La Risurrezione di Cristo

Yesterday, I sang the praises of that great Italian musician and churchman Don Lorenzo Perosi. As we enter the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, one of the Old Testament figures of the Transitus Domini, I present you one of Perosi’s greatest works, La Risurrezione di Cristo which is sung in Latin to biblical and liturgical texts. This is rather a nice performance by the Cappella Musicale del Duomo di Modena.

It makes a difference to hear an Italian orchestra playing in tune, and for the performance not to be insipid as is often the case! The young conductor really knows what he is doing – hats off!

This is a playlist of several clips, so you need to click on this link to hear it on Youtube.

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O Filii et Filiae

I wish you all a happy and glorious Easter in the joy of the Risen One. This setting of O Filii et Filiae is taken from the monumental oratorio of Franz Liszt, Christus. Like the peace and reverence of the Mass of Christmas, we enter the mystery of the empty tomb still in the darkness of the night, and the euphoria has not yet hit us. We approach with faith and quietness, still stunned and finding things difficult to believe as we lived through the bitter moments of the Passion in our prayer. This is the mystery of the Resurrection.

Tomorrow morning, as is the Sarum custom, I will be taking the Blessed Sacrament (third host consecrated on Maundy Thursday) from the Easter Sepulchre to put it in its exalted place above the altar of the chapel – in the hanging pyx. The cross of Good Friday will also be taken from its burial place.

This is indeed a moving moment of the Church’s year. It took the whole length of Septuagesimatide, Lent and Passiontide to get to this moment. Let us treasure it.

The Lord is truly risen! Alleluia!

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Don Lorenzo Perosi

perosiYou might not know the music of Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956) (more detailed article in Italian) who was an extremely gifted composer in the great Italian operatic tradition. However, he never composed operas. Giacomo Puccini is quoted as saying that “C’è più musica nella testa di Perosi che in quella mia e di Mascagni messe insieme” – There’s more music in Perosi’s head than in mine and Mascagni’s put together. I see great similarities in style between Perosi and Puccini in their use of chromaticism and the idiom of late nineteenth-century Romanticism.

His output ranges from the monumental oratorio Mosè that runs for more than two hours to little pieces of church music that are well within the capabilities of ordinary church choirs. La Risurrezione di Cristo is a great favourite of mine, and I remember listening to it many times when I was a seminarian in Rome in 1985-86. Youtube is quite generous for pieces by Perosi. Today is Good Friday, and I recommend listening to his Passion of St Mark.

The Wikipedia article observes that Perosi was succeeded as director of the Sistine Choir by Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci. I have seen Bartolucci direct his choir at masses celebrated by John Paul II in the 1980′s, and have wrinkled my nose many times on hearing them, used as I am to English choral music. The Italians are great musicians and singers, but their choirs are rather “ropey” to say the least! It is interesting to learn that Bartolucci blames Perosi for the deterioration of Church music.

Perosi was part of a scheme by Pius X at the beginning of the twentieth century to restore Gregorian chant and polyphonic music in the liturgy. He took a great interest in Gregorian chant and collaborated in the movement around the Abbey of Solesmes. The study of Gregorian chant continues, and the work of the nineteenth-century Benedictine monks did not have the last word. To this day, there is quite a difference between Solesmes and Fontgombault continuing to use the old Solesmes method. I used this method myself when I was briefly in charge of music at the seminary of Gricigliano after giving myself a crash course in Gregorian chant.

Musicians often have a hard time with the clergy. Perosi seems to have glided through the system and was in the right place at the right time, in charge of music in Venice and protected by Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto who became Pope Pius X in 1903. We know that Pius X was someone we cannot conveniently diabolise. On one hand he was anathematising Romantic souls like Tyrrell and Von Hügel as Modernists, but on the other hand, he was a man of great pastoral sensitivity and love of beauty.

English church musicians need to be aware of the various movements in continental Europe, especially in Italy, France and Germany.

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The Future of Music

I have been involved in music for most of my life, mostly organ and choral music. Since then, my tastes in listening have broadened, and I tend to have a great affection for chamber music. My tastes have refined over the years from the grandiose to the intimate. This has happened in many aspects of my life.

Composition? I have succeeded in producing very little because I have felt blocked by the “establishment” and their “orthodoxy”. I studied harmony and counterpoint in musicology at school, and we analysed Mozart symphonies in very much the same way as poetry in our English literature classes. Music has harmony, melody, counterpoint and form. It is a language with its own grammar, vocabulary and literature. At the age of 16, I wrote an organ piece and since lost the only handwritten copy I had. I did a little motet on Videntes stellam for the Epiphany. More recently, I made the effort to overcome my “composer’s block” and wrote a setting of In pace in ipsum. I cannot deny it – I identify with neo-Romanticism from the beginning of the twentieth century, in more ways than only in music.

Are we not flogging dead horses, writing always in the same idiom until nothing original can be produced? Are there no more than twenty-six letters in the Latin alphabet as used for English, and yet we continue to write new things?

With extreme chromaticism in Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century, the break came in 1912 when Arnold Schönberg devised the idea of breaking totally with harmony. Thus we had atonal music, composed outside the rules of melody, harmony and counterpoint. As one person said to me in the 1970′s – “You need new ears for new music”. There was a book called Ear Cleaning designed to convert listeners and music students to atonal music. Atonal music sounds like something chaotic and random. It is noise without any order or law. I personally believe that this is not a matter of taste, but of objective laws. As the twentieth century wound on and the last of the Romantics had died (Rachmaninov in the 1940′s? Vaughan Williams in 1958? Herbert Howells in 1983?), atonality began to be imposed as an “orthodoxy”.

I am one of those who believe that the future of music depends on a return to melody and harmony. Some might see a “movement”, but I see it as something similar to Romanticism. Some of those men knew each other and were friends, but each had the attitude “be everything and join nothing”. Each of us is best on his own in these matters.

Like Romanticism, composers of tonal music situate themselves in a distinctive philosophy of life. It goes from a belief in objective beauty based on natural law, form, laws governing harmony and the use of dissonance and chromaticism. At school, we learn about melody and counterpoint, tension, suspension and resolution. A composer may take many years in finding and developing his personal style.

Tonality is based on the relationship between the notes that make up an octave (a given sound frequency and half or double the sound wave frequency number in Hertz). There are seven notes in an octave and the octave of the given note is the eighth. The relationship between those notes, where the tones and semitones occur, is called a mode. In medieval music and Gregorian chant, there are eight modes. In modern music, there are two: major and minor. From the eighteenth century, as music was written in a greater number of keys, instruments began to be tuned in equal temperament, the Pythagorean comma being divided by the twelve chromatic notes in the scale and made tolerable to the ear. At the same time, pieces of music could change keys as they progressed. This is called modulation, generally between the dominant, the sub-dominant and the relative minor, though special types of modulation came in during the nineteenth century like enharmonic modulation. In this way, there was a true development, as everything became more complex. All the same, a piece kept its main key and would almost always begin and end in the tonic of that key.

This was the tendency of the nineteenth century in everything. Go over the edge or rediscover simplicity and minimalism. As the twentieth century progressed, tonal composers have been marginalised and ostracised. Such composers were condemned to writing for the cinema or television, as was Vaughan Williams.

Atonal “orthodoxy” is being seriously challenged by composers with similar ideas in life to those of the Romantics. The great challengers were minimalists like Avro Pärt, whose music is of great sensitivity and beauty. The idea is not to return to nineteenth-century music, but to reinstate melody and harmony.

The greatest objection by atonalists to “traditional” music is the risk of pastiche, one era imitating another. This has been another cause of my own “composer’s block” and inability to venture into composition. I have called many things into question in my life. My singing teacher had a kind word to say, that we cannot reject our cultural history and tradition. Mine is English church music. Like Romanticism, we are called to live our identity whilst living in our time – not imitating the past but learning from it. The only way to learn composition now is to be self-taught, after a classical musical education in “techniques”.

After that, is is hard slog and occasional “inspiration”, and the reward of performing a piece and finding it enjoyed by others who love music.

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In pace in idipsum

For this Good Friday, I offer you my musical setting of the text In pace in idipsum, which is sung at the Burial of Christ at the end of the Mass of the Presanctified in the Use of Sarum. Our quartet begun to work on it today, and we intend doing more rehearsals to get it right.

Here is a recording I made today just to give an idea. It is, as would be expected, quite ropey and excruciating in places, because the parts are not yet acquired, and we need to do a lot more work on the balance and dynamics of the piece. This is the best I can do for now.

I begin with a short and peaceful homophonic responsory. The verse is sung in a simple fugue-like counterpoint, and is repeated for the Gloria Patri (the Gloria Patri is not sung during the Triduum). I end the piece with an extremely sober coda and a plagal cadence. Here is the score in pdf format. Readers are free to copy and perform it as they want – I just ask them not to plagiarise or claim the composition is theirs.

We will resume work in May, and I’ll do another recording when we get it right.

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Even when Judas hanged himself, there was a storm too…

I love the old Clint Eastwood films! One of my favourites is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

This film involves a Mexican by the name of Tuco, a professional bandit and brother of a Franciscan priest. From 3 minutes 22, we see Tuco try to get his revenge for having been left in the desert by Blondie (Clint Eastwood). There is a certain friendliness about this crook, but at the same time he would betray at any time for profit. How appropriate that he referred to Judas hanging himself when about to hang his former partner and bounty hunter!

How willing are we to sacrifice ourselves and not shift our entire system of moral values for one bit of expediency and self interest? Judas was a complex character, and there are many theories about him, and what made him betray the Lord and be the instrument of his Passion.

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This is Holy Week, during which we meditate about human wickedness and perversity in the minds of official religious clerics, regardless of the faith they claim. We contemplate the death of Christ, and throughout Lent, we have considered our own mortality. We all have to die sooner or later, and our Christian faith exhorts to be ready at any time. We don’t know the day or the hour.

We live in a time when many tell us that there is nothing after death. Our bodies die and we cease to exist – we lose consciousness forever. Our life depends on our body and our thoughts on our physical brains. It is easy to have doubts and wonder if this is so, the inescapable reality that no amount of wishful thinking can push away. Even for a Christian, we sometimes wonder.

On the other hand, there are testimonies of near-death experiences, out-of-the-body experiences and séances with mediums who have direct communication with the dead. There have been apparitions of Our Lady and the Saints to certain souls, and the communication between the worlds was no less real. At Fatima in 1917, there was a miracle of the sun seen and experienced by thousands of people, including atheists. The evidence seems overwhelmingly in favour of the continuation of consciousness after physical death. I recommend an open-minded examination of claims on a website by Victor Zammit, a retired Australian lawyer who devotes his life to the cause of acceptance of the afterlife.

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson was son of an Archbishop of Canterbury and became a Roman Catholic in the very beginning of the twentieth century. He died in 1914 of an illness at the age of only 43.  A friend of Mgr Benson, Anthony Borgia, allegedly received channelled communications from his friend, and wrote them in a book with the title Life after Death in the Worlds Unseen. Here is a quote from Benson on experiencing death:

I saw my physical body lying lifeless upon its bed, but here was I, the real I, alive and well.

For a minute or two I remained gazing and the thought of what to do next entered my head, but help was close at hand. I could still see the room quite clearly around me, but there was a certain mistiness about it as though it were filled with smoke very evenly distributed. I looked down at myself wondering what I was wearing in the way of clothes, for I had obviously risen from a bed of sickness and was therefore in no condition to move very far from my surroundings. I was extremely surprised to find that I had on my usual attire, such as I wore when moving freely and in good health about my own house. My surprise was only momentary since, I thought to myself, what other clothes would I expect to be wearing? Surely not some sort of diaphanous robe. Such costume is usually associated with the conventional idea of an angel and I had no need to assure myself that I was not that!

Such knowledge of the spirit world as I had been able to glean from my own experiences instantly came to my aid. I knew at once of the alteration that had taken place in my condition; I knew, in other words, that I had ‘died.’ I knew, too, that I was alive, that I had shaken off my last illness sufficiently to be able to stand upright and look about me. At no time was I in any mental distress, but I was full of wonder at what was to happen next, for here I was, in full possession of my faculties and, indeed, feeling ‘physically’ as I had never felt before. … the whole process must have taken but a few minutes of earth time.

(Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, Life in the World Unseen 10-11.)

The Astral Plane – Arrival

Of course, we are relying on apocryphal texts that may or may not be authentic. We can only take it on a certain degree of belief rather than empirical evidence. I think that if we do have this sort of doubt, we need to pray for the gift of faith. We can also read Mr Zammit’s site and see the various videos of him explaining things and other videos from other sources including scientists specialised in quantum physics.

For a long time, I have been convinced that Christianity must have a purpose other than being the only way to a happy afterlife, when evidence from elsewhere indicates that Christianity changes nothing in this respect, except by raising the soul’s spiritual life. The purpose of Christianity is not saving “souls from hell” but bringing them to the beauty of God’s gift to humanity and the world (the universe) through Christ and the unique way he showed and taught. It is a much higher ideal, and it also can help us to live better and more selflessly, and therefore to be ready for a degree of beatitude not known on this earth.

Christ, being divine and human, had the reassurance that death was only a passage (in his case the resurrection of his body into a spiritual-physical body), but feared the torture and the agony together with the hatred of lewd and bigoted people. He lived his Passion both divinely and humanly in this great mystery of the hypostatic union.

I often think about death, and have always done so since my childhood. Sometimes I am horribly anguished, and sometimes it calls me gently and lovingly – but always in God’s hands. That is also a part of my self-discovery of having everything in common with the Romantics. Love this life and we will lose it. Lose it for Jesus’ sake and we will find it. Unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth fruit. We read this a few days ago in St John’s Gospel. It certainly changes our perspective in life!

Death is bitter and sweet at the same time. As we celebrate the death and Resurrection of Christ, may this Paschal Mystery be a type of our own passage sometime soon (the way the years flash by when you pass the 50 mark!).

Oh, and by the way, hat tip to Fr Jonathan Munn in Holy Week 2014: Tuesday.

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