DDLY, TIME SEEMS to be moving faster. Locking down, slowly opening, cautiously venturing out (at least for some), I still feel caught in a timeless, oozing fluidity in which one day, one week, melts into another, like so many clocks and cows of a Dalí painting. Although many of us still plan and play for our livestreamed Masses, the usual punctuations of time seem less incisive. It’s hard to believe that Pentecost is this week. Didn’t we just have Palm Sunday?
In this period, I am trying to be as optimistic as possible about returning to public Mass on Sundays. Today, Tuesday, in the Diocese of Dallas, we will be allowed to begin having one public Mass per day, Monday through Friday only, at 25% occupancy and with other strict guidelines. Our parish staff will be serving as ushers for these first few weeks; in fact, I will be ushering at the first several of these. I am glad to serve in this capacity and can’t wait to say to whomever shows up today, “Welcome Back!”
And, optimistically, I am planning for a return one day to public Sunday Mass, with sung chant and polyphony. When that becomes safe, well, we do not know. I do not want to engage here the discussion of choir vs. no choir, or droplets vs. aerosols, or singing vs. humming, or any of the other discussions going on now. I’m not a medical doctor. What I do want to mention today is what we might be able to imagine when it is deemed safe to have at least a few musicians available.
The art of composing is, I think, a crucial discipline for any conductor to engage in. Likewise, the art of arranging or transcription can be equally important, and useful. I am fortunate to be working with many talented young musicians who possess several skill sets. Some are accomplished instrumentalists as well as conductors and singers. So I ask myself, how can I put these talents to good use?
Imagine with me if you will, a time when we could have three or four musicians at Mass, but no more. What to do? Yes, chant the propers. But is that it? I am imagining a new ensemble, built out of necessity, for the singing of polyphonic motets and even Mass ordinaries. We know that during the Renaissance and early Baroque, especially in times of war and pestilence, various voice parts would have been covered by an instrument if no singer was available. Trombones work especially well for this, as do stringed instruments or oboes and bassoons. For example, something as beautiful (and neglected) as the two-voice bicinia of Orlando de Lassus might be imagined with one singer on one part and say, a trombone on the other. How about a tenor with a viola? All the words still sung, all the counterpoint still there. And what a cool sound that could be! While we would love to have our full choirs back immediately, that just may not happen. But with a little imagination, might it be possible that we could still hear the works of Lassus, Josquin, Palestrina, Guerrero, et al.?
Arrangement of music is not a new thing. Verdi operas and Mahler symphonies have been arranged for small ensembles. Both Duruflé and Fauré arranged their own Requiems for various combinations and sizes of ensembles. Transcribing or adapting existing music into a completely different medium might be a stretch, but who knows what we will be faced with in the future. We should be ready.
Don’t forget to compose. Composing out of necessity often yields wonderful results. What if you had only three singers? Would you have repertoire to perform? Perhaps you will need to write something. Here is a little Communion motet that I composed for three voices that’s very easy but gets the job done.
In closing, I want to reiterate that we must be ready to imagine all sorts of scenarios and necessities. I recently watched this amazing transcription of Bach’s St. John Passion. Whether or not this is your cup of tea, you’ll have to admit that it is both a tour de force performance and an extremely creative and interesting adaptation for these historic and unprecedented times. Make sure you watch the final chorus, “Ruht wohl.” It will blow you away!