Thursday, September 24, 2009

Notes from the Choir

Alas, Thad and the girls and I won't be making choir practice this evening. Thad and I both have mild colds. They aren't slowing us down too much, but we don't want to give them to the rest of the choir, and we're hacking too much to sing anyway; so we'll go over the music at home later and (hopefully) have our singing voices back by Sunday.

One reason I'm hoping for the return of our voices is that for the communion reflection piece this week we are singing one of my favorite pieces: Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus. As the Wikipedia link points out, the hymn is attributed to Pope Innocent VI, and Wikipedia's English translation is as follows:
Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
truly suffered, sacrificed
on the cross for man,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste
in the trial of death.
Listen to it. Read along; heck, sing along if you can:

This is sacred music. The lyrics have an ancient pedigree; the musical setting is meditative, harmonious, filled with subtle beauty. Our own Pope Benedict XVI is partial to the music of Mozart; the article linked to above quotes His Holiness as saying that Mozart's music "...contains the whole tragedy of human existence."

Sometimes you will hear people who lead Catholic choirs being dismissive of Mozart and other classical composers as being too "highbrow" for the ordinary Catholic in the pews to appreciate or enjoy. Others will lament that they can't possibly perform any of Mozart's beautiful motets or Mass music because their choirs are untrained, non-professional musicians who can't read music.

Both choirs I've had the joy of participating in these last few years were composed mainly of people who weren't professionals and couldn't read music, either, aside from the director and one or two others. I myself have only a minimal ability to sight-read, and must hear a piece once or twice before I can sing it. Yet both of these small, amateur choirs learned and have sung Mozart's Ave Verum, and sung it reasonably well.

Beautiful music like this isn't "highbrow" or inaccessible to the congregation. Rather, it's a part of our musical heritage as Catholics. Music like this fosters prayer; it doesn't compete with it or distract from it.

Now, compare it to this song: Sing of the Lord's Goodness. I actually don't have that much of a problem with most of the lyrics of this piece, but here is the music. To me, this music sounds too secular, too much like something one could hear in other settings besides church. (Warning: that link has some not-so-nice ads here and there.)

What do you think?


Kindred Spirit said...

Our choir just sang Mozart's "Ave Verum" during Communion last Sunday, and we're working on Palestrina's "Missa Papae Marcelli" for the Feast of Christ the King. You are so right about beautiful sacred music being part of our Catholic heritage--one more piece to reclaim! I hope you and your husband get well soon. May God bless you!

Deirdre Mundy said...

"Sing of the Lord's goodness" is also REALLY hard to sing.. It's up and down and all over the place, the rhythm is weird... it's like somethign you'd expect to hear from a calliope on a merry-go-round.

A lot of the 'highbrow' stuff is easier. For one thing, even people who don't KNOW it have heard it, or pieces influences by it.... so the notes follow an expected pattern.

With alot of the newer stuff, it's often like the composer said "hmmm... I need a sequence of notes that NOONE HAS EVER IMAGINED BEFORE!".... so the music has a random, slapped together feel.

Translations of hymns from other countries tend to go better-- there are some really pretty eastern European Christmas carols translated into English, for example....

Todd said...

I like both the ones you mentioned, but I prefer the Saint-Saens Ave Verum Corpus.

As for the comparison between Mozart and Ernie Sands/Paul Desmond, I don't get it. The former was intended to be sung by musical specialists and be received as a meditation. The latter was intended to be sung by a worshipping community. It's kind of like comparing Taylor Swift singing the national anthem or a stadium of 30,000 people singing it. When I'm singing as part of a large group, I confess I get a lot more juiced about it. But I can still enjoy TS.

Anonymous said...

Our choir has done Ave Verum Corpus before, and while there were a couple of spots that presented a challenge as far as our breath control was concerned, we did a pretty good job. We are not a choir of professionals (only maybe two of us can sight read, and I'm not one of them). I agree with you that a lot of the older, more traditional music is actually more accessible than people think. Here's hoping your voice comes back before Sunday!

--Elizabeth B.

c matt said...

As a pew warmer rather than choir participant, I can't speak to how many of our choir members can sight read. I know at least our director and one other (our school kid's band leader/music teacher) can. But I would have to agree with you that this level of music is not beyond an average choir, as I have heard our own do similar pieces. It is even more disjointed to hear somehting like this (or the Ave Maria) followed by Anthem or something. I would almost prefer just to go with one style or the other rather than have them randomly thrown together, even though the random high brow is probably the only way we would hear any of it.

Scott W. said...

Beautiful piece no doubt, but when you get away from chant, you open the door to subjectivism and kind of an "equal time" mentality. "Hey! I can see how some people can enjoy Mozart, but I also in enjoy Haugan" and what not. I've seen it too many times in choirs now. "OK, we'll throw a bone and do the usual sentimentalist fluff, then and the end of distribution, we get to do the good stuff." A cup of wine in a barrel of sewage equals sewage. A cup of sewage in a barrel of wine equals sewage.