Articles, Arts

Lent Intensifies

This final section of pieces from the 40 Songs for 40 Days playlist continues and intensifies the styles heard in the previous ten pieces. We hear from contemporary composers like Morten Lauridsen, Ola Gjeilo, and Paul Mealor, whose choral writing evokes a great sense of serenity in the listener, while James MacMillan and Francis Poulenc call to mind the intensity and drama of the Paschal Mystery. We also hear older pieces from the treasury of Catholic sacred music by composers like Gregorio Allegri, Giaches de Wert, and Thomas Tallis, as well as a chant whose composer’s name has been lost to the centuries, but whose musical legacy continues to lead people closer to God.

Pieces like these are vivid reminders of why music has always held such an important role in the Church: the mysteries of the faith come alive in melody, harmony, and rhythm, allowing listeners to encounter them anew, paving the way for a deeper encounter with the One who dwells at the heart of them all. This music bears repeated listening not only throughout this season of Lent, but also from one Lent to the next. With each hearing, it can reveal more and more about the merciful love God has for us—the love that took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, the love that went willingly to the Cross, the love that embraced death so as to bring forth new and eternal life.

  1. O Nata Lux from Lux Aeterna, Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
    California-based composer Morten Lauridsen composed Lux Aeterna in 1997, the year his mother died. For all intents and purposes, the piece is a kind of Requiem, though only its first movement (Introit) and final movement (Agnus Dei) utilize the texts from the actual Requiem Mass. O Nata Lux, the third movement of five, forms the musical center of the work. Its text is the proper office hymn that would be sung at Lauds for the feast of the Transfiguration (August 6 on the liturgical calendar, but the Transfiguration narrative is also proclaimed every year on the second Sunday of Lent). The choral writing here exemplifies Lauridsen’s signature style: a capella mixed choral music with smooth melodic writing and largely syllabic text setting (one note per syllable). There are moments of mildly polyphonic writing, where the voices move independently of one another, but overall, the texture is homophonic, with all of the parts moving as one, and lush harmonies supporting a clear-cut melody. The effect of this style is luminous: the music clothes the text in light, and it can in turn illuminate the one listening to it. The resonant harmonies and soaring melodies gently permeate whatever darkness may cloud the heart, gradually expanding and filling that interior space until the shadows lift, leaving the listener in utter calm, renewing a peaceful trust in the Source of that light—the One who is “Light born of Light”—the light no darkness can overcome.
  2. Woman, Behold Thy Son!…Behold, Thy Mother! from Seven Last Words, James MacMillan (b. 1959)
    Commissioned by the BBC and composed in 1993, MacMillan’s Seven Last Words was originally premiered in 1994 on the BBC over the seven evenings of Holy Week. Jesus’ final words from the Cross as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John provide the titles and portions of the text for each movement, but MacMillan supplements the words of Christ with texts from other sources, particularly the liturgical offices for Good Friday. The work is well worth listening to in its entirety, but MacMillan’s music is not for the faint of heart: his uses of dissonance are often jarring, and his music often incorporates a partially avant-garde, atonal language, creating sonorities that have a visceral effect. Yet, his use of dissonance is also carefully controlled, and always for the purpose of creating a sonic palette from which light can emerge. MacMillan is a master of composing music that incarnates the drama of Holy Week, and the opening of this second movement demonstrates this clearly. The choir enters with a powerful statement of Jesus’ words to Mary (John 19:26), but the consonance of the harmonies seems to disintegrate with each restatement of the phrase, as the gravity of what Jesus has said and done sinks in: he knows he is going to die, so he provides for his Mother’s well-being by entrusting her to the care of his beloved disciples. Still, in this moment of gravity is also a gift of great grace, for in his next words, “Behold, your mother,” Jesus gives to the disciple—and to us—the gift of being able to call his Mother our own. The grace of Mary’s maternal intercession sustains us, now, and at the hour of our own death, when we pray that she will say on our behalf to her God and our God, “Behold, your child.”
  3. Sanctus (London), Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)
    The music of Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo has become more widely known over the past several years. Stylistically, his choral writing has been noted for its similarities to Morten Lauridsen with its lush washes of sound and intricate harmonic structures, but in this piece, Gjeilo ventures farther afield in his harmonic language than Lauridsen does in O Nata Lux. Instead of a bright and exuberant “Hosanna in excelsis,” Gjeilo utilizes minor harmonies, which paint a very different musical picture than what we were perhaps expecting. Placing this piece in a liturgical context, such a singing of the “Hosanna in excelsis” could perhaps recall singing “Hosanna” during the Palm Sunday procession, which then immediately gives way to the proclamation of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant narrative, the Christological hymn from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and, of course, the Passion narrative itself. The changefulness of this piece captures well the changing attitudes of the crowds who sang Jesus’ praises in one breath then cried out for his crucifixion in the next. The use of suddenly shifting chords, minor sonorities, and long, sustained notes creates a tension that builds over the course of the piece, then utterly melts away in its final resolution, reminding the listener that God can always bring good out of evil, working through even the inconstancy of human affection and fidelity in order to accomplish his will.
  4. Miserere, Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652)
    This setting of Psalm 51 is arguably one of the most famous pieces of music ever written; it is certainly one of the most beautiful. Composed by Gregorio Allegri in 1638, its history was initially shrouded in secrecy, but the story (some would say apocryphal story) of how it was made public is well known. As the legend goes, were it not for the prodigious musical abilities of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), the piece might never have been heard outside of the Sistine Chapel. In 1770, Mozart’s father took him on a pilgrimage to Rome for Holy Week, during which time Mozart (then just fourteen years old) attended the offices of Tenebrae. Allegri’s Miserere was performed, and after having heard the performance on Wednesday, Mozart transcribed the piece from memory, unaware (or unconcerned) that doing so had been forbidden by the Pope upon pain of excommunication. He returned on Friday to hear it again and made a couple of corrections. Later during their trip, Mozart’s manuscript was passed on to another musician, and it was published in 1771. (The Pope, amused by the precocious teen, decidedly did not excommunicate Mozart.) What is lesser known is the fact that the version we hear most often today is actually the one Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) transcribed during his visit to Rome in 1831. At that time, the piece was performed in a much higher key than it was in Mozart’s day, resulting in the soaring, ethereal quality of the unmistakable soprano line. The verses of the Psalm are sung in alternating styles, including a mostly homophonic psalm tone for mixed voices, a solo plainchant psalm tone, and a third, quasi-polyphonic tone for a small schola of soloists (this is where we hear the high C in the soprano). The ornamentation of the choral psalm tones always comes at the ends of the phrases, and the overall effect is nothing short of stunning. Psalm 51, the penitential psalm prayed every Friday during Morning Prayer, is one that deserves significant contemplation during Lent, and this piece provides a rich, beautiful way to do so.
  5. O Crux ave, spes unica, Giaches de Wert (1535–1596)
    Although de Wert’s music is lesser known today than that of his contemporaries Giovanni Luigi da Palestrina and Claudio Monteverdi, both Palestrina and Monteverdi not only knew of de Wert’s music, but they also greatly admired his compositional style. While de Wert was more widely known for his madrigals (secular love songs), he was still prolific as a composer of sacred music due to the requirements of his post as choir master at the Duke of Mantua’s chapel of Saint Barbara. This piece dates from 1581, and a rough translation of the text is rendered: “Hail the Cross, our only hope, / in this Passiontide! / Grant increase of grace of believers / and erase the sins of the guilty.” Those familiar with the Congregation of the Holy Cross will recognize the title of this piece as the motto of its members. As we draw closer to the Triduum and the celebration of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, we hopefully also grow in awareness that it through the Cross of Christ that the work of our redemption has been accomplished, and that it is only through embracing our own crosses and uniting our sufferings to those of Christ that we can ever hope to share in the glory of his Resurrection. Ave crux, spes unica!
  6. Vexilla Regis, traditional chant
    Here in its entirety is the hymn from which the text for de Wert’s motet was excerpted. Written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus, Vexilla Regis originally accompanied the procession transferring a relic of the Cross of Christ, which had been sent by Emperor Justin II and Empress Sophia to Queen Radegunda. The Queen had built a convent near Poitiers, and following its transfer, the relic was housed in the convent’s chapel. Often sung on Palm Sunday, and formerly sung on Good Friday during the transfer of the Holy Eucharist to the altar of repose, this hymn has been set time and time again throughout the history of Western music by composers from Palestrina, di Lasso, and Lotti to Bruckner and Liszt. The original chant is sung here by the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles, who effortlessly perform the intricacies of the deceptively simple-sounding melody with a limpid and lovely purity of tone.
  7. Gabriel’s Oboe from The Mission, Ennio Morricone, Yo Yo Ma
    One of film’s most celebrated composers, Ennio Morricone is known for creating rich and lyrical melodies that, when combined with images onscreen, often move film-goers to tears. “Gabriel’s Oboe” is the main theme from the 1986 film The Mission (dir. Roland Joffé), which tells the story of Spanish Jesuits and their mission to bring the Gospel to the people of the Guaraní tribe in Central America. Even without the images it was composed to underscore, this music has the capacity to evoke an intense pathos in its listeners, particularly in this version performed by the inimitable cellist Yo Yo Ma. Both the cello and the oboe are noted for their resonance, and in the duet they share in this arrangement, the instruments enter into a musical dialogue in which melody and countermelody are each made more beautiful by the presence of the other. Although there is no text in this piece (although several texts have since been written for Morricone’s theme so that it can be sung by soloists and choirs), like Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, this instrumental music has the potential to open up a space within the heart of a listener, wherein an encounter with God can take place that is deeper than words.
  8. Lamentations of Jeremiah, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585)
    This is the first of Tallis’ two settings of text from the first chapter of the Book of Lamentations. This book of the Bible consists of five elegiac poems reflecting on the destruction of Jerusalem and the taking captive of Israel by the Babylonians (587 B.C.). The Lamentations are attributed to the prophet Jeremiah since he foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of Israel; however, the texts were more likely written by one or more anonymous authors. These powerful texts are often sung during Tenebrae services of Holy Week. They recall the moment when Jesus himself wept over the city of Jerusalem (see Matthew 23:37–39 and Luke 19:41–44), they anticipate his trial, Passion, and Death, and they foreshadow the coming destruction of the Temple by the Romans (70 A.D.). Tallis’ setting of the incipit, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet beginning each verse (Aleph and Beth in this case), and the verses themselves are masterful displays of late Renaissance polyphony. Imitative and emotive, the independent melodic lines convey a sense of great anguish, heightened by the repetition of the texts themselves. What is most striking, though, is Tallis’ setting of the concluding refrain: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to your God” (cf. Hosea 14:2). After a wash of polyphony, the imitative writing dissipates, and this exhortation is sung in almost perfect homophony. The text cuts to the heart with utter, urgent clarity, leaving the listener with a compelling call to personal conversion.
  9. Vinea mea electa from Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
    French composer Francis Poulenc experienced his formative years in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Paris. Influenced by the music of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, Poulenc gravitated toward a lighter style. However, when a close friend died in a car accident in 1936, Poulenc sought solace by going on retreat at the Church of Our Lady at Rocamadour, which prompted a return to the Catholic faith of his birth, and inspired a turn to composing sacred music. His Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence date from 1938–39, and this second motet takes as its text one of the Responsories for Matins of Good Friday: “My chosen vine, I planted you: / how then have you turned into bitterness, that you have crucified me, and released Barabbas? / I surrounded you with a hedge, / and took away the stones before your feet, and built you a watchtower.” Today, portions of this text are included in the Reproaches, sung on Good Friday during the Adoration of the Holy Cross: “What more should I have done for you and have not done? Indeed, I planted you as my most beautiful chosen vine and you have turned very bitter for me” (see Psalm 80:9–20).
    In this setting, Poulenc returns to a quintessential compositional technique developed in the Renaissance: text painting. The piece opens with great beauty and tenderness as we hear of the chosen vine, but on the word “Quo” (“How”), the soprano section pierces through this loveliness with an anguished cry, and the accompanying voices form chords of distressed, melancholy dissonance as Christ asks how, in the face of such love, his people would choose to release Barabbas and call for his crucifixion. Yet, the piece ends on a beautiful major chord after a return to the tender opening, suggesting that even in the face of his people’s infidelity, God remains faithful in his love.
  10. Ubi Caritas, Paul Mealor (b. 1975)
    Sung at the royal wedding of His Royal Highness Prince William and Catherine Middleton, Paul Mealor’s Ubi Caritas is actually a reworking of another of his choral pieces, a setting of the secular text Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal. The Ubi Caritas is the proper Offertory chant for Holy Thursday (Mealor quotes the chant at the conclusion of the piece, which is itself a nod to Maurice Duruflé’s setting of this same text), and its opening text is translated: “Where charity and love are found, God is present.” In rescoring his work, Mealor transposed the Ubi Caritas to a higher key, giving its lower registers greater harmonic clarity and its upper registers a lovely shimmering quality. Mealor’s homophonic texture, chant-like melodies, and carefully controlled use of dissonance and harmonic clusters have prompted comparisons to Lauridsen or Eric Whitacre, yet, there is a distinctiveness about Mealor’s approach to these compositional techniques that gives his music a unique voice, heard for example, in the opening seconds of the pieces, when he juxtaposes the aforementioned harmonic clusters with open, sonorous two-part harmonies. These shifts and surprises create an agile, almost nimble quality in Mealor’s music that one would not expect in a piece that also features long, sustained notes. The result is music that seems suspended somewhere between heaven and earth.

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.

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Featured Image:  Anon., The Ladder of Divine Ascent, c. 12th century; 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.