The bestest choral piece ever written ever

September 4, 2016 at 5:55 pm

You’d think that naming the “bestest choral piece ever written ever” would be a subjective matter. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not; this is nothing short of hard science. If you disagree with me, it’s because you’re wrong. Sorry.

German joke time – Johann Sebastian Bach was a “sechs” maniac. He wrote six (sechs) Brandenburg concertos, six English suites, six French suites, six organ trios, six violin suites, six cello suites, six flute sonatas, (the list goes on …), and six motets. Joking aside, it is said that this is an homage to God’s making the world in six days and resting on the seventh – Bach wouldn’t presume God-like perfection by writing a seventh concerto, suite, motet, etc. Little did he know that he actually had achieved God-like perfection in practically every note he penned.

The motets were mostly written as funeral pieces. When a person died, Bach’s choir of St. Thomas church would gather outside the home of the deceased and sing a motet before the body was processed to the church for the funeral service. This motet is written for two 4-voice choirs, and is a tour-de-force of what styles were expected of a baroque composer and what the baroque voice was expected to do. This stuff is exceedingly difficult (but fun) to sing; the writing is simply amazing. A quick outline:

  • 0:00 a vocal courante, sung antiphonally between the two choirs
  • 2:17 one choir begins singing a fugue, accompanied by the other’s choirs continued courante
  • eventually the other choir joins in on the fugue – both choir simultaneously sings the fugue AND the dance
  • 4:40 a vocal chorale prelude – one choir sings a hymn, while the other provides commentary
  • 8:40 another vocal antiphonal dance, this time a bourrée
  • and because that’s never enough for Bach, at 10:07, a marvelous fugue which both choirs sing together

Sing this at my funeral, please.

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Messiaen the Mystic

May 26, 2016 at 10:30 am

Whenever you see Olivier Messiaen‘s name in a program, be it a sacred or secular event, his deep Catholic faith will be mentioned. What sets him apart from other religious composers is his mystical approach to writing. It’s common for composers (regardless of their beliefs) to set religious texts to music, or perhaps write dramatic music for a particular religious event. Messiaen, on the other hand, eschewed the traditional texts and instead tried to capture the essence of God in the music he wrote. The result is some truly astounding compositions that sound other-worldly, and, ironically, can’t be used in worship services because many people can’t (or are unwilling to) wrap their brains around them. Those who love Messiaen’s music find a powerful, intense river of joy, often lying beneath a calm, serene texture.

And so, today, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, I give you Messiaen’s only choral motet that is functional in a worship setting: O Sacrum Convivium. Though a traditional Eucharistic text, Messiaen’s music goes way beyond a setting of words – the low, misty beginning, the burning passion that builds the piece, the climatic high point, the serene settling. If you’re only going to write one choral piece, this is the way to do it.

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Pentecost

May 15, 2016 at 10:00 am

“What is this? Now there is something one can learn from!” That’s a huge compliment, especially as it was uttered by the arrogant Mozart when he heard the music of J. S. Bach.

The six motets of Johann Sebastian Bach are beautiful beyond measure, perfectly composed, and fiendishly difficult to sing. “Der Geist hilf unser Schwachheit auf” (The Spirit gives aid to our weakness) was composed for a funeral, but the text is equally perfect for the Christian day of Pentecost – the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and the birthday of the Church. The piece begins with the double-chorus singing back and forth to each other, like the biblical “rush of wind” that occurred on the first Pentecost. A fugue follows, as a sort of response to the fiery opening section – listen for the constant hissing of different s’s, again, giving the effect of rushing wind, or perhaps speaking in tongues. The motet closes with a sweet setting of a hymn which Martin Luther wrote for Pentecost, and would have been well known by any 18th century German Protestant.

0:00 – double-chorus singing in dialogue
The Spirit gives aid to our weakness, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

3:32 – four part fugue
He that searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because it makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
6:00 – chorale (hymn)
O thou holy flame, comfort sweet,
Now help us, joyful and content
To bide forever in thy service,
That sadness may not cast us out.
O Lord, through thy might us prepare;
Make strong the weakness of our flesh,
That we here gallantly may strive
Through death and life to reach thy presence.
Hallelujah, hallelujah.
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