Archive for the ‘polyphony’ category

Victoria’s Secret

June 23, 2007


HAH! Made you look!

No, this post isn’t about sexy models cavorting about in skimpy underwear (Sorry). It’s about Tomás Luis de Victoria, (1548-1611) Spanish priest and composer of polyphonic liturgical music. (There he is over on the right). I’ve previously blogged about my relatively recent discovery of polyphony, especially the music of Thomas Tallis. I had heard Victoria’s name mentioned along with other composers of polyphonic music, such as Palestrina and Byrd, but I hadn’t heard any of Victoria’s music — so in that sense Victoria was a “secret” for me until I found this site. There you’ll find a biography, PDF files with the scores of many of Victoria’s works, and mp3 recordings of his compositions performed by amateur and professional choral groups from around the world. I’ve ordered a recording of Victoria’s work from Amazon.com and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. I owe a huge hat tip to Father Ray Blake of St. Mary Magdalen Church, Brighton England for posting a link to this site. I found Father Ray’s blog via Father Dwight Logenecker of Standing on My Head.

And Speaking of Hymnody . . .

September 4, 2006

Ironically enough, just after I finish posting a piece on the glories of polyphony, comes this item. Via Drew at Shrine of the Holy Whapping, I learn that an essay by Catholic cultural critic extraordinaire George Weigel, on the most deplorable tendencies in contemporary Catholic music, is now available online. Mr. Weigel half-jokingly suggests creating a musical equivalent of the old Index of Forbidden Books, an Index Canticorum Prohibitorum. I read this essay when it first appeared in my diocesan newspaper a couple of years ago. While Mr. Weigel makes several valid points, I must respectfully disagree with him when he says the following:

Next to go should be those “We are Jesus” hymns in which the congregation (for the first time in two millennia of Christian hymnology) pretends that it’s Christ . . . . “Be Not Afraid” and “You Are Mine” fit this category, as does the ubiquitous “I Am the Bread of Life,” to which I was recently subjected on, of all days, Corpus Christi — the one day in the Church year completely devoted to the fact that we are not a self-feeding community giving each other “the bread of life” but a Eucharistic people nourished by the Lord’s free gift of himself. “I am the bread of life” inverts that entire imagery, indeed falsifies it.

Huh? While it is true that “Be Not Afraid” and “You Are Mine” take some liberties with biblical texts and concepts, the lyrics of “I am the bread of life” (at least if they’re the ones I’m thinking of) come almost verbatim from Jesus’s discourses in the sixth and eleventh chapters of the Gospel of John. The congregation is recalling the words of Christ recorded in Scripture. By that logic, is any lector delivering an Old Testament reading beginning: Thus says the Lord “pretending” to be God? For that matter, is the priest or deacon reading the Gospel and quoting the words of Jesus “pretending” to be Jesus? (Yes, yes, I know, the priest stands in persona Christi, but that’s different). If a lector, priest, or deacon can read the words of God, the people of God should be able to sing them.

Furthermore, while listing certain hymns that should be unceremoniously booted from every Catholic hymnal in the land posthaste, Mr. Weigel fails to mention the one that in my humble opinon is the most egregious offender: “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

This piece of drivel (I hesitate to call it a hymn) is so bad on so many levels! Theologically, yes, it mentions God, but only once, and fails to specify whose god is being invoked. Certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the God who became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was born in Bethlehem, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. Not that God. No, the god the authors of this song want to invoke seems to be some sort of cosmic Santa Claus who is there to make sure we get along with each other and play nice:

“With God as our Father
(Wonder how that got past the Inclusive Language Police?)
Children all are we.
Let us walk with each other,
In perfect har-mo-nee.”

Bad poetry? You betcha. Pass the Pepto, I’m about to be ill.

My late father used to say that this song reminded him of that detestable Coke commercial from the late ’60s and early ’70s. You know the one I mean. (“I’d like to teach the world to sing . . .”). Have to agree with ya there, Dad. Musically, this song always sounded to me as if it would be more at home at a Celine Dion concert than as part of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Yet I have heard parishioners and choir members, mind you, get all teary-eyed and ask, “Isn’t it beautiful?” (Well, not if you ask me, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste).

It seems to me that Mr. Weigel is straining at gnats and swallowing camels. If he wants to get rid of wretched hymnody, I’m all for it, but let’s start at the top and dump this gigantic stinker first. Then we’ll move on to the small fry.

There. I feel better. I’ll go try and calm down now.

The Palace of Tallis

September 4, 2006

I have never placed my hope
in any other than you, O God of Israel,
who can show both anger and graciousness,
and absolve the sins
of suffering man.
Lord God, creator of heaven and earth,
be mindful of our humiliation.

—Thomas Tallis, Spem in alium, translated by The Tallis Scholars.

For several days now, my tiny apartment has been resounding with the magnificent polyphonic liturgical music of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). I’m listening to him now as I write this. In a post back in April, I mentioned my fairly recent discovery of Tallis and my determination to get a CD of his music, but I couldn’t decide on which one. After much dithering, I chose The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis, a two disc collection by the English choral group who, as their name implies, devote themselves to the music of Tallis and other Renaissance liturgical composers. I chose this album because of the completeness of the collection, the thoroughness of the liner notes, and the inclusion of complete translations of all the Latin lyrics. This was despite the complaints of some listener-reviewers on Amazon.com who felt that the soprano voices tended to overwhelm others and predominate on Tallis Scholars recordings. My only real quibble with this album is with the packaging. The little tray holding the two discs broke off from the rest of the container on the second day I had the album. Surely there must be a simpler and more durable way to package this music! On balance, however, I would say that the strengths of this collection far outweigh the weaknesses.

The collection itself includes nearly three hours of music from throughout Tallis’s career, both pieces he wrote for the Roman Catholic liturgy in Latin and the Anglican liturgy in English. I find that while the English material such as “If Ye Love Me,” is indeed quite beautiful in a stark, severe sort of way, it lacks the soaring, transcendent quality of the Catholic, Latin compositions. Judging from the music alone, I would say that in his heart of hearts, Tallis was and remained a Catholic even though he lived in a time of considerable social and political pressure to become Protestant. His sympathies, musically speaking, are plainly with the Catholics. The liner notes point out that Tallis’s Catholic and Anglican pieces are written in significantly different styles because the Anglican liturgy placed a premium on the congregation’s ability to understand the text. Since the Catholic compositions were in Latin to begin with, the congregation’s ability to understand the text was probably considered somewhat less important, which allowed Tallis to be freer musically and create layers upon layers of sound. Again, judging from the music alone (and I am certainly no expert), I would say that perhaps Tallis’s intent with his Catholic, Latin compositions was not so much to inspire reflection on a text but to create a mood, a general atmosphere, if you will, of prayer, praise, and adoration. Spem in alium, quoted above, is usually considered Tallis’s masterpiece, but I find myself especially moved by Gaude gloriosa Dei mater (“Rejoice, O Glorious Mother of God”), a hymn to the Blessed Virgin that goes on for over 15 minutes. To me, this music is what heaven sounds like.

I expect this is only the beginning of my adventures in polyphony. I’d like to get some more Tallis recordings (perhaps by different ensembles to compare their interpretations of various pieces), as well as works by Byrd and Palestrina. Stay tuned.

Adventures in Downloading

April 29, 2006

In a post from last year I discussed the joys of finding music from the 1930s and ’40s using LimeWire and iTunes. Since then, I’ve gone even further back, discovering Celtic tunes and especially the polyphonic liturgical music of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), William Byrd (1543-1623), and Giovanni Pierluigui de Palestrina (1526-1594). I first sang Palestrina years ago while in the choir of another parish I attended, and I first heard Tallis and Byrd on a public radio classical music show some years later. When I discovered I could find just about anything using LimeWire and iTunes, I jumped at the chance to find some of this great music. It makes the contemporary Catholic music of the St. Louis Jesuits and Marty Haugen, whom I had previously admired, sound rather penny ante by comparison. The trouble with Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, et al., however, is that you need a large choir of well trained singers to sound good. Almost anybody can sing SLJ, Marty Haugen, David Haas, Carey Landry (gag!), and the like.

One of the things I admire most about Tallis and Byrd is that they were English Catholics in a time when an English Catholic was a dicey thing to be. Both Tallis and Byrd were well-connected socially and politically and could have easily advanced themselves by becoming Anglicans, but they chose to remain Catholics, a choice that could get them arrested, jailed, executed, or deported if they weren’t careful. I believe Tallis and Queen Elizabeth reached a sort of “understanding” that Tallis could continue composing music for the Roman Catholic liturgy in Latin if he also composed music for the Church of England in English. Naturally, I have a soft spot for the Catholic stuff in Latin. Gotta get one of his albums on CD! But which one?

I gave up TV for Lent because I became disgusted with all negativism behind much of the programming and advertising. Although there are some good shows out there, as I said in my Star Trek post, most of what’s on TV today is trash. If “Survivor” and its ilk are considered “reality TV” I’ll take good old-fashioned unreality any day. You put total strangers in a completely artificial, contrived situation, follow them around with cameras hoping they’ll do something dishonest or perverted in order to win the game, and call that “reality?” No thanks. Cop shows push the message that the world is full of serial killers, drug dealers, terrorists, rapists, and perverts. Advertising constantly pushes the message that what you need to be happy in life is to buy more stuff. If you buy the right stuff, you will have more sex and be happy. Anyone with half a brain and half a heart knows this is false, but people like me who live alone continue to watch TV because the light, motion, color, and sound create the illusion that there are others with you. They create the illusion that you are not alone.

I turned off the TV, but I was still uncomfortable with the silence in the evening. I discovered Catholic internet podcasts as an alternative to the inane jabber of TV. I’ve become a podcast junkie. My favorite has to be the Rosary Army with Greg and Jennifer Willitts. They make and give away rosaries made from twine and teach others to do the same. Their podcasts are obviously about the rosary, but they also talk candidly about their day to day adventures and struggles of trying to maintain a home and a family in today’s world. In the past year, they’ve tried unsucessfully to sell their house, Greg has lost his job and taken another one, Jennifer had a miscarriage, one of their sons has been diagnosed with autism, and another with epilepsy. Yet they have tried to face all these trials with humor and faith. Occasionally, they’ll do skits featuring their original Catholic superheroes Captain Catechism and Merry Medal. Listening to one of their shows is like spending a few minutes with your pleasantly crazy Catholic neighbors from down the block.

Runner-up for my favorite podcast is Mark Shea’s Rock Solid. These are daily 5 to 7 minute reflections on some aspect of history or culture and how they relate to the Catholic faith. His favorite tactic is to find something significant in history that happened on the date of the podcast and use it as a springboard for reflection. The guy must scour Chase’s Calendar of Events or The Catholic Almanac looking for material!

I also listen occasionally to The Daily Breakfast with Father Roderick, a priest from the Diocese of Utrecht in the Netherlands. I’m not as enthusiastic about this show. Father Roderick is a young priest (from the photo on his website, I’d say early 40s, tops) and he is plainly trying to reach teens, twentysomethings, and thirtysomethings with this show. He speaks very colloquial, idiomatic English, plays new pop music, and talks a lot about movies, TV, computers, and video games. Along the way, he sneaks in information and commentary about the Catholic Church.

I don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand, it’s good that a priest is trying to talk to young people (I sound like such an old fuddy-duddy when I say that. “You young people should turn that noise down! My goodness! What’s the world coming to?”) about things they care about and are interested in. They need to hear the voice of Christ amid all the yammering that is pop culture. On the other hand, if I want to know about the latest in pop culture there are any number of secular sources I can go to for that information. Why do I want to hear about it from a priest? What I want to hear from a priest is what a priest should know best: How I can know Christ and love Him and serve Him better? I think I’d enjoy Father Roderick more if he had less pop culture chitchat and more clearly Catholic stuff.

There you have it, friends. My thoughts on TV, podcasting, and pop culture. This concludes this test of the Emergency Ranting System. We now return you to your regularly scheduled lives.