden is a well-known medieval Advent poem (probably most famous in the setting by Boris Ord); the three sequences (Victimae paschali for Easter, Veni sancte Spiritus for Pentecost, and Ecce panis angelorum, the short form for Corpus Christi) provide both text and tune. Several of my pieces are English settings of various offertory antiphons, the translations of which come from the Lumen Christi Missal, a fine liturgical volume published by my friend and colleague, Adam Bartlett, via his Illuminare Publications.
FR. FRIEL: Why do you focus on liturgical texts?
CHRIS MUELLER: Even before I began work as a choir director, I had had a vague aspiration to set all the psalms. And so, when I took up the baton, I almost immediately began setting liturgical texts. I set all the Sunday Gregorian introits in Latin (the texts of which are drawn largely from the psalms), as well as the three-year cycle of Responsorial Psalms in English. I wrote a number of motets for particular liturgical needs. A decade after the introit settings, working at a different parish, I began to set the offertory antiphons in English. There is something exciting and collaborative about writing for a particular ensemble and then hearing those particular singers sing your music every week. Duke Ellington used to say that he wrote for the musicians he had at hand, and he was constantly revising his older pieces as new musicians came through his orchestra. I feel a little like that. I write for the people who sing with me, and I find it very difficult to compose in the “abstract”—that is, to write just for the sake of completing a new composition.
Additionally, my early career in music comprised all sorts of work: accompanying dance classes; working with jazz, opera, and musical theater singers; and playing in small jazz combos and singing in jazz vocal ensembles. Over the last dozen or so years, however, I have focused almost exclusively on liturgical music. To honor God—who gave me musical gifts, supportive parents, extraordinary instructors, and innumerable opportunities—by giving back to Him the fruit of those gifts via beautiful music at the Holy Mass just seems the right thing to do. What could be better?
FR. FRIEL: Three of your compositions on the recording are settings of sequences for the Mass. What was your musical inspiration for these pieces?
CHRIS MUELLER: I was intrigued by the monastic practice of chant being passed back-and-forth between alternating sides of the choir. To reflect that in the sequence settings, the harmonized chant is passed back-and-forth between the men’s and women’s voices, until they sing the final phrases together in lush, six-voice harmony.
FR. FRIEL: How were these particular pieces by Handl, Hassler (2x), Blow, Clemens non Papa, Victoria, and Richafort chosen?
CHRIS MUELLER: The Renaissance works were pieces I had programmed in my parish work over the years that struck me as particularly expressive and beautiful. There is an unfathomably enormous repertory of sacred music from the Renaissance (over the last two decades, my parish choirs have sung at least 1,700 different polyphonic motets from this period, and that’s just scratching the surface of what is available), and yet most people may only be familiar with a few such works (Victoria’s O magnum mysterium, Palestrina’s Sicut cervus, Byrd’s Ave verum Corpus, Tallis’ If ye love me). This seemed like a great opportunity to record some less-well-known, but equally stunning pieces.
FR. FRIEL: How does a contemporary Church musician write choral compositions that are musically excellent, accessible for parish choirs, and stylistically appropriate for the liturgy?
CHRIS MUELLER: I can only speak for my own process, which I hope has resulted in just what you describe: music of high quality, singable by a parish choir of reasonable skill, and fitting for the liturgy. There are a few key points, in my mind.
First, be suffused in the sound-world of Gregorian chant. The Church has said repeatedly that chant is the benchmark for all liturgical music. As Pope Pius X instructed in Tra le sollecitudini back in 1903, “the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.” Every parish in which I have worked has featured chant in its musical programming, so when I try to compose a melody with the “savor” of the Gregorian form, there is a lot of music rattling around in my head to serve as inspiration.
Second, understand common practice compositional techniques such as harmonic progression and singable voice-leading. My college composition teacher once said, upon hearing a piece of mine, “That’s weird, Chris. Remember that you need to be able to write what sounds normal before you venture out into the avant-garde.” To compose music discernable as “coming from within a tradition” requires familiarity, even mastery, of the elements of that tradition. The liturgy is not the place for wild experimentation or “pushing the envelope,” and yet this does not proscribe invention, expressivity, or a personal musical voice. One must be attentive to an authentic liturgical ethos, and write from within it. Tried-and-true tools, particularly the common practice techniques found in much excellent hymnody and elsewhere, provide a strong foundation for good choral writing.
Third, bear in mind your singers. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What do you think they will be able to sing confidently and well? Remember that a liturgical motet or anthem is sung prayer, and if people are working too hard on singing the music, they may forget to pray while they’re doing it. Yet there is a balance to be struck. You can challenge singers, if the music or text requires it, without overwhelming them. A more complex musical language can help them to grow in expressivity; but if it is too complex and sounds like a hot mess during the Mass, then perhaps some revisions are in order.
FR. FRIEL: Is there anything you would like to add about this recording or your work with Ars Mueller?
CHRIS MUELLER: I’d like to go back to the first point: we hope that this record contains beautiful music that will inspire people, help them to pray, and give them a sense of the beauty that a choir can provide at Mass each Sunday. God is the Author of all beauty; let us worship Him with as much reverent beauty as we can!
Readers who are interested to learn more about Mueller’s work in liturgical music can check out his website.
The full track list of Liturgica is as follows:
1. Hosanna to the Son of David (Mueller)
2. To you, O Lord (Mueller)
3. Rorate caeli (Jakob Handl)
4. Adam lay ybounden (Mueller)
5. Puer natus est (Mueller)
6. Tribus miraculis (H. L. Hassler)
7. Out of the depths (Mueller)
8. My God, my God (John Blow)
9. My heart has awaited reproach (Mueller)
10. If I walk amid affliction (Mueller)
11. Fremuit spiritus Jesu (Clemens non Papa)
12. Victimae paschali laudes (Mueller)
13. Cry out with joy (Mueller)
14. The angel of the Lord (Mueller)
15. Ascendens Christus (T. L. de Victoria)
16. Veni Sanctae Spiritus (Mueller)
17. O sacrum convivium (H. L. Hassler)
18. Ecce panis angelorum (Mueller)
19. I will bless the Lord (Mueller)
20. Lux aeterna (Jean Richafort)