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Musical Musings: Composers

Great Music — Absolutely!

by Gary D. Penkala

When a spacecraft named Voyager neared a remote world it greeted the inhabitants thereof — if any — with the music of the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F. Actually there were two such spacecraft, Voyager I and Voyager II, launched in 1977 on a course that would take them through the solar system and beyond, to the realm of the stars. Among the devices with which each was equipped was a gold-coated phonograph record containing an hour and a half of music, in addition to spoken greetings. The music included three pieces by Bach: the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F (which opened the record), the Prelude and Fugue in C from Book II of The Well-Tempered clavier, and the Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No.3 for Unaccompanied Violin. The Brandeburg concerto was chosen as the first music from earth to be heard because of its feeling of "energetic optimism."

Carl Sagan, the eminent astronomer and writer, reports that when he asked biologist Lewis Thomas of the Sloan-Kettering Institute what message he thought should be sent to other civilizations in space, Dr. Thomas replied: "I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach." Then he paused and added: "But that would be boasting."

In any event, the three pieces by Bach, as well as excerpts from Beethoven, Mozart and others, were sent on their way. The Voyagers flew past Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989 and proceeded beyond. [Editor's Note: As of July 2006, they are over 8 billion miles from the sun and still functioning properly]. The ships are equipped with record-playing equipment and instructions engraved in aluminum in scientific language that any reasonable space creature should be able to follow. We await word.

[from Basically Bach, by Herbet Kupferberg]
photo subject

Even in the scientific community, among those interested in trajectories and orbits rather than trumpets and oboes, there is agreement as to what is "great" music. Music that has lasted, music that has inherent "absolute" value, was chosen as representing the finest mankind has to offer in the area of auditory art. While each of the scientists had his own taste and personal informal listening favorites (including Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas), the concensus among them, when asked to represent Planet Earth before the Extra-terrestrial Life Form, was to choose great music — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven.

How interesting! For E.T. we choose the Masters, yet for Almighty God, some ditty sounding like it was slopped off in a nightclub on a cocktail napkin will suffice.

The state of Catholic church music at the end of the 20th century was abysmal. We had been lured into erroneous thinking by relativism, just as it infected moral thought. What is "good," whether referring to moral and ethical practices or worthy and noble music, depended on numerous factors, each relative to the perpetrator or the listener. We justified greed ... "in this situation." We tolerated lies as ... "misinformation." We accepted killing if ... "it was in the mother's best interest." And, we promoted tawdry music because ... "it made people happy."

The 21st century has brought a revolution in liturgical music. No longer is the measuring stick to be human emotion ... "warm-fuzzy" music is going the way of asbestos and saccharine, although it may take quite a while to rid our systems of lingering residues.

Sandro Magister writes:

Now there is a pope, Benedict XVI, who is highly competent in the area of sacred music, is severely critical of the degradation of music following the council, and has written on a number of occasions what he thinks and what he wants: to restore to the Catholic liturgy the great music that "from Gregorian chant passes through the music of the cathedrals and polyphony, the music of the Renaissance and the Baroque, to Bruckner and beyond."

So who are the "greats" in Catholic church music? Here are a few:


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

Perhaps most important in the continuity of traditional Catholic music is Renaissance composer, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose brilliant career in Rome gained him the title "Savior of Church Music." He spent most of his adult life working in Rome, first as choirmaster at Saint Peter's Basilica, then at Saint John Lateran and Saint Mary Major, before returning to work at Saint Peter's under Pope Julius III (the former bishop of the town of Palestrina where the musician was born). His compositional output was almost entirely vocal, the vast majority of that, sacred. He wrote 104 masses, 68 offertories, 250 motets, 45 hymns, psalms, 33 magnificats, litanies, 4 or 5 sets of lamentations . He is credited with a spiritual reform of liturgical music, helping to purge secular influences and return church music to a holy and inspirational state. Oh, the parallels to today!

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart Mozart, an Austrian child prodigy of the 18th century, was born into a Catholic family and baptized Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart on January 28, 1756, the day after he was born. He extensively toured Europe as a child performer on harpsichord and pianoforte. While in Rome, Mozart amazed those around him (including his father, Leopold, and Pope Clement XIV) with his musical talents:
It was custom during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel to sing the exceptionally beautiful piece of music known as the Miserere, written a century earlier by Gregorio Allegri. The work, performed by two choirs of nine voices, was exclusive to the Sistine Chapel and could not be published, but was handed down from choirmaster to choirmaster.

The remarkable prodigy Wolfgang stunned everyone by returning to his lodgings and transcribing the music he had memorized during the liturgy. His proud father wrote to Wolfgang's mother Anna, "Perhaps you have heard of the famous Miserere, whose publication is prohibited under pain of excommunication. Well, we have it. Wolfgang wrote it from memory."

Word spread fast throughout Rome of the child who could memorize music after hearing it once. The news eventually reached the ears of the Pope. Far from excommunicating the boy, Pope Clement received Wolfgang several times in audience, conferring medals and titles on him.
Having returned to Austria, Mozart took a position as music director for the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Many of his sacred compositions were written for performance there in the cathedral dedicated to Saint Rupert and Saint Virgil, including many works called Missa brevis ("Short Mass") which lacked a Credo movement and satisfied the archbishop's preference for brief music. While noted mainly for his instrumental compositions and his operas, Mozart also wrote fifteen Masses, litanies, offertories, his great Requiem, as well as many smaller motets, most of them written for soli, chorus, and orchestra. Perhaps most famous is his setting of "Ave verum" for SATB choir and strings.


Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

John W. Ehrlich writes:
Anton Bruckner, known best for his vast symphonic canvases, was very much a product of the Austro-German tradition and felt the power of Roman Catholicism early in his life, and remained a fervent believer throughout it. Indeed, his earliest musical experiences were church services in an Augustinian monastery, and his early performing experiences were as a choir director.

Much of the concentrated reverence Bruckner always felt in the presence of his God is evident in his short works for a cappella chorus. The richly evocative seven-part antiphon Ave Maria from 1861 is the second of three settings by Bruckner of this Catholic prayer, and it exhibits a highly-refined chromaticism, which, when put in the service of a solid Renaissance-like vocal style, spins a galaxy of unusual and almost rhapsodic harmonies. Locus iste, the "simplest" of the composer's graduals, contains its chromaticism in an almost Mozartean elegance. Os justi, set entirely in the old Lydian church mode, twice unfurls into the richest-imaginable eight-part harmony, only to close on a unison alleluia chant. While the image of a fragrant, night-blossoming flower is not foreign to this music, it is more the perfume of frankincense which permeates this work. Virga Jesse, a gradual from 1885, is one of Bruckner's last works for chorus, and among his most extraordinary. Echoes of the composer's rich symphonic palette are rife here, with daring harmonic progressions driving an almost operatic swing of emotion. Bruckner's a cappella motets, some of his most concise and spiritually compelling music, richly reflect the devotional ecstasy which smoldered and glowed deep within this unique artist's soul.
And there you have three great composers for the Church, from vastly different eras, but each, who in reflecting on his music, saw it not as blazing new trails, but falling squarely in the tradition of what had gone before. And that is a mark of "good" church music!

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