Sacred Favorites

Of all my experiences as a musician, the six years I spent as a Gentleman of the Choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral is perhaps the most formative of them all (possibly matched only by my experience as a barbershopper). I sang in hundreds of services, performing music that ranged from ancient chant to contemporary works that were composed by my fellow choristers. Some of the most memorable include Thomas Tallis’ Lamentations, Joseph Clokey’s Treasures in Heaven, and Poulenc’s O magnum mysterium. As Easter was last Sunday, I thought I might share some of the favorites I’ve sung over the years.

The final phrase from Amy Beach's "Peace I Leave with You"

The final phrase from Amy Beach’s “Peace I Leave with You”

Quatre petites prieres de Saint Francois d’Assise – Francis Poulenc

Poulenc’s Quatre petites prieres de Saint Francois d’Assise (Four little prayers of St. Francis of Assise) is hardcore. These “close harmony” pieces for men’s voices are an excellent example of how to take the conventions of Western sacred choral music and twist them into something beautiful and striking. Poulenc’s bizarre chord changes find new ways to express the words of St. Francis of Assise, and epitomizes music critic Claude Rostand’s 1950 description of Poulenc in the Paris-Presse as “half monk, half bad boy” (“le moine et le voyou“). Despite the many recordings available for these pieces, most of them don’t realize the potential of the works. Luckily, Tenebrae recorded the pieces on their 2010 album, Figure Humaine: Choral Works by Francis Poulenc.

O nata lux – Thomas Tallis

Along with Poulenc, Thomas Tallis is a composer whose work has deeply influenced me. While lots of attention is given to the use of so-called “false relations” by Tallis (which you’ll hear at the end of this work), his real skill lay in his simple and elegant voice leading embedded in the middle ground between modality and the modern sense of tonality or key. Like Poulenc, Tallis has a way of making striking choices seemingly out of nowhere. The difference is that Tallis, of course, was working in the style of late English Renaissance music. O nata lux is a work I sang many many times at St. Paul’s Cathedral; I was delighted to find an excellent performance by friends of mine in San Diego Pro Arte Voices in that same space.

Like as the hart – Herbert Howells

Herbert Howells is one of those composers that is a superstar inside the Anglican/Episcopal church tradition, but otherwise virtually unknown. Of all the music I was introduced to at St. Paul’s, the music of Howells that I found most surprising in it’s beauty, feeling, and simplicity. It was incredibly difficult to pick which work of his to feature here, but I opted for the old standard of his, Like as the hart. There are so many things that are quintessential Howells in this piece: the bluesy organ intro, the unison melody that introduces the tune, the change of mood that accompanies the tone of the text in the middle of the work, and the surprising yet satisfying final cadence. What I find most compelling about this anthem (along with many of Howells’ other works) is how the sonic choices reinforce the meaning of the text and capture the drama of the psalm.

O sacrum convivium – Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium inhabits a strange and almost sinister world of sound. Consonance and dissonance seem to coexist within the chords formed by the four voices. Anxiety permeates the texture up until the end, when thing finally start to feel more calm and at rest. This represents the narrative arc of the sacrum convivium, or blessed sacrament; which in turn speaks to the dilemma of humanity that recurs again and again in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: being trapped between the perfection of spirit and flawed existence of the physical. O sacrum convivium is a work I’ve always dreamed of doing in a quartet. Although incredibly difficult, doing this piece one-on-a-part a cappella would emphasize the anxiousness of the work by the potential to fine tune all of Messiaen’s biting chords. I was absolutely delighted to find this excellent recording by The English Vocal Consort of Helsinki.

Peace I Leave With You – Amy Beach

Peace I Leave With You is one of those perfect pieces of music. It contains so much of what I love about Western choral music: subtly moving lines of counterpoint inside the texture, bruising and scraping dissonances, and the apparent sense of completeness that fulfills the work. This short, sweet, and stunning anthem is another works I’ve always desired to sing in quartet; the manner in which Beach sets the text tickles the barbershopper inside of me, and I tingle at the thought of ringing some of fun sonorities that she asks us to sing. There’s really little to to say about this piece that the music itself doesn’t say on its own, and it’s a great shame that we don’t hear more music by Ms. Beach.

As an atheist, I sometimes wonder what draws me to these works. Is it just their sounds? If that’s the case, does the text even matter? And am I being a disingenuous person by singing these pieces (particularly in a setting of worship)? Am I just indulging my own ears and creating sound solely for my benefit and disregarding the other aspects of the works? If all that is true, I’m forced to wonder if it’s actually unethical for me to perform this music.

While there is some truth to pursuing beautiful or desired sounds, it wasn’t long before I found myself drawn to the themes and issues raised by the texts. For instance, in Like as the hart Howell’s draws upon the text of Psalm 42, where the psalmist asks, “When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?” One can easily interpret God to mean peace, or meaningful life. As the psalm continues: “My tears have been my meat day and night.” Here the psalmist laments the struggle and pain they face each day. Again, pain from the circumstances of the world is not an exclusive experience to those who believe in the god of the Bible. We’ve all felt pain, struggle, and heartbreak, and we all seek meaning in our actions and peace in our lives.

Songwriter Nick Cave (who does not identify as Christian or religious) in his lecture “The Secret Life of the Love Song” speaks of how the psalms have inspired him as a songwriter:

I found the Psalms, which deal directly with relationship between man and God, teeming with all the clamorous desperation, longing, exultation, erotic violence and brutality that I could hope for. The Psalms are soaked in suadade, drenched in duende and bathed in bloody-minded violence. In many ways these songs became the blue-print for much of my more sadistic love songs.

The Abrahamic faiths place humanity in a position between God and the animals. Regardless of whether one believes in Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, one must contend with the fact that human beings are seemingly capable to rationality not available to animals, yet we still suffer and struggle. The world of humanity is filled simultaneously with great joy and great misery. This problem existed before Christianity, and continues to persist regardless of whether people identify as having no religious beliefs or identify as atheists.

Singing and reading these texts have shown me the universality of the human condition (or at least the lasting concerns of Western culture from ancient times to today). The music has allowed me to focus my eye upon the recurring issue of what a human life can mean, and to express great joys and terrible frustrations. Most importantly it has shown me that these works have a real value not only in the setting of worship, but also as a means to reflect upon the world we all take part in.

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