A Change of Tone...

Flemish Masters

A Change of Tone...

This coming weekend, we will be attempting to return to some degree of normality in our renowned musical program. A reduced number of Boy Choristers will sing for the Solemn Mass at 11am whilst a schola-ette will sing in lieu of our Parish Choir at the 9.30am Mass. This blog will also undergo some changes--alongside my brief reflections on the theme and readings for the coming Sunday, I will also seek to provide you with details and 'program notes' for the music that will be sung at the 11am Mass. 


'Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?' 
Sir.  27.30 - 28.7

This question is found in Sunday's first reading that is taken from the Wisdom of Sirach (also known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus). The Wisdom of Sirach is the longest of the seven wisdom books found in the bible and was written by a sage and scribe named Yeshua, the son of a man named Sirach. Like all examples of ancient near-eastern wisdom literature, the book is a collection of teachings that seek to guide the reader along a morally righteous and good path. In this Sunday's excerpt, the sage warns the reader about the dangers of anger and wrath. In a barrage of rhetorical questions, Sirach highlights the intense hypocrisy of one who asks (or rather expects) forgiveness of the Lord while 'nourishing anger against another.' 

In the Gospel reading (Mt. 18.21-35) Jesus expounds upon Sirach's teaching to Peter who has asked Jesus how many times he ought to forgive someone--Jesus' famous answer is that one ought to forgive the person who has wronged you 490 times (i.e. 'seventy times seven'). It goes without saying that Jesus is teaching that one should forgive readily and as often as necessary. How else can one hope for God's forgiveness for their sins? Jesus then goes on to talk about the hypocrisy of the unforgiving penitent in the famous Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt. 18.23-35). The servant who owes a huge debt begs his master for time to repay the debt. His master has mercy and forgives the whole debt. That same servant then goes and demands a small debt from another servant. The master then hands the unforgiving servant over to be punished for his unforgiving attitude towards the other servant. In a way that is typical for Matthew's Jesus, the Lord tells Peter that the heavenly Father punish anyone who does not forgive their brother or sister from their heart (cf. Mt. 18.35). 

In the Communion Service of the Book of Common Prayer (1662), Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury in the middle years of the sixteenth-century) included a lengthy exhortation to be read before the Offertory. In it he sought to remind the faithful of the importance of receiving the Eucharist in a state of grace. He instructs those who seek to receive the Body and Blood to 'be in perfect charity with all men so that [they] might be partakers of [the] holy mysteries.' Paraphrasing St Paul, Cranmer goes on to remind the faithful that those who eat the Body and Blood while harboring anger or disdain toward their neighbor are 'eating of their own damnation' (cf. 1 Cor. 11.29).  

Christianity hinges on forgiveness and redemption--indeed, that is the point of Jesus' Death on the Cross. Through the Jesus' Passion and Death, we see a glimpse of God's incredible love for humankind. If God is willing to go to such lengths to forgive the world, we can certainly afford to forgive one another. 

Remember your last days and set anger aside!
Remember death and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor:
Remember the promises of the Most High, and overlook faults! 

Sir.  28.6-7

11.00am Solemn Mass

Mass Setting: Missa Brevis Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

The Missa Brevis is Benjamin Britten's only setting of the Ordinary of the Mass. Lasting less than ten minutes in duration, it is truly a 'missa brevis'--short mass. Scored for trebles and organ, the Missa Brevis was composed in 1959 for the boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir and their outgoing music director, George Malcolm (the pre-eminent English harpsichordist of the mid-twentieth century). 

When looking at Britten's oeuvre, one sees how little serviceable church music there is (that is, sacred music that is performable in the context of a liturgical service). This should not really come as a surprise--after all, it is Britten's operas that are probably his most significant contribution to the canon of western music. However, the few items of liturgical music that Britten wrote are of the greatest quality and are extremely well-constructed. 

Compositionally speaking, the Missa Brevis is constructed around the relationship between the keys of 'D' and 'F#'. The Kyrie is defined by series of short melodic cells. In the Christe section that follows, Britten takes the material from the first section and inverts it--he turns melodic cells upside down. The final section of the movement is a reprise of the first and gives the movement a strongly defined ternary (A-B-A) structure. 

The Gloria is written in a exciting 7/8 time signature and takes its melodic basis from the Gregorian chant Missa Dominator Deus (XV). As with the Kyrie, the Gloria is composed in a ternary form that is tonally centered around the keys of 'D' and 'F#'. This tonal tug-of-war is interrupted in the middle section ('Qui tollis peccata mundi') which features a treble solo. The section written in the key of 'F' major, a striking harmonic juxtaposition which generates a feeling of warmth and security as the text invokes mercy and forgiveness from the Lamb of God.     

The Agnus Dei is probably the most desperate and striking movement of the whole mass. The choral parts hinge on an ever-present, five-note ostinato (repeated accompaniment phrase) in the pedals of the organ part. This ostinato is punctuated by a regular series of dissonant chords played on the reed stops. The resulting musical image that has been conjured up by Britten is one of a slow, painful trudge up Calvary. The dissonances between the choral and organ parts build-up throughout the movement before reaching a climax at Dona Nobis Pacem. The organ part then fades away leaving a hanging 'D' minor chord--a strikingly bare conclusion to a truly incredible and reflective piece of music. 

Offertory Motet: Exultate Justi Ludovico di Viadana (1560-1627) 

Ludovico di Viadana was composer, teacher, and Franciscan friar active in Italy in the second half of the long sixteenth-century. As one might deduce from his name, he hailed from the town of Viadana near Mantua in northern Italy. Viadana's great contribution to western music came in the form of his Centi Concerti Ecclesastici which was first published in Venice in 1605. A collection of sacred motets, the publication is significant as it is the first, widely distributed publication of printed music  to contain a figured, basso continuo part--that is to say, a bass line with chords written underneath it so that a keyboard (or theorbo) player might accompany the choral parts. Exultate Iusti is an exciting setting of verses from Psalm 33 and was first published in Venice in 1627 as part of a large, mixed collection of sacred choral music. 

Communion Motet: Angels Ever Bright and Fair G.F. Handel (1685-1759)

Angels ever bright and fair is an aria taken from Handel's penultimate oratorio, Theodora. It received its premiere performance at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1750 to great critical acclaim. Handel sets a libretto by Thomas Morrell that tells the story of Theodora and Didymus, a pair of Christians who were martyred in Roman-controlled Egypt in the third century. 



Popular posts from this blog

Wednesday of Holy Week

Good Friday

Maundy Thursday