Holy Week 2019
We live in a complex world.
Two choral works that the St. Peter's Choir have sung in recent months offer a kind of musical, choral complexity that invite further reflection.
This unexpected nexus of traditionally separate materials is fertile creative ground for Ives. At the symphonic level, it becomes Mahlerian with the addition of jocular American hymnodic snippets ricocheting through the orchestra. But in Ives's The Sixty-Seventh Psalm, the coalescence of disparate key areas create a new harmonic gravity, one hitherto unexplored.
In this eight-part choral work composed around the turn of the century, Ives sets up the men in one key and the women in another. Even within these confines, Ives does not shy away from angular chromaticisms.
The resulting interplay between the music in these two keys is thick, dense, rich. It is surprisingly luminous, weightless.
Composed less than four decades later, Olivier Messiaen's O sacrum convivium offers a different kind of harmonic complexity. Here the resulting sound is not from a deliberate mishmash of two conventional keys, but from Messiaen deliberately crafting the music in his own idiosyncratic tonal language.
Messiaen had synesthesia, a neurological condition which allowed him to "see" sound – to perceive sound as color. The resulting music of O sacrum convivium, if we may read into this unique element of Messiaen's biography, is one of shifting color.
In fact – and I hope that a close analysis of the harmonic sequence might bear this out – I wonder if it's not meant to be a rainbow, the symbol of the covenant in the Hebrew Bible? After all, the words that Messiaen chose for his single liturgical motet are also about covenant, the "New Covenant", et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur (a "pledge of future glory"). For someone who saw sound as color, wouldn't the ability to forge this connection in music hold particular appeal?
Both Ives and Messiaen create new harmonic territory, and in the particular alchemy which is choral singing, a good deal of rehearsal must be given over to learn how to dwell in these musical spaces. In our recent experiences with these pieces, this is not an unpleasant enterprise. It is the familiar sensation of choral singing, contributing an essential part to an integral whole, but taken further.
There is something "static" about both works. Both are generally slow moving, though there is a quicker central section in the Ives. In the case of Ives, the work returns to the exact same chord with which it began. In the case of the Messiaen, the final chord is different in that the final soprano note is lowered. In fact, it would be possible – in a Shenkerian vein, I suppose – to see the various harmonic meanderings of O sacrum convivium as a "resolution" of the first chord. The logic of the Ives is self-contained by its own devices, but the logic of the Messiaen is contained by his particular harmonic language. The "resolved" Messiaen chord is still a dissonant one in a "common practice" sense.
There is something captivating about both of these pieces. Messiaen, the mystic, shrouds the sacrament of Holy Communion in its attendant mystery and ecstasy. Ives, the maverick, bends the rules of music to craft a hymn of praise like nothing that had been heard before.
But maybe it's not enough to stop with an appreciation (whatever that means) or analysis of these two pieces. Maybe we also need to examine the unrelenting human impulse for increasing complexity in music as well as in our day to day lives.
O sacrum convivium stands alone as Messiaen's only liturgical motet. I imagine he wrote it because he had something very meaningful to say. It's completely understandable that he did not write another given that he believed plainsong to be the true (and simple) choral music of the Church. And yet, Messiaen would compose some of the most complex music of the twentieth century, harmonically and otherwise. In fact, his O sacrum convivium is rather tame by comparison.
Where does the increasing drive toward complexity end? We see in "minimalism" the movement toward un-complexity: a rejection of the academy's elevation of hyper-complexity (as beautiful as it may be; listen to "New Music Fight Club" from Meet the Composer for a deep dive on this).
I wonder if in the Church "praise music" could be a stand-in for "minimalism", the latest in the series of rejections of perceived hyper-complexity in the history of church music (think Palestrina and the legend behind his saving polyphony).
Within the Hymnal 1982 the service music of Richard Felciano and the William Albright hymn tune PETRUS show that we are still highly susceptible to the tendency toward maximal complexity. And I know that both Ives and Messiaen have also been accused of going too far.
In the case of the two pieces under discussion, however, I think the resulting complexity is just right. We're talking about music for a choir, mind you, not a congregation.
And its music that has something to say about our relationship with the divine.
There is a complexity to it.
"O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,"
"Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee."
"the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,"
"Then shall the earth yield her increase; and God, even our own God, shall bless us."
Alleluia (a complex one, of the Messiaen variety).
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