Monday, December 29, 2014

Saint Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral

Saint Thomas Becket, (21 Dec. c. 1118 (or 1120) -- 29 Dec. 1170.
Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, and martyr for the Catholic faith. In some ways, his story is remarkably similar to that of Saint Thomas More, whom he preceded by several centuries. Both men maintained a loyal friendship to the English monarch and fiercely devoted to the Catholic faith, which eventually led to irreconcilable differences ultimately costing them their lives. Before his appointment as Archbishop, Thomas led a life of lavish abundance. However, upon appointment, he forsook his materialistic lifestyle and gave up all claims to earthly wealth, a remarkable choice when one considers that this choice was not required of his position at the time.

"This stark, 'cold turkey' separation, this radical embrace of a life of spiritual and physical simplicity, was undoubtedly challenging, overwhelming, and initially undesirable. ... But he denied, with prayer and fasting, this area of temptation in order to focus solely on the Source of the strength and grace that he knew would be necessary to remain faithful in such a perilous and controversial role. This Source was summoned and accepted upon the martyrdom of St. Thomas, when his executioners sought him out in the cloistered abbey where he lived in 1170. Taking his life in the abbey’s Cathedral, between the altars of Our Lady and St. Benedict, St. Thomas exclaimed to his executioners, 'For the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church I am willing to die.'"

St. Thomas' martyrdom has been the subject of numerous literary and film adaptions. One of the most famous is T.S. Eliot's verse drama titled Murder in the Cathedral. First performed in 1935, it was deeply influenced by the eyewitness account of the murder by Edward Grim, a clerk at Cambridge who authored a biography of St. Thomas published in 1180. Grim was visiting Canterbury Cathedral when Becket was attacked and attempted to protect the archbishop, but was seriously wounded in the attempt.

Snow White and Rose Red by ejbeachy from Deviantart
I first came across Eliot's retelling via another retelling: the young adult novel The Shadow of the Bear by Regina Doman, a modern adaption of the Grimm fairytale Snow White and Rose Red. In the first chapter, two sisters meet a homeless stranger, a young man who calls himself Bear. The three young people find that they share a love for poetry, especially T.S. Eliot. It so happens that Bear's favorite poem is Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, foreshadowing the events which are to unfold as the sisters become entangled in their new friend's dark past, involving murder, betrayal, and a secret treasure trove. Passages of the drama are quoted throughout the novel, and thus I discovered the beauty and wisdom of Eliot!

Similar to the ancient Greek tragedies such as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, a chorus comments on the events as the story progresses, serving as a link between the characters and the audience. I conclude with one of the final passages, a particularly compelling prayer  in which the chorus becomes the audience, the common man. Likewise, may the prayer of the chorus become our prayer, especially on this St. Thomas' feast day.

"Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,
Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God…
…Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us. 
Blessed Thomas, pray for us."

Sources cited:

A New Look & A New Name

I apologize that it has taken me so long to do this. This explanation is long over-due, but since I have become a doctoral student, time is precious and when I come home from school I frequently do not have much in the way of creative brain power to blog as often as I would like. That aside...
... As some of you may have noticed, I revamped various aspects of my blog over the past several months! You may also remember that this blog was originally created under the title "Smatterings of Reverie from Bag Shot Row." When I first created my blog, it was meant as a place where I could share art, quotes, music, and the like, a.k.a. "Smatterings of Reverie." However, as time has passed, this blog has evolved from a place to share art and beauty to a place to talk about art and beauty. And so I decided to give it a makeover! I wanted to keep the allusion to Tolkien and Middle Earth, which was my first love and obsession while I was in high school and remains to this day one of my favorite novels. I also wanted to create a more rustic, charming, yet cozy atmosphere evoking Bag End itself, and I feel as though I have succeeded for the most part!
Since this blog has evolved more into a discussion and occasionally dialogue revolving around art, beauty, and culture, "quibble"  (definition: a slight objection or criticism) seemed like an apt alteration to the title -- though its similarity to the title of the wizard tabloid "The Quibbler" from the world of Harry Potter is no coincidence! And finally, the tea reference not only encompasses a variety of my favorite things -- from hobbits to Lewis to British culture -- but also serves as a delightful companion to any good discussion!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Modern Sacred Music in the 20th Century, Part II: Messiaen & Britten

To read Part I, click here.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) may aptly be described as one of the most idiosyncratic composers of the twentieth century. Rather than adhering to a particular school or style, he preferred to create his own unique musical voice through the combination of influences including birdsong, eastern rhythms, his own modes of limited transposition, and his religious beliefs. Although he did not come from a religious family, Messiaen was a devoted Roman Catholic whose faith and interest in mysticism deeply impacted his compositional output. Like Duruflé, he also served as a church musician for almost his entire career and believed that Gregorian chant was the true native music of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Perhaps this explains why his motet O Sacrum Convivium serves as his only work (outside of specific solo organ compositions) designated for liturgical use. Composed in 1937 for SATB a cappella choir, his motet appears relatively early in his ouvre, which perhaps partially explains its reserved musical language. The text, in keeping with Messiaen’s preference for mystical subjects, consists of a meditation on the mystery of the Eucharist written by St. Thomas Aquinas. The motet’s restrained dissonances and muted colors resemble those of late 19th and early 20th century composers such as Fauré and Poulenc, though they sound remarkably conservative when compared to the majority of Messiaen’s work. The rhythmic values, combined into groups of two or three eighth notes, bear the marks of the Solesmes monks interpretation of Gregorian chant (a trait also found in the chant-based works of Duruflé). The texture is primarily homophonic, drawing attention to the lilting, almost ethereal melody in the soprano line. Rather than reciting the text verbatim, Messiaen rearranges the text to create a dramatic arch within the piece. The choir sings through the first three phrases of the text at a pianissimo, crescendoing slightly at “the mind is filled with grace,” then diminishing as it reverently repeats the words “O sacrum.”  There is a slight pause, then he reiterates the opening material, steadily building to a majestic forte as the melody soars up to an A on “futurae gloriae.” As the chorus sings “Alleluia,” the soprano line languidly descends, the texture softening into a pianissimo. The motet concludes with a sonorous major chord in the lower parts, the melody rocking gently to and fro on a subtle dissonance as gentle as a lullaby.


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in some ways appears as a bit of an anomaly among the composers included in this discussion. Messiaen and Duruflé were fervent Catholics. Pärt is a member of the Russian Orthodox faith. By contrast, Britten preferred to distance himself from organized religion for the majority of his life. Nevertheless, he wrote a number of choral works for use in worship, Protestant as well as Catholic. These works have earned a permanent place in the choral repertoire due to Britten's ability to combine inventive and modern styles with accessibility to both the tastes of average congregations and the abilities of amateur -- albeit trained -- church choirs. Although perhaps it was not as influential as in the cases of the aforementioned composers, Britten was certainly well acquainted with plainsong and made considerable use of it as seen in works such as the Ceremony of Carols, the Hymn to Saint Peter, the church parable Curlew River, and the cantata Saint Nicolas

Britten composed his Hymn to the Virgin when he was sixteen while laid up in the school sanatorium, taking the text from his copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1200-1900, a book he had won as a prize. The text dates from the 14th century and serves as a devotional rather than liturgical prayer, combining Latin and Middle English texts to create a prayer in which the church militant meditate upon the Blessed Mother and ask her intercession. Composed for double choir, the four-part homophonic texture lends the work a beautiful clarity akin to that of hymnody, while the melismas on the Latin words imitate harmonized plainsong. The harmonic language appears to draw from the early English music revival, a revival which originated in the late 19th century and characterized by a renewed interest in the music of William Byrd and other English polyphonic composers. It also included the tradition of English folk song. Composers not only studied this music but also sought to imitate it in new compositions. Britten would later reject this trend, but the modal harmonies of the Hymn do just the opposite, complimenting the medieval text. Though the harmony and texture are simple, Britten imbues the piece with drama by having the two choruses present the text antiphonally: one choir sings in English while the other comments on or completes the thought in Latin. The choirs sing separately in the first two verses, the drama building in the second verse. Then both forces join together in verse three, the soprano of Choir I and all of Choir II singing the melody while the lower voices of Choir I ascend in largely stepwise motion, climaxing on the phrase,“Lady, queen of paradise.” The hymn concludes in mystical tranquility, ending with the familiar lilting melisma from the previous verses.


 Throughout the 20th century, the Catholic Church encouraged the composition of modern forms of sacred music. On November 22, 2003, the anniversary of the promulgation of St. Pius X’s motu proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini, St. John Paul II wrote, “This does not mean copying Gregorian chant, but rather seeing to it that new compositions be pervaded by the same spirit that gave rise to and so molded that chant. Only an artist profoundly immersed in the sensus Ecclesiae may try to perceive and translate into melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy.”

How could the traditional language of sacred music be reconciled with the new musical languages of Debussy and Ravel, the serialist techniques of Schoenberg, and other modern trends? The 20th century produced a significant number of composers of religious and sacred music capable of meeting this challenge. These four composers were able to integrate elements of the past with elements of the present to create a musical language of their own. French composers Duruflé and Messiaen combined the colorful harmonies of the French school with various elements of Gregorian chant, ranging from direct quotation and variation to rhythmic inspiration hearkening to the Solesmes interpretation. Duruflé also incorporated 19th century elements as seen in the romantic melodies in the middle section of the Gloria and in the Benedictus. Arvo Pärt engineered his tintinnabuli style from the foundations of tonality (such as the triad), elements of plainsong and Renaissance polyphony, and certain aspects of 20th century serialism. In his Hymn to the Virgin, Britten likewise incorporates traditional elements of English modality and hymnody into a new mystical and dynamic language. All of these composers manage to use elements of the old to create something new in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy without sounding antiquarian.

The music of Messiaen, Britten, Duruflé, and Pärt prove that it is possible to compose new sacred music in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy. The integration of the old traditions of sacred music with the dynamic creativity of these four composers did not result in the archaic survival of a dead culture but rather served as the instigator for new innovations in sacred music. Their compositions breath the spirit of ancient religious chant, but the overall idiom is decidedly modern. They prove that the model of plainsong, far from limiting the composer, instructs him in the qualities of true art in keeping with the sacramental nature of liturgical music. It is in this way that cultural innovation gives birth to new forms of expression, new forms which serve as worthy successors of the timeless masterpieces of the past.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Artists, be Dominicans and Preach it!

Who are the Dominicans?

In 1216, St. Dominic de Guzman founded the Order of Preachers, otherwise known as the Dominicans. Although this new order was created in specific response to the Albigensian heresy -- which denied the dignity of our humanity -- it was also meant to fulfill the need for capable preachers formed in the teachings of the Catholic faith and able to combat doctrinal error in all its forms.

St Dominic, Bl. Fra Angelico.
How was this formation accomplished? Through study; sharing the fruits of their studies through preaching and teaching; living a monastic life of poverty, chastity, and obedience; devotion to the liturgy -- but all of this can be summed up in these simple words: dedication to the Truth, for God is truth. Dominicans are to live in the truth, to be converted and sanctified by it, and to preach it. In other words, they are to live in Christ, to be converted and sanctified by Christ, and to preach Christ. For the truth they preach isn't just knowledge or words, it is the Word Incarnate. Christ told his Apostles, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through Me." Truth is the second person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself.

But what does the vocation of a musician, an artist, have to do with preaching? 

First of all, preaching can consist of many forms. One can preach through example -- through actions as well as words. But is it possible to evangelize through art? Absolutely,  though there is a delicate balance between art with an agenda and art which simply speaks the truth -- (for examples of "agenda" art, just look at the numerous sub-par prolife films Christians have made over the past several years).

Second of all, preaching not only can but *should* consist of multiple forms. Fr. Mark Daniel Kirby, OSB, argues that sometimes the truth, the naked truth, is not enough to persuade a person. However, if the truth is clothed in beauty, the truth often becomes not only less threatening but it takes on the splendor of the Father, what Pope Benedict XVI has termed the "Splendor of Truth." Beauty can reach the soul where the naked truth is often unable to penetrate. Truth speaks to the mind. But a person is made up of both a mind and a heart. You can tell person that something is true, but very often telling them is not enough.  They need to be awakened to the truth. In the words of Barbara Nicolosi, "It's not telling people the truth that saves them. It's getting them to wrestle with the truth that saves them."

The Crowning with Thorns, Caravaggio. 1607. 
And how does that awakening, that wrestling with the truth, come about? Christ is truth; but He is also goodness and beauty. Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out that beauty is the language native to the human heart. He once said: "The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of an arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes so that we can see the truth more clearly." Beauty such as the Alps, the Grand Canyon, a beautiful sunset, the Sistine Chapel, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Brahms' Requiem, Caravaggio's painting The Crowning of Thorns -- these things often have far greater potential for striking a person's heart because beauty is disarming. In debates, arguments, discussion, people put up walls to guard themselves against anything that might make them uncomfortable, that might force them to have to reevaluate themselves and their beliefs. The truth by itself can intimidate and alienate. But Beauty has the power to remove these barriers so that God's grace might enter in.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Eternal Rest Grant Unto Him, O Lord: Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Robin Williams as John Keating, Dead Poets' Society, 1989.
In honor of Robin Williams, I chose to read Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” while listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (featured in The Dead Poets’ Society) in the evening twilight. We shall always cherish your memory, Robin Williams, and we miss you dearly!

"O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up— for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle’ trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths — for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning:

Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck You’ve fallen cold and dead.”

That being said, in the words of my friend Aimee, depression sucks. I pray for the repose of the soul of Robin Williams tonight, as well as for his family, but please know that if you need help, there is no shame in asking. Being tough doesn’t mean you never ask for help, it’s knowing when you need help and having the courage to ask for it.

In the words of Walt Whitman, 
"O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; 
of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; 
what good amid these, O me, O life?' 
Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; 
that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse."

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How to Bring Beauty Back into the Church

This post is inspired by a lecture recently given by Barbara Nicolosi titled "Why Hollywood Matters" in which she discusses the problems in modern Christian and Catholic art, especially film, and ways to counteract these problems. To put it plainly, if one takes a look at the art, storytelling, and music that is in use in most Christian and Catholic churches and subcultures today, in the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, "We have to conclude that the people of God are afflicted with the cult of the banal." (quote is taken from P. Benedict XVI's The Spirit of the Liturgy)

The Catholic Church used to be known as one of the chief patrons of the arts, leading to the creation of some of the most beautiful art and music that the world has ever seen. Nowadays, Catholic/Christian art is something pagans sneer at, and with good reason. Say what you want about Hollywood and the atheists and the pagans, but they appreciate the beautiful and they know it when they see it (and when they don't). Why else is it that beautiful stories like Brideshead Revisited, Anna Karenina, The Lord of the Rings, and Crime and Punishment are just as admired by pagans as they are by Catholics? Why does the majesty of St. Peter's Basilica continue to take people's breath away, regardless of their nationality or belief?

Maybe Catholics have the message right (hopefully), but if we take a look at the craftsmanship of the majority of recent Catholic/Christian stories, films, music, and art, and compare it to that being produced by the pagans, it's little wonder that people don't take us seriously when it comes to art and storytelling.

So how do we fix this? According to Barbara Nicolosi, here are a few ways to bring beauty back into our lives and into our churches:

1. Learn about art -- learn how to do it. Learn how to evaluate it.

Take a class in sculpting or painting. Go to a poetry workshop. Read books on creative writing. Read the Church documents on sacred music and sacred art, e.g. Pope Pius XII's encyclical Musica Sacra or St. John Paul II's Letter to Artists. Take lessons in piano or voice. Read about art history or music history. If you find a composer, writer, or artist that you especially like, find out more about that person! You don't have to become a pro -- unless you discover you do have a talent for something, and with that talent may come responsibility to hone that talent and become an artist!

2. Say "No" to banal art and music. No more lame, cheap, ugly, embarrassing art. 

Entrance to the Village of Vetheuil in Winter, Monet. 1879
Night Before Christmas, Thomas Kinkade
This comes from learning how to evaluate art: learning how to distinguish between beauty and cheapness, politics, or propaganda : learning what makes Monet better than Thomas Kinkade, why Maurice Duruflé's Ubi Caritas is more compelling than David Haas' You Are Mine; why Michelangelo's Pietà is more beautiful than the political-agenda-inspired multiracial/multicultural/unisex Our Lady of the Angels' statue outside the Los Angeles Cathedral. Beauty doesn't have an agenda. It is just there; it tells the truth without trying. It isn't forced down your throat. It awakens but it does not violate.

 Saying "No" to bad art also means acknowledging that just because something is labelled Catholic/Christian or is made by Catholics/Christians does not necessarily make it good. There are many books, movies, and songs written by Christian artists that circulate with ease in our little subcultures but are an embarrassment in public/pagan circles. We are not going to gain converts by circulating poorly crafted, cheap novels and films in our own churches and friend groups -- this is just talking amongst ourselves. We win converts by going out into the world and infusing our art with our faith, not as propaganda but as truth and beauty that is meant for all people.

3. Figure out whether you are an artist or a praiser, and then do that with commitment.

Being an artist requires two things: talent and hard work. Not everyone has a talent for music or for painting, and that's okay. Just because someone doesn't have a talent for art, it doesn't mean he/she can't appreciate it, or do it for his/her own enjoyment. Does that mean that we should let them decorate our churches or make music for our liturgies? No. Sacred art is not for everyone to make. It requires a lot of talent, and it requires a lot more hard work and dedication.
But the good news is that artists need support just as much as the rest of the world needs artists. Artists need us to employ them, to challenge them, and to give them commissions. Not only do they need help financially, but they also need moral/spiritual support, someone to appreciate their efforts -- their hours of isolation, painting or practicing or both; their obsession with perfecting their art, often resulting in being emotionally and/or pyschologically unstable. They need us to remind them what it means to be human beings that need to eat, sleep, have friends, take care of themselves physically and emotionally, and get outside of their isolation just as much as we need them to remind us what beauty is. Why do we (humanity) need artists? To misquote John Keating from The Dead Poets' Society, "We make art because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering -- these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, movies, stories, music, art, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
So if you are an artist, make great art. Work hard at honing your craft. Practice, practice, practice, read, study, eat, sleep, make friends, have a life outside of your art, and so forth.
If you are a praiser, learn about art and what distinguishes good art from bad art (not everything is subjective), and then find the good artists and commission them to make something beautiful. Artists need to be embraced by a loving Church that supports them through their issues of borderline addiction, insanity, depression, to name a few. Find these people and support them!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Saint Movies Should Be More Like A Man for All Seasons

Hello, all! I have been away from my blog for far too long I'm afraid, between school, graduation (whee!), and summer work and summer projects. But that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking of things to write about and post on here! I've got a couple of posts I've been mulling over but I am having difficulty organizing my thoughts so I am procrastinating until I'm ready to write them.  In the meantime, I have been doing a lot of summer reading which has been wonderful! I rely heavily on my summers for reading since I am often too tired to pick up a book for pleasure when I am in the middle of school.  I used to read a lot, but when I started college, that quickly fell to the side, so over the past two years I have been trying to rework the habit back into my life.

I've read some amazing books this past summer that were what I would call life-changing, the first being Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which was absolutely brilliant and should be required reading for any human being (along with Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited). I also finally got around to reading Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, which is technically a play, not a novel. I had seen the film version of the play starring Paul Scofield several years ago so I was already familiar with the story, and while watching the play/film is ultimately the better way to experience this work, I was glad to have read the play alone. The film version is largely true to the story save for the omission of a couple scenes (though they included all of the right ones).

Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons
One of my favorite things about this work is that A Man for All Seasons is a beautifully crafted story of a saint written by a man who admits he is far from a devout Christian. The thing is, Robert Bolt wasn't trying to write a story of a "Catholic" martyr -- he was simply telling the truth about a man who was true to himself and to his beliefs. I fear that if a Catholic company tried to tell the story of St. Thomas More, it would be a disaster. While they might have good intentions, far too often the "form" (the script, the acting, the production...) is sacrificed because they believe the content matter will suffice, resulting in another cheap movie that we maybe watch once to learn a little about the saint but would never say, "Now THAT was a GREAT movie!" Sad, but true. Why can't more saint movies be like A Man for All Seasons? If Catholics want to convert pagans to the truth, they need to make their faith attractive to them. If Catholics want to inspire people to be like the saints, they need to tell their stories beautifully.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It Is Not The Critic Who Counts

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

Theodore Roosevelt
from a speech given at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Modern Sacred Music in the 20th Century (or What It Should Have Sounded Like), Part I: Duruflé & Pärt

The Catholic Church was once responsible for some of the most beautiful art and music ever made. If one needs proof of this, one only has to recall the splendid ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the glory and terror of Mozart’s Requiem, and the brilliance of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Rouen Cathedral in France
The Last Judgement, Michelangelo. Detail.

Although the Catholic Church was once a patron of the arts, she would certainly have a difficult time supporting such a claim today. In fact, the typical art and music one finds in most Catholic churches is not only “not beautiful” but is actually some of the most ugly, banal, and uninspiring art that mankind is producing.

But is this what the Church intended for the art of the 20th century? What was modern sacred music supposed to sound like?

First, a little about the role of music in Catholic liturgy, otherwise known as sacred music. According to Church teaching, sacred music is meant to give glory to God and to inspire its listeners to live the teachings of the faith. Because the Catholic liturgy is supposed to be the divine meeting of heaven and earth through the person of Christ, the music which is used within its context must not sound like the normal music one might hear in  everyday life, such as on the radio or even in the concert hall. For this reason, a jazz mass or a polka mass would be extremely problematic at best. This principle can also be demonstrated in the origins of stained glass windows.  The light of the outside world was “sanctified” through the colors of the stained glass, purifying it so it might enter into the sacred space.

From the very beginning of the 20th c., the Church expressed great concern for the state of music in Catholic worship. In 1903, Pope Pius X composed a personal letter to the Catholic Church titled Tra le Sollecitudini in which he called for the restoration of sacred music, the teaching and singing of chant and sacred polyphony in parishes, and the composition of modern music possessing an ecclesiastical and sacred character.

Specifically, “Gregorian chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: 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.”

Thanks to Pius X and the chant restoration undertaken by the Benedictine monks of Solesmes Abbey, Gregorian chant underwent a renaissance in France between 1903 and 1963. It was used in sacred and secular compositions by numerous composers and taught in choir schools such as Rouen Cathedral, where children were trained in the singing of chant and polyphony ranging from the works of Palestrina and Victoria to Haydn and Fauré. 

Maurice Duruflé, 1902-1986.
Among these students was future composer and organist, Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). As a boy chorister, Duruflé was immersed in a world of solemn Catholic liturgy and aesthetic spirituality which formed the foundation for his artistic endeavors for his entire career. As he went on to complete his musical studies at the Paris Conservatory, he synthesized his childhood schooling in the ancient melodies of plainsong with the harmonies of contemporary composers such as Debussy and Ravel to create a modern style of sacred music.

In 1963, the Second Vatican Council promulgated the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, reiterating the primacy of chant and sacred polyphony in the liturgy and encouraging new forms of sacred music organically derived from these traditional models. Composed in 1966, it is speculated that Duruflé may have written the Messe “Cum jubilo,” Op. 11 to demonstrate the potential within the Council’s instruction and prove the compatibility and relevance of plainsong with (at least initially) modern harmony. 

Dedicated to his wife Marie-Madelaine Chevalier Duruflé, the title “Cum jubilo” comes from the chant mass on which the work is based. Also known as Mass IX, it is designated for feasts of the Blessed Virgin. The overarching tone of the original mass is one of joyful serenity, a tone which the composer both adopts and subverts over the course of the work. As one might expect, Duruflé borrows heavily from the chant melodies on which the Messe is based. While not all of the melodies are derived from the source material, the melodies which are original to the work are certainly chant-inspired. The Kyrie serves as a prime example, opening with the original chant melody in the first violins and clothed in luscious harmonies, harmonies which have lead many to label Duruflé as an impressionist. The men’s chorus enter the texture with a newly-composed melody so imitative of chant that it is hard to distinguish between the original chant and that of Duruflé. This method continues for the duration of the Messe, the composer quoting or varying the original chant melodies while sewing in his own material, weaving a tapestry of the old and the new.

Pius X stipulated in his motu proprio that new sacred music had to be “good art, holy, and possess the quality of universality,” qualities that are all found in various forms of plainsong across cultural boundaries.  As seen in the Messe, Duruflé was able to blend the modern harmonies of Debussy and Ravel with the ancient melodies of plainsong to create a modern style of sacred music, proving the compatibility of chant and (at least initially) modern harmony while shunning the “profane theatricality of the past.” He combined the sacred and secular in a manner appropriate for the liturgy, respectful of the tradition but also progressive.

Pius X’s letter gave Duruflé the motivation to persist in his musical style well into the 1960s, after which his works were thought old-fashioned, cast aside by a new call for “musical relevance” in the church.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was meant as the successor to Pius X’s letter. However, though the document was sound in principle, its application proved disastrous for sacred music.  Though it insisted on the primacy of chant and polyphony in the liturgy, its permission of vernacular languages and music effectively spelled the end of Latin-texted chant, and thus, the abandonment of chant in the liturgy in favor of more popular tunes and styles.

Arvo Pärt, b. 1935.
While sacred music in Catholic liturgy began to unravel in the 1960’s, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) was emerging on the modern music scene in Estonia, a republic of the Soviet Union. After suffering persecution from the government for the use of serialism and religious texts in his early compositions, Pärt fell silent for several years and turned to the study of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. Out of this silence emerged a new style of music which Pärt called Tintinnabuli, a style that is meant to replicate the pealing of bells, their “complex but rich sonorous mass of overtones ... the idea of a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux.”

Pärt described his musical journey in his own words, “The numbers of serial music were dead for me ... With Gregorian chant that was not the case. Its lines had a soul.” He added, “Gregorian chant has taught me what a cosmic secret is hidden in the art of combining two, three notes. That’s something twelve-tone composers have not known at all.”

Pärt's Berliner Messe for chorus or soloists and string orchestra was commissioned for the 90th German Catholic Day in Berlin, 1990. In the traditional Catholic liturgy, the Credo functions as the proclamation of the core beliefs of the Christian faith. Pärt’s setting of this text serves as a prime example of his tintinnabuli style. Though decidedly more reserved in tone and orchestration when compared to the romanticism of the Gloria from Duruflé's Messe "Cum jubilo", it is equally jubilant in character. Imitating the composers of the early Renaissance, Pärt’s writing emphasizes the horizontal, focusing on melodic lines rather than vertical harmonies. The essence of tintinnabuli is the pitting of a scalar chant line, which revolves stepwise around a central pitch, against a second line, which outlines an arpeggiated single triad and thus creating a harmonic or tonal center. The second line is called the tintinnabuli voice due to the bell-like tones which are created when it collides with its counterpart, though both lines tend to follow the same general contour. The emphasis of the single triad ultimately eliminates the possibility of harmonic progression. However, the music is still in motion! Instead of deriving the forward motion from the harmony, the music is propelled by the tension and release created by the collision and resolution of the two core lines, by the use of imitative counterpoint borrowing aspects of 20th century serialism, and by the rhythmic drive of the sung text, which is set according to its natural syllabic rhythm in the style of plainchant. The harmonic stasis draws attention to the chant line, refocusing the listener’s attention to the fundamentals of melody, harmony, and language-- the “cosmic secret” in combining two, three notes.

Unlike Duruflé, Pärt has yet to write music specifically intended for the Catholic liturgy. But Pärt's music can certainly be viewed as sacred music. Due to their total immersion in the world of chant and polyphony, the music of Duruflé and Pärt “breathes the spirit of ancient religious chant and yet the overall idiom, particularly the harmonic language, is thoroughly modern,” proving that it is possible to compose modern sacred music that is both in keeping with the spirit of the Catholic liturgy and also awakening -- in short, worthy successors of the universal masterpieces of the past.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Little Van Gogh

I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort and disappointment and perseverance.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

"Starry Night over the Rhone" by Vincent Van Gogh

Monday, February 24, 2014

Popular vs. Classical Music : A Matter of Criteria

Originally written as a reflection on Start Making Sense! Musicology Wrestles with Rock by Dr. Susan McClary and Robert Walser.

 In this particular article, taken from a compilation of essays on popular music titled On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, the authors discuss the difficulties musicologists face when wishing to devote their time and energy to the analysis and interpretation of popular music, from rock to heavy metal to the blues.  Popular music is very often at a disadvantage due to the fact that it is traditionally seen as the enemy of classical music.  Musicologists who have a genuine interest and appreciation for rock and pop music typically are presented with a unique dilemma in that, since analysis of popular music according to the typical criteria used in classical music is typically far less insightful, they have to look at the music from a different perspective, drawing up their own criteria. the understanding in traditional musicology of the superiority of Beethoven, Strauss, Mozart, Bach, etc. to popular music has largely been due to the attempts to judge popular music according to the rules and practices of classical music.  For example, classical music is typically analyzed according to tools such as pitch centers, a method which falls flat when applied to most popular music. This is decidedly unfair, calling to mind a quote from Albert Einstein which reads, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Similarly, if musicologists judge popular music according to its exploration of pitch centers and tonal goals, it’s going to be found wanting. Furthermore, an analysis according to pitch centers is only one way to discuss the content and the value of music.  Popular musical styles can be just as meaningful and complex as Beethoven, Strauss, and Stravinsky, but in different ways.  Musicologists cannot deny the attraction and the emotional impact that this music is able to evoke, whether it is Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Coldplay, or heavy metal.

Down the Abbey Road, The Beatles
McClary and Walser say that this is one of the central aspects of popular music : its ability to move the passions in ways that cannot entirely be explained or controlled, a source of frustration and perhaps even fear for musicologists.  However, just because they are afraid of what they don’t understand doesn’t mean they should avoid engaging it or discussing it.  I find it intriguing that, while both classical music and popular music have the power to illicit an emotional response from its listeners, these emotional responses can come in a variety of forms.  Pianist James Rhodes said that he was emotionally knocked to the floor when he first heard Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto at age seven; the second movement was the first piece of classical music that caused him to weep at its beauty. Then we have historical documents of more violent emotional responses: the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring elicited such a violent emotional response that it caused riots in the theater.  Similar violent responses also occur in popular music : moshing has become a common response to live performances of hardcore punk and most styles of metal.

Apollo Belvedere/Pythian Apollo
It is obvious that music has this ability to create this emotional response, but are all emotional responses equal? Are all styles of music equal?  If we cannot judge them according to the traditional criteria used in discussing classical music, then what criteria should we use?  To answer this question, I think one must return to the musical discussions of the Greeks.  In his writings, Plato categorizes music according to two genres which he names Dionysian and Apollonian.  Apollo was typically identified as the god of truth and knowledge, whereas Dionysus was the god of wine, ecstasy, and merry making. Plato describes Dionysian music as a style in which reason is forsaken in a type of emotional intoxication. It advocates a type of anarchy, almost animalistic in its reckless abandonment of the intellect for the sake of revelry in one’s own passions. By contrast, reason remains primary in Apollonian music, ordering our emotional response towards a higher end.  This should not to be misinterpreted as a controlled environment in which emotional responses are allowed to occur. Rather, Apollonian music is a genre which engages man’s intellectual, sensual, and emotional faculties in their proper hierarchy. In the words of playwright Robert Bolt, “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” (Taken from Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons)

Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, 1966.
It seems to me that, while all forms of music may have their time and place and are certainly worthy of study and appreciation on multiple levels, not all musical genres are created equal or have the same value.  The highest forms are those which engage the human person on rational, sensual, and emotional levels as these levels were intended.  In C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, he describes the image of a man with three faculties : the chest, the stomach, and the head.  The chest represents the heart, the stomach the appetites, and the head the power of reason.  Man fully alive uses all three of these faculties together in their proper ordering.  He states that while it is a gross poverty to raise men “without chests,”  -- meaning they have been figuratively castrated of emotional responses -- it is equally wrong for them to allow their emotions or their passions to rule their actions.  He adds, “No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.”  Just as man fully alive is made possible through the integration of the head, the heart, and the appetites, so great art and great music is created through the integration of the rational, the sensual, and the spiritual.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio. 1599-1600.

This is one of my favorite pieces of art by the Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio (1571-1610). It is from the Baroque period as part of the reaction in the Catholic culture to the Protestant Reformation. The painting depicts the scene from the Gospels where Our Lord sees the future St. Matthew with his fellow tax collectors and commands him, "Come, follow me." It is located in a beautiful side chapel in the church of St. Louis of France in Rome, alongside two other Caravaggio paintings from the life of St. Matthew. 

First, allow me tell you a little bit about the painter. Caravaggio was a rather controversial artist from Milan. He was born wealthy, but he was orphaned at the age of ten. Towards the end of the 1500s, he arrived in Rome as the typical starving artist; however, his painting The Calling of St. Matthew catapulted him into success. His style consisted of depicting the ignoble in art, making him a rather contentious figure. He had a violent temper, but he was also a follower of St. Philip Neri, a Catholic priest, a great preacher and a contemporary of his. St. Philip Neri had just founded his oratory, so it is possible that Caravaggio may have come to hear him preach.

Caravaggio introduced into his paintings the use of heavy contrast between light and dark to enhance the drama of the painting! While he was working, he would set up lanterns as spot-lights on his work to help exaggerate the shadows and the light in his paintings. This technique may be contrasted with the style of Michelangelo's use of light and shadows, which is not as intense. The use of light and shadow is a useful tool to help date pre-- and post-- Caravaggio artists. The style of Caravaggio is also in the same spirit of the Italian artist Giotto, who painted the beautiful frescos of the life of St. Francis for the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Giotto used modeling and gestures to help tell the story of the painting.

Now, to discuss the painting itself. If you looks closely, the light is not coming from the window -- in short, it is not from the natural world! The hand of Christ is modeled after the hand of Michelangelo's The Creation of Man, one of the most famous frescoes adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Which hand Caravaggio is imitating (God the Father's or Adam's) is debatable. St. Peter is in front of Christ, and is portrayed often in Baroque religious art because this art is proclaiming the primacy of Peter and Catholicism as the true faith.  
Another intriguing element of the painting is the mode of dress of the two parties.  Christ and St. Peter are clad in their traditional garb, while Matthew and his fellow tax collectors are wearing the garb of the day, thus relating the viewer to the scene in the painting. One tax collector is using his fingers to stack the coins, while another is adjusting his spectacles. Each has a different reaction  to Christ. Matthew has heard and is pointing to himself as if to say, "Me, Lord?" The light is cast on his face, drawing the viewer's eye to him as the focal point. The two figures on the left are unaware of Christ's call. As for the two figures on the right: one is unsure and is ready to draw his sword. The other, looking askance, appears curious and casual as he leans on St. Matthew. One gets the impression that he may do whatever Matthew does. Caravaggio brings you into the scene, and forces us to ask the questions, "To what is Jesus calling me, and what is my response?"

I think part of the reason why this painting is so meaningful to me is because of the different reactions of the men in the scene.  It reminds me of the line from the poem "Aurora Leigh" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861):

"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries..."

St. Matthew was not only willing to see in this scene, but he was also given the grace to see. The other tax collectors are partially or completely oblivious to the call of Christ. St. Matthew has seen and is about to take off his shoes. The beauty of God is all around us : in nature, the people we meet, beautiful artwork and music.  It is up to us to awaken ourselves to His presence. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, The world will never suffer for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reading With a Critical Eye: Manipulation of History and What's Trending

This was originally written as a reflection for my 20th C. Music class on Howard Zinn’s Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, Chapter IV : The Use and Abuse of History. I expanded and modified it a little.

 In Chapter 4 of his book Declarations if Independence, Howard Zinn claims that it is impossible to write an unbiased account of historical persons and events due to the unconscious influences of preexisting goals, purposes, agendas, and beliefs. This lack of historical objectivity does not occur through deliberate lying but through occurs the omission or de-emphasis of significant data.  Zinn uses several examples from American history to demonstrate his point, including the omission of the Ludlow Massacre from most American history textbooks.  The Ludlow Massacre was the tragic climax of the Colorado coal strike of 1913-1914 against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.  The massacre -- a fourteen hour face off between a tent colony of coal miners and their families vs. the state malitia during which the colony was pelted with machine gun fire and eventually torched -- resulted in the suffocation of two women and eleven children.

Ludlow Monument erected by UMWA.
Zinn also cites the one-sided historical account of Christopher Columbus told in most American education systems.  This account typically omits that the discoverer was also responsible for the mutilation, enslavement, and murder of the Indians on a genocide scale.  One is reminded of the line from the song "Wonderful" sung by the Wizard of Oz in the Broadway musical Wicked :

"Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It's all in which label is able to persist! ... There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don't exist!"

Zinn believes that these omissions are due to their in-congruence with the image of America that education systems wish to portray to its citizens: a government by the people for the people, a land of equal opportunity for the common man, where its leaders and founders are models to be emulated for their justice and encourage.

Similarly biased depictions are also found in the portrayal of the history of Western Music.  During the Romantic period, various strains of nationalism were appearing all over Europe. In Beethoven's day, this nationalism was part of an attempt to unite the German-speaking nations against the Napoleonic Empire.  During and after Beethoven's life, this German nationalist trend  led to the promotion of his music as well as the music of his German predecessors and successors as the model of Western music.  The focus of the average classical music education on the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner is in part due to the work of German music historians of the Romantic period who wished to create a context for the development of German music and the emergence of Beethoven.  This trend has and continues to be passed on to future classical musicians in many universities and conservatories, although it may not be consciously done.  While the music of these composers is indeed worthy of study, it is necessary to remember that the belief that their music is "the best" is due to this German nationalist trend, and must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

 A more important lesson to take away from these examples is the need to receive historical data with a critical eye. Just as German nationalism influenced the reception and promotion of Beethoven during the Romantic Period, one should be suspicious of modern trends that influence current perspectives on the composers of the past.  For example, it seems to be an amusing past-time for musicologists and historians to create caricatures of men such as Beethoven and Schubert by pushing our current sexual-cultural fixations upon them.  For example, it has been proposed that the ringing in Beethoven’s ears, known as tinnitus, was caused by syphilis. However, tinnitus is also a symptom of typhus and auto-immune disorders.  Another example : it has also been proposed by certain musicologists that there are homosexual undercurrents in Schubert's 'Unfinished' Ninth Symphony. Schubert's Unfinished Symphony is an example of absolute music -- music that is not based on or inspired by an outside source, story, poem, or theme (as opposed to Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, which is based on Mendelssohn's travels to Scotland and is an example of the opposite genre known as programmatic music). Because there is no preexisting theme, it is relatively easy for writers, musicologists, musicians, and even political groups to read too much into a piece of absolute music and interpret it to promote their own ends, even if they are interpreted in contradictory ways!  For example, both Nazis and socialists adopted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and interpreted it to suit their own agendas. However, in the words of a a friend and mentor, "Such allegations tend to be more revealing of the author than about the subject at hand!"

That being said, it is quite possible that Beethoven may have had syphilis.  It was a common illness in the 19th c. due to the rather loose morals of the era.  It is also possible that Schubert was a suppressed homosexual who gave vent to his sexual orientation through an unfinished symphony.  If these allegations are true, they should not be blotted out from our knowledge of these men as they further inform us of the personality, character, and historical context of these composers.  However, it is misleading to push such allegations onto their characters when we advertise them as true when -- in actuality -- we lack significant facts or data to verify such an allegation!  Likewise, it is equally wrong to omit the faults and failings of businesses, persons, and nations in order to promote a specific agenda. The Ludlow Massacre and the life of Christopher Columbus are prime examples of the deliberate skewing of American history so as to to paint its leading figures and corporations in a positive light.  If Beethoven had syphilis or Schubert same-sex attraction, then it would be wrong to try to hide it. But we don't know that for certain, and emphasizing/advertising these allegations as fact seems more of a projection of our trendy sexual-objectification/hookup culture onto our heroes of Western Music than a search for the truth! It may not be possible to teach history from an objective point of view, but this is no excuse for dishonesty through partial truths, ignoring facts, or disregarding a lack of sufficient data.