InsightOut: Marking November’s Place in the Liturgical Calendar Musically

InsightOut: Marking November’s Place in the Liturgical Calendar Musically

Dr. Christina Labriola combines musical praxis as a choral conductor, mezzo soprano, and keyboardist with theological scholarship in Christian spirituality and music. She holds a Doctorate in Theology and a Master of Sacred Music from the Toronto School of Theology at U of T. Christina has recently been named as Artistic Director of the St. Michael’s Schola Cantorum. She also serves as Director of Music for the Office of Campus Ministry at St. Mike’s, and Sessional Lecturer in Sacred Music at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College.

The Schola Cantorum will perform the works referred to below at their concert, to be held Monday, November 28 at 7:30 pm in St. Basil’s Church.

Here on the St. Michael’s College campus, as the days grow shorter and greyer and the nights longer and colder, as the shadows lengthen and trees shed their coloured leaves, our thoughts naturally turn to endings. Fittingly, November in the Christian liturgical year is tinged with an eschatological flavour. The month begins with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, when the Church bids us call to mind the heavenly joys of the communion of saints, and to pray trustingly for the faithful departed. It culminates in the celebration of Christ the King, with the acknowledgement that all time belongs to Christ, whose glorious Second Coming we await with hopeful anticipation. There is a stark, mystical beauty to this time of year, poised as it is at the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the new, that offers a glimpse behind the veil of quotidian life at the spiritual reality impinging upon it. It invites remembrance, reflection upon our lives from the perspective of eternity, awareness of the passage of time, and, for Christians, a renewal of the hope of future glory.

Our program for organ and voices offers an extended musical meditation inspired by the mystical, reflective, eschatological aspect of this time of year.

Caritas Abundat is a liturgical chant from the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum of St. Hildegard of Bingen, the vivacious and brilliant 12th century German nun, composer, visionary, and theologian. Music was central to Hildegard’s holistic theological vision. In her writings, she treats music as a force of tremendous spiritual, theological, and moral import, eloquently expounding upon the mystical nature of music and its centrality to a life of prayer and virtue. The piece, composed to be sung by the female voices of Hildegard’s Benedictine community, is a tender and ecstatic liturgical song in praise of the Holy Spirit, under the feminine allegorical figure of Caritas. Hildegard’s cosmological sensibility – her sense of the strength and vibrancy of God’s life-giving love illuminating every facet of creation – comes through palpably: Divine Love embraces all things and reaches up to bestow her kiss upon the High King. Her transcendent and passionate text is wedded seamlessly to her freely melismatic, expressive music.

As truly as God is our Father (1987), an anthem for organ and mixed choir by Welsh composer William Mathias, sets selected words of the great 14th century English mystic and anchoress, Julian of Norwich. Julian’s Revelation of Divine Love, the first book written by a woman in the English language, expresses a powerful mystical sensibility derived from her visionary experiences. Julian’s message is one of hope and restoration in the face of the suffering and fragmentation of sin: she speaks of the mystery of the Trinity, of God’s love for and radical intimacy with fragile creation, and humanity’s ultimate destiny of joy in union with God. Mathias highlights Julian’s use of complementary masculine and feminine imagery, using upper and lower voices in alternatim. From the quiet, reflective opening, the anthem builds through repeated iterations of “It is I” to a dazzling and fervent climax, before closing with Julian’s famous words, “All shall be well” – a divine promise of immense comfort.

The famous O quam gloriosum is a four-voice motet for the feast of All Saints, composed in 1572 during Victoria’s time in Rome. The text presents the radiant beauty and rejoicing of the great multitude of the righteous in the kingdom of heaven, clothed with white robes as they follow the Lamb (an allusion to Revelation 7). Victoria masterfully depicts the glorious vision with a sense of ecstatic joy, energy, and verve that continues to the very last note.

O Sacrum Convivium! (1937)is an offertory motet by 20th-century French Roman Catholic composer and organist Olivier Messiaen, setting a liturgical text ascribed to Thomas Aquinas. While much of Messiaen’s work is infused with religious themes and serves as a vehicle for meditating upon the truths of his devoutly held faith, this brief motet is the only vocal liturgical composition by the prolific composer: a unique gem. With its hushed quality, very slow, unequal pulse, and complex, colourful harmonic language, the work reverences the Blessed Sacrament, proceeding with an air of absolute awe that rises to an expressive, fervent peak at the anticipation of future glory.

The brief yet lush anthem As the Apple Tree (1982) by British composer Robert Walker sets words from the Song of Songs, a scriptural poem with a long history of interpretation as a love song between God (or Christ) the Bridegroom and his bride, the soul (or Israel/the Church). The erotic language expresses the fervency of devotion, passion, and mutual desire, captured beautifully by the sense of longing in Walker’s setting, especially in the repeated iterations of the voice of the beloved: “Rise up, my love, my fair one.” The long, undulating melismatic phrases present in both choir and organ give the effect of a gentle breeze blowing through the leaves of a tree – an impression heightened towards the end of the piece where Walker’s aleatoric effect has each voice murmuring freely at its own pace.

In The Beatitudes (1990/91), one of only a handful of his works in English, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt employs the techniques of minimalism and Tintinnabulation that are hallmarks of his style. The composer’s manipulation of time, sound, and silence takes on mystical proportions. The contemplative nature of melodic chant, together with the simplicity of the triad, as in the overtone sounds of a bell, present us with a sense of sonic purity. Each pair of benedictory phrases from the opening of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount are set in a meditative, declamatory style, punctuated by a silence, creating a sense of timelessness. Each clause moves a chromatic step higher, creating a sense of gradually rising tension. The process reverses in the final bars, as the ecstatic, undulating organ cadenza eventually “unfurls,” slowing and fading to nothing.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs (1911), is a cycle setting the metaphysical poetry of George Herbert, poet and pastor of the Elizabethan era. Scored for solo baritone, the work is versatile in its possibilities for accompaniment; tonight we are employing a version for solo voice, SATB choir, and organ.

Inspired by the visionary qualities of Herbert’s religious verse, Vaughan Williams draws from the poet’s 1633 collection, The Temple, which the poet-priest described as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul.” With their richly symbolic, Biblically allusive language, the texts are performed prayers, meditations, and dialogues of the heart with God. In the Five Mystical Songs, O. Alan Weltzein finds a spiritual and artistic symbiosis between poet and composer, to the extent that “the re-creation [of the poems as music] realizes or completes Herbert’s intentions, as if these well-known poems had to wait almost three centuries to gain a new wholeness, or proper resonance, in Vaughan Williams’ setting of them.” Their “collaboration renders audible these poems’ intensely imagined but unheard music”.

Vaughan Williams executes each of the Five Mystical Songs with heartfelt religious feeling. The first, Easter, reflects the believer’s joy at Christ’s resurrection and hope for his own resurrection in Christ. Music-making is employed as an especially fitting mode of praise, perfected and completed by that of the Spirit. I Got Me Flowers continues the reflection upon Christ’s rising, voicing confidence in him as the true and eternal Sun. Love Bade Me Welcome, the centrepiece and most intimate of the songs, depicts a dialogue between the poet/soul and Love, the welcoming Host of the Love Feast. While the guest demurs, faced with his own hopeless inadequacy, Love is quick to respond to his objections and scruples, drawing him in to an embrace that culminates in the communion meal, evoked by the wordless intoning of the plainsong melody by the choir, O Sacrum Convivium (O Sacred Banquet). The guest at last acquiesces and lapses into silence as the mystical meal is consumed, expressed in the final, understated, laconic line: “So, I did sit and eat.” The encounter with Divine Love thus culminates in a eucharistic experience of intimacy. The Call, a simple, folklike hymn for solo baritone, expresses trust and faith through its strong, trifold parallelism. Finally, in Antiphon, the foregoing reflections are summed up and turned into a triumphant hymn of praise for the whole choir, to the jubilant accompaniment of pealing bells: “Let all the world in every corner sing: my God and King!”

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