F YOU’LL BE SINGING HOLY WEEK with your full choir this year, consider yourself blessed. Many parishes are still using limited forces. Others are still under orders not to sing. Even if you’re one of the fortunate ones, you may still be rebuilding your choir program after a long, pandemic-induced layoff.
In any case, some of your old favorite Lenten SATB selections may now be out of reach. Or perhaps you’re looking for a bit of variety. If so, consider the Crux Fidelis often (mis)attributed to King John IV of Portugal.
King John IV (1604-1656), who almost certainly didn’t write this motet, reigned over the Portuguese Empire’s high point. Although he was known for his compositional skill, nobody has found an original manuscript for this work. It was first published in France in 1869, and its style is that of a 19th-century motet.
Inside Crux Fidelis
Crux Fidelis isn’t quite what you might expect. The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s in major (my choir sings an edition in G major). Don’t get me wrong: around this time of year, I love Palestrina’s Super Flumina Babylonis, Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, and Victoria’s O Vos Omnes. But to have a major-key motet for Passiontide is a welcome change of pace.
Perhaps I’m digging too deep here, but I like to think this motet depicts the sweetness of the cross. Not only is it in major, but it maintains a legato texture all the way through. Even the climax is subtle. Harmonically speaking, not much happens. The composer (whoever he or she really was) tonicizes the dominant very briefly, but the piece never decisively modulates.
Despite all this, Crux Fidelis is anything but “meh.” It’s a motet that settles in on Mount Calvary and calmly tells its story.
What to Look and Listen for
What I love about this piece:
The music is in major, but the text is in minor.
It hasn’t been sung to death and gives congregations something new upon which to meditate.
It won’t tax the voices of a choir that may be approaching exhaustion from near-constant singing during Holy Week.
A few tips:
Have a clear idea about tempo. I hesitate to provide a metronome marking. But live with it for a while, and I think you’ll agree that there’s a fairly precise sweet spot for tempo. It doesn’t want to be lento, but it would also be a shame to make it sound as if we’re trying to get this little gem over with.
Figure out the length of every phrase ending. This was the thing my choir and I worked hardest on when we learned this piece about five years ago. So many phrases end on long notes, most of which end in consonants. We went through the incredibly tedious but ultimately essential process of having everyone mark that this “S” is on the “and” of beat four while that one is on the downbeat of the following measure. The real thrill comes when these details become ingrained and your choir members can cut off together simply by watching, listening, and carefully controlling the momentum of each note.
Try it on a hum, then on vowels-only. Some of the “bigger” Lenten motets supply their own momentum. It would be understandable to see a choir drop its intensity for a piece like Crux Fidelis—but a piece like this needs even more intensity, or it will flop. Consider having your choir hum through the piece to expose the breath control challenges it presents, and to fall in love with the subtlety of its harmonies.
Whether you’re fully back in action or planning scaled-down liturgies, I wish you the best in your liturgical and spiritual preparation for Holy Week and Easter.