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.

No comments: