Saturday, March 17, 2012

To the Glory of God

Last Thursday GH and I heard a concert of French sacred music in the beautiful gothic church of St. Ignatius of Antioch at West End Avenue and 87th Street. Under the music direction of Phillip Cheah, the Central City Chorus presented à la glorie de Dieu. The program connected medieval French composers with their modern counterparts.

According to the program notes, La Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) is often cited as the earliest complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer. Cheah writes, to my great interest:

The text of the Ordinary falls into roughly two categories: one short, with the conciseness of poetry (i.e. Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), and the other extended and prosaic (i.e. Gloria and Credo). Machaut sets the texts of the former group as self-contained abstract formations that seem almost more instrumental than choral in the drawn out syllables, while the latter are set in accordance with the text phrases to match the irregular patterns of prose.

Machaut was followed by Quartre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Brian Hamer who conducted this part of the program writes in the program about how each motet is built around the Gregorian melody associated with the text. Ubi caritas uses words from the Roman liturgy of Duruflé's day for the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, and an anonymous trope from the 9th or 10th century. Tota pulchra uses sacred texts from Song of Solomon and the Apocryphal book of Judith. Tu es Petrus is a setting of Matthew 16:18, a text usually sung on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29). Tantum ergo sets two verses from a series of euchartistic hymns attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Nuper rosarum flores by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) was sung next by a quintet of men, with Phillip Cheah taking the countertenor part. This motet was composed for the consecration of the Florence cathedral on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1436, to mark the consecration of the dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.

O sacrum convivium! by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is a motet written in the key of F sharp major, a key which Messiaen apparently associated with the Divine. It may be minimally scored but to my untrained ears it sounded massive.

My favorite work of the evening was Messe en sol majeur by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). Written in August 1937, it was Poulenc's first a cappella religious composition. The female soprano solo in the Agnus Dei was very beautiful. Poulenc drifted away from Roman Catholicism after his father's death, but returned to his childhood faith after the death of his friend and colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud. The missa brevis (omitting the Credo) was dedicated to Poulenc's father.

Although varied, informing and deeply serious, the concert lasted for only an hour. It was the perfect length for a Thursday evening of music. I'm looking forward to hearing the Chorus again when they sing works that explore water and renewal in a concert titled Making Waves on June 2.

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