Which Comes First, Music or Religion?

United StatesUnited States  Lucis–Music of Light: Seattle Pro Musica, Karen P. Thomas (conductor), St. James Cathedral, Seattle, 19.5.2013 (bj)

Ola Gjeilo: Spheres (from Sunrise Mass)
plainchant: Ave maris stella
Ēriks Ešenvalds: A Drop in the Ocean (Piliens Okeana)
Mircea Valeriu Diaconescu: Lumină Lină
J. Aaron McDermid: Wind (from From Light to Light)
William Harris: Bring us, O Lord God
Josef Rheinberger: Abendlied
Jaako Mäntyjärvi: Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae
Hilary Tann: Contemplations 8, 9
Timothy Takach: Luceat eis
plainchant: Veni creator spiritus
Herbert Howells: Requiem aeternam (from Requiem)
Rachmaninoff: Svete tihiy (Gladsome light from All-Night Vigil)
Pavel Chesnokov: Spaseniye sodelal (Salvation is created)
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Avuksihuutopsalmi (Psalm of Invocation from Vigilia)
Vytautas Miškinis: Lucis creator optime

Someone, I cannot remember who, once observed that, to write good Christian poetry, one must be first a poet and then a Christian. The dictum came to mind as Karen P. Thomas took us on a whirlwind tour of 20th- and 21st-century devotional choral music from Norway, Latvia, Romania, USA, England, Germany, Finland, Wales, Russia, and Lithuania, along with two samples of plainchant.

For the most part, as one short piece followed another, it was hard to perceive much in the way of striking personality in the manner or content of the music. This is, you must understand, an outsider’s report, since I am not a Christian or indeed the adherent of any organized religion, but I had a feeling that Christian humility had been carried in many of these works to the point of total self-abnegation. The most extreme case was Timothy Takach’s Luceat eis, an utterly subfusc setting of memorial texts that have in the past been treated with the utmost intensity of emotion. I suppose there is something to be said for not doing with a text what others have done with it before—but surely some kind of personal vision would have been preferable to the determinedly featureless character of Takach’s piece.

I am sure the men and woman who wrote this music have strong, even vivid, beliefs and convictions. But, except in a couple of cases, they seemed to have submerged them so thoroughly in a kind of generalized reservoir of religious tradition that it was hard to distinguish one from another—and this despite a stylistic vocabulary that ranged from old-fashioned tonal methods to the injection of a few mild avant-garde-isms. Not even Thomas’s sure-handed direction, drawing from her choir awesome dynamic contrasts, from the merest whisper to a fortissimo as warm-toned as it was powerful, nor the canny variety in her exploitation of the cathedral’s wide spaces (so that at times it was hard to judge just where the music was coming from), succeeded in differentiating with any clarity among the pieces she had with her customary taste for exploration brought together.

What were the exceptions that I have hinted at? Well, William Harris’s Bring us, O Lord God did match to some degree the color and grandeur of its text by John Donne. But it was with the onset, partway through the concert’s second half, of a section from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil that we suddenly found ourselves in a different world, a world where technical mastery and imaginative fervor of expression go hand in hand. In my unregenerate youth I was sniffy about Rachmaninoff, but in recent decades I have come to recognize him as a major master, and in Svete tihiy there is all the imaginative fervor of expression that, along with technical mastery and an unfailing elegance of manner, qualify him for that title.

Plainchant, of course, being monophonic in texture, possesses an inbuilt way of differentiating itself from the harmonic and polyphonic languages that dominated the rest of the program. I felt, though, that the performances of the chants we heard were somewhat too metrically uniform. I advance this opinion with some diffidence, not being by any means an expert in matters of plainchant style; but the performances I have heard by such great exponents (or perhaps I should say celebrants) of chant as the monks of Solesmes have always had a freer character, with the strong accents imparting an exhilarating lift to the pulse, more like upbeats than downbeats.

In every other respect, however, Karen Thomas’s conducting and the singing of her superb choir maintained their customary standard of excellence. And despite the reservations I have outlined, the experience of hearing all of this unusual evening’s pieces together was one I should be sorry to have missed.


Bernard Jacobson