Articles

Glimpsing Eternity Through Lent Melody

We enter into a more overtly sacred repertoire with music written in a more “classical” style, though the majority of the pieces included here were not written in the Classical era of Western music (c. 1750–1830), but in the 20th century. While many of these pieces were inspired by the liturgy, in particular the Mass, most of them would not have been heard in a liturgical context, though for today’s liturgies, some of the shorter sacred anthems such as Eli! Eli! and Mary Speaks certainly could be appropriate selections for the Good Friday Celebration of the Lord’s Passion.

These pieces of sacred music are meant to foster a rich devotional life—the time spent living the liturgy out in the context of daily life, the time outside of the liturgical celebration proper. For most lay people, the devotional life—which flows from and leads back to the liturgical life—encompasses the majority of life in general. Listening to this music in the morning while getting ready for work or for school, or in the evening while preparing dinner or washing the dishes, or at night while putting one’s children to bed, can help to infuse the tasks of daily life with moments of reflection, even prayer, especially if we find ourselves contemplating the words being sung.

Even when we are not actually listening to this music, it might remain in our ears and in our hearts, and its words can become a response to the events of our day. Personally, since preparing this playlist, I discovered that the phrase “Deus meus, adiuva me” (“My God, help me”) has become a touchstone for moments when I find myself struggling.

These works of sacred and liturgical music provide a never-ending source of contemplation. In a unique way, this repertoire beckons us to set aside our time and all the demands made on it so that we can enter the music’s time, and through it, begin to touch upon God’s time. Through the chronos of melody and harmony unfolding through rhythm and meter, we can begin to glimpse the kairos of eternity. Moreover, as this music enriches one’s daily devotional life, it can open one’s heart to celebrate the liturgy with a more profound love of God, whose uncreated beauty shines forth in the created beauty of music.

  1. Introit, II. Kyrie, from Requiem, Op. 9, Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986)
    Completed in 1947, Maurice Duruflé’s setting of the Requiem Mass constitutes a stark musical contrast to gigantic settings from the Romantic era like those of Guiseppe Verdi and Hector Berlioz. Instead of focusing on the “dies irae, dies illa”—the day of wrath, day of judgment—both Duruflé and an earlier compatriot, Gabriel Fauré, focus their Requiem settings on the eternal rest that one finds in the merciful embrace of a loving God. Duruflé was incessantly self-critical as a composer. He approached each piece with trepidation, which is perhaps why he chose to root so many of his sacred choral pieces in Gregorian chant—the timeless melodies provided a framework under which he could construct a foundation of magnificent harmonies. Duruflé uses this technique throughout his Requiem—listeners whose parishes sing the plainchant Mass parts during Lent may recognize the melodies of the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei movements. Here, the Introit uses a melody from the plainchant Requiem Mass, accompanied by an elegant arabesque pattern (played by the organ in this version from 1948; the original version was scored for large orchestra and is well worth hearing). The Kyrie follows seamlessly, and the choral writing blossoms from monophony (unison) and homophony to a breathtaking polyphony, resulting in cascading pleas for the mercy of God.
  2. Psalm 23, Psalm 2:1–4, from Chichester Psalms, Leonard Bernstein (1918–2000)
    Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 years old this year, so many ensembles are marking the occasion with special concerts of his works. Chichester Psalms, commissioned for a choral festival by the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, consists of three movements, each featuring the entire text of one psalm and an excerpt from another, which Bernstein intended as a kind of foil or commentary. In this second movement, the tranquility of Psalm 23—“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”—is shattered (in one of music’s more startling moments) by the intrusion of Psalm 2—“Why do the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” The texts are sung in Hebrew, with a powerful musical juxtaposition between the psalms: on the one hand, even in the midst of raging nations, the Lord is still our shepherd. On the other hand, even in times of peace and tranquility, in this fallen world, the darkness of sin is never absent. Ultimately, Chichester Psalms gestures with hope toward the Kingdom of God in its fullness, when all who follow the Good Shepherd will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
  3. Deus, Deus meus, respice in me, Andrea Gabrieli (1533–1585)
    Considering that this is a setting of Psalm 22, the bright sonority may seem somewhat disconnected from the text. Indeed, the other setting of Psalm 22 on this playlist, Eli, Eli!, sounds much more like what one might expect of the text Christ uttered from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet, Gabrieli’s treatment of this text is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, from a purely musical standpoint, the counterpoint is staggering: the piece is scored for ten voice parts, each line melodically unique, yet perfectly fitted together with the others. Second, through the noble and exultant music, Gabrieli makes a profound theological statement by calling to the listener’s mind the profound paradox of the Cross. This instrument of death becomes the throne from which the God-man reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords. This sign of humiliation becomes the means of exaltation for the One who offered himself perfectly in love to the Father, even in the midst of what seemed in the eyes of the world to be utter forsakenness. Indeed, the last line of the psalm included in Gabrieli’s setting hints at this, and at the glory that will come through the Cross: “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; / you are the glory of Israel” (Psalm 22:4). By including text beyond the cry of anguish in his musical setting, and by setting that text with such gloriously triumphant music, Gabrieli reminds his listeners that the Cross is not the end of the story. Death will give way to life.
  4. Eli, Eli! from Parasceve Suite, György Deák-Bárdos (1905–1991)
    Hungarian composer György Deák-Bárdos was writing music during the time of the ‘new Hungarian vocal school’ in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Bárdos and his contemporaries were greatly influenced by noted composer, ethnomusicologist, and teacher Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967), who believed that singing forms the foundation of music-making in general, and taught that Palestrina’s style was the exemplar of choral composition. As a result, the members of the new Hungarian vocal school sought to create music emulating Palestrina’s style with regard to texture and clarity of text, while also imbuing it with a distinctly Hungarian sound in its melodic contours and harmonic structures. In this piece, Bárdos creates an immense drama with chromatic movement and subtle shifting chord structures, but perhaps the most distinctive gesture is the glissando, or vocal slide that takes place between the high and low notes on the word “Eli,” or “My God.” Not only is this incredibly difficult for a choir to sing well together (multiple voices on multiple parts having to slide their voices at the same rate of speed to land together on a perfectly-tuned chord), but the glissando also creates the musical effect of an anguished cry of despair from someone who is gasping for his final breaths. This effect continues through the conclusion of the piece, as the choir descends into its lowest range for the final phrase of the piece, slowly, quietly asking once more, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” before fading into silence.
  5. Spiegel im Spiegel, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
    Composed in 1978, this piece for violin and piano exemplifies the kind of minimalism for which Pärt became famous (along with John Tavener and Henryk Górecki), often referred to as “holy minimalism.” The German title translates to “Mirror within Mirror,” suggesting an image of gazing into infinity. As the treble piano gently outlines a variety of chords, low bass notes gently anchor the accompaniment, embedding the piece in its F-major tonality, while the violin sustains its simple melody, which moves stepwise up and down the F-major scale. The sonority achieved here is one Pärt called tintinnabulation, which evokes the sound of tolling bells. The outlined triads in the treble piano keep the 6/4 meter with perfect consistency, creating the effect of utter, placid serenity. Taken together, the use of triads (three-note chords) and the 6/4 meter (six beats per measure) have often been seen to have a kind of Trinitarian significance (musical groupings of threes, sixes, and nines have often been used throughout the history of Western music to symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). There is an expansiveness in this music that resonates within the attentive listener, creating a kind of sympathetic expansiveness in the heart that opens one up to contemplation of deep, deep mysteries. Its lyrical beauty provides spiritual solace and reassurance that as long as one remains rooted in the life and love of the Trinity, all will be well.
  6. Agnus Dei from Mass for Double Choir, Frank Martin (1890–1974)
    Swiss Calvinist composer Frank Martin penned the first four movements of his a capella Mass for Double Choir in 1922 as a musical expression of his relationship with God, adding the Agnus Dei in 1926. However, upon completing the work, Martin placed it in a desk drawer, where it remained hidden for almost the next 40 years. Only with the insistent encouragement of friend and conductor Franz Brunnert did Martin allow the work to finally be premiered and published in 1963. Martin explained his decision to keep the piece secret, stating, “I considered it to be a matter between God and myself,” not something meant for public performance or consumption. Like Duruflé, Martin was intensely self-critical, believing his own work paled in comparison to the musical giants he admired, particularly Johann Sebastian Bach, whose counterpoint greatly influenced his writing. In this movement, however, Martin’s own plainchant-inspired melodies take centerstage. While he does not follow Duruflé’s example in quoting ancient chants themselves, Martin’s melodies are lyrical and elegant, supported by rich and sonorous harmonies spanning the breadth of the vocal range. The entire work is a testament to the astonishing beauty of the human voice.
  7. Spraw, niech płaczę z Tobą razem from Stabat Mater, Op. 53, Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937)
    Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater of 1736 is often performed during the season of Lent, and rightly so—it is an unarguable masterpiece. However, one ought not overlook other settings of this sequence for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, now most often sung as a hymn of meditation during public recitations of the Stations of the Cross. This setting by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was completed in 1926, and utilizes not the traditional Latin text, but a poignant translation by Jósef Jankowski (1865–1935). The music is heavily influenced by Polish peasant songs, resulting in a touching simplicity. Szymanowski composed the work partly as a response to the untimely death of his niece, working through his grief and that of his sister as he reflected upon Mary’s anguish of witnessing the torture and death of her only Son.
Panno słodka, racz, mozołem

Niech me serce z Tobą społem

Na golgocki idzie skłon/szczyt.

Niech śmierć przyjmę z katów ręki,

Uczestnikiem będę męki,

Razów krwawych zbiorę plon.

Niechaj broczy ciało moje,

Krzy em niechaj się upoję,

Niech z miłosnych yję tchnień!

W morzu ognia zapalony,

Z Twojej ręki niech osłony

Puklerz wezmę w sądu dzień!

Grant, sweet lady,

That my heart may be with You in your trials

On Golgotha hill.

Let me receive death from the hands of his executioners,

May I be a sharer in his suffering,
Carry the harvest of his bloody blows.
Let my body bleed,

Let me be enraptured by the cross,

Let me live by the breath of his love!

Burning in the sea of fire,

From Your hands may I take

Protective shield on the day of judgment!

Text and translation by Dr. Peter Gath

  1. Deus Meus, Adiuva Me, traditional Irish, text attr. Máel Ísu Ua Brolcháin (d. 1086)
    Nearly 1,000 years old, this macaronic text was written in both Latin and Middle Irish. Its title translates simply, “My God, help me.” The text of each verse consists of two lines only, repeated in an A-B-B-A pattern. Melodically, the first phrase is identical in both of its iterations, while the repetition of the second phrase is intensified by an expansion of the melody, creating the overall effect of a melodic bell curve. There is a kind of urgency in this piece that, in the final phrase, resolves in a quiet cadence that invites the listener to trust in God, in whatever manner he may choose to answer our prayers.
Deus meus adiuva me.

Tabhair dom do shearch, a Mhic dhil Dé.

Tabhair dom do shearch, a Mhic dhil Dé.

Deus meus adiuva me.

 

Domine da quod peto a te.

Tabhair dom go dian a ghrian ghlan ghlé.

Tabhair dom go dian a ghrian ghlan ghlé.

Domine da quod peto a te.

 

Tuum amorem, sicut vis,
Tabhair dom go tréan a déarfad aris.
Tabhair dom go tréan a déarfad aris.
Tuum amorem, sicut vis.

 

Domine, Domine, exaudi me,

M’anam beith lán ded’grá, a Dhé,

M’anam beith lán ded’grá, a Dhé,

Domine, Domine exaudi me.

My God, help me.

Give me your love, beloved Son of God.

Give me your love, beloved Son of God.

My God, help me.

 

Lord, give what I ask of you.

Give to me earnestly, O clean bright sun.

Give to me earnestly, O clean bright sun.

Lord, give what I ask of you.

 

Love of you, as you wish,

give me in your might (I will say it again).

Give me in your might (I will say it again),

love of you, as you wish.

 

Lord, Lord, hear me.

May my soul, O God, be full of love for you. May my soul, O God, be full of love for you. Lord, Lord, hear me.

  1. Mary Speaks, Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949), text by Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007)
    In this moving piece, Daniel Gawthrop’s music does a beautiful service to the poem written by Madeleine L’Engle, beloved author of children’s and young adult books like A Wrinkle in Time, whose Christianity deeply informed her writing. In this text, L’Engle imagines a poetic meditation coming from the lips of the Blessed Mother, creating parallels and paradoxes throughout that meditate upon Mary’s singular relationship with Jesus: “O you, who bear the pain of the whole earth, / I bore you. . . . And I, who with all others, you died for, / Now I hold you.” Throughout the piece, the gently dissonant harmonies reflect this paradoxical, mysterious, heart-rending relationship, and in the final moments, this dissonance gives way to a luminous consonance, as Mary gives herself entirely over to the will of God and receives the lifeless body of Jesus: “May I be faithful to this final test . . . Open my arms, open my arms. Your work is done.”
  2. Torture from Voices of Light, Richard Einhorn (b. 1952)
    Premiered in 1994, Richard Einhorn’s oratorio Voices of Light was essentially written as a score to accompany P.T. Dreyer’s silent film masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). This sixth movement includes texts from various sources, including letters Joan herself dictated (she could neither read nor write), writings St. Hildegard of Bingen, as well as then-Blessed Angela Foligno (canonized a saint in 2013) and Na Proust Boneta, the latter two women identified by Einhorn as “a thirteenth-century penitent and a fourteenth-century heretic, respectively.” Einhorn juxtaposes these texts as a commentary on the fact that, while Joan of Arc is now honored as one of the Church’s great saints, she was originally executed as a heretic. Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc demonstrates how the Passion of Christ is instantiated in the sufferings of his saints, and Einhorn’s Voices of Light reminds listeners that wounds suffered for love of Christ are “glorious wounds” indeed. We are called not only to contemplate the sufferings Christ endured for us, but to embrace our own sufferings for his sake—whatever form they may take—when God calls us to do so.

You can access the complete 40 song playlist below or at this link or by searching for the phrase “Lent: 40 Songs for 40 Days” in Spotify.

Editorial Note: The posts from this series will be collected here throughout Lent.

SEE ALSO:

What Mary Oliver Knows About Death and Beauty

 

Featured Image: Anon. (Poland), Sacra Conversazione, c. 1520; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.