Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part II


In our first look at sacred music last month we discussed some concrete principals and why they functioned as the essence of good sacred music. It is, however, often said that taste is subjective. This I do concede to a point, and as an experiment I would like to make a less scientific comparison. We may say certainly that people have reactions to music but of course it is something in the music that has generated that reaction. I would like to look at a few incipits from some sacred music and briefly characterize what they suggest. I decided to use the beginnings of these pieces because they invariably receive an enormous amount of attention from the composer and they set the tone of the piece. In short, we can assume them to be the best the composer has to offer and exactly what he wants. Many musical works have weak transitions, lines, and moments, but we tend not to discuss the ones which fall out of the gate.

The incipits should briefly and perfectly capture the essence of the piece, or at least set a clear stage for development. So we may ask, then: first, do they, and second, what do they say?

N.B. I included only pieces using the Latin text of the Gloria from the Ordinary of the mass. I included the intonation of the Gloria de Angelis only once, which naturally excluded many settings which begin with the famous phrase. I have edited the chant and classical examples into the video below. The modern pieces have links to performances next to their descriptions.




1. Gloria De Angelis (VIII) anonymous
  • A capella. Simple and direct with subdued word-painting via the rising in excelsis and Deo receiving double length. The narrow intervals and rhythm suggest declamation more than decoration.
2. Gloria in B-flat, HWV.deest G. F. Handel
  • Soprano with violins, viola, and bc. B-flat. Very operatic opening: the bass and 2nd violin pulsing out the common time immediately evokes someone walking onstage as the the rising 1st violin figure in 8th and 16th notes suggests some internal psychological state.  The entry of the vocal soprano continues the 1st violin's drama.
3. Gloria in D, RV.589 A. Vivaldi
  • Strings, trumpet and oboe. D major, the key for trumpets and drums. Fanfare/heraldic figure in the trumpet suggests regal splendor. Motivic first response by the orchestra in 8th notes suggests urgency and second response in 16th notes amplifies. Confident tutti entry 1) suggests unity, and 2) the double (Gloria, Gloria) suggests one statement would not be enough. The following phrase in excelsis Deo, first loud and confident is repeated piano as if they realize that, confident and proud as they are, they stand in awe and mystery of God too.
4. Mass in B minor, BWV.232, J. S. Bach
  • Trumpets, trombones, strings, flute, bassoon, timpani. The multitude of instruments suggests a great gathering, either a heavenly host or a feast. Again in the trumpets and drums key of D Bach begins vivace (with energy) and in the dance-like 3/8 meter (which is amplified by the symmetrical structure.) The basses pulse the meter as the strings, oboes, and flutes play two to their one and Bach begins to develop in sequence. Finally the altos enter followed two measures later by the tenors in canon at the unison, followed two measures later by the two groups of sopranos and the basses. The effect is of one small group and then another greeting who arrives until at last all can see Him and burst into song.
5. Mass in C, KV.317 W. A. Mozart
  • Full orchestra. Opens tutti forte Allegro con spiritu for the whole orchestra and choir. A huge heraldic opening followed by a piano phrase, the first half of which, with its arpeggio and 16th notes suggests a sudden turning to face who enters and the second half of which with its staccato 8th notes suggest perhaps a shuffling or scanning to see someone arriving. 
6. Mass in C minor, KV.427 W. A. Mozart
  • Full orchestra. Another massive tutti forte Allegro vivace opening. The Glo- of Gloria is held the whole bar over the arresting heraldic figure (rhythm -uu--, -uu--) in the upper strings, horns, and drums as the brass doubles the chorus. We have here great breadth and heraldry. The basses then enter followed the next bar by the tenors a fifth above and so forth up the voices. The rhythmic figure of two semiquavers and a quaver generates rhythmic energy as the counterpoint stiffens the structure.
7. Missa in Angustiis J. Haydn
  • Strings, trumpet, timpani, organ. D major. An operatic soprano solo entry without the orchestral prelude. Rather an operatic version of the Gloria de Angelis, with a dramatic rising figure on excelsis. The solo opening mimics the declamatory character of the chant setting, where as the fluttering accompaniment, tempo, and flashy rising figure borrow from the drama of opera to heighten the attention on the solo. 
8. Mass in A-flat F. Schubert
  • A very transparent opening fortissimo Allegro maestoso e vivace on Gloria in E in 3/4 time with Gloria neatly mirroring the -uu rhythm alternating with racing scales and with very narrow intervals make this opening very declamatory in nature. 
9. Missa Solemnis in D Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Full orchestra. Beethoven's colossal opening begins with the orchestra fortissimo Allegro vivace in D. The gripping rising figure, suggestive of attention, praise, and joy in the horns and winds over the rising semiquaver figure in the strings is simply overwhelming. The sheer magnitude astounds us but the force roars on as the horns pound out a triplet figure and the inner voices enter two bars and a third apart, still fortissimo. They hasten through the phrase, Gloria in excelsis in 8th notes only to hold onto Deo in half-notes. The outer voices then enter two bars apart at the unison with the same material before the choir joins together on Gloria. Here we have expressed both the utmost desire to praise God and the utmost energy with which to do it. 
In these pieces we find a clear purpose I was able to describe with relatively non-technical vocabulary. Can we find it elsewhere?

1. Mass of Creation Marty Haugen [YouTube]
2. Mass of God's Promise Dan Schutte [YouTube]
3. Mass of Light David Haas [YouTube]
4. Mass of Wisdom Steven R. Janco [YouTube]
5. Mass of Resurrection Randall deBruyn [YouTube]
6. Heritage Mass Owen Alstott [YouTube]

I can't even describe these pieces. They have no character. I can discern no reason behind any particular note, figure or issue of instrumentation. There is no reason why anything ought to be the way it is thus there is no obvious purpose to it, whatever the composer intended. Nothing is conveyed. Sure Schutte's trumpet part is for the trumpet, but it's not a fanfare figure. It's just something for trumpet. And the subsequent rhythms, why are they the way they are? Why add "peace on Earth?" In deBruyn's Mass of Resurrection, why are the words phrased as they are? The rhythm is so very awkward. We are a long way from the crisp rhythms we saw in the classical pieces and the fluidity of the chant.

In Haas' opening, why follow "Glory to God in the Highest" with "Glory to God" in the same part? Why draw out "people" and repeat "to people?" Because there are a lot of people? Janco's trumpet part is likewise without discernible character and why does he emphasize "earth?" Because Earth is big? Again, we area long way from the tone painting in the classical examples.

Alstott's mass opens with a completely nondescript phrase and after that I'm lost. There is no structural or theological reason for any of these things to be a particular way. They're just "something" and although the pieces make sense to the people who wrote them, the ideas are not in the music and therefore listeners cannot respond to it.

Now that we've described these pieces we can see that specific tropes, practices and structures can have apparent significance. In the absence of such, what is there? As T.S. Eliot said, "Only by the form, the pattern / Can words or music reach / The stillness. . ."

In our next look at sacred music we will ask some more pointed questions about compositional practice and see why specific structures have specific meanings. We will consider:
  • declamation vs. development
  • strophic vs. through-composed
  • audience relationship with solo singer vs. relationship with chorus
  • time in an aria vs. time in drama
  • contextualizing detail and the need for large-scale structure

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