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Sprightly music for a cold morning

October 2, 2010

The temperature was fifty one degrees when I left the house this morning, and in my dotage my joints and muscles started talking to me.  Fall, whose arrival has been delayed by several freak incidents of tropical weather, has decided to come upon us suddenly and definitely. In truth I consider this to be the beginning of Winter, which I define as that season when one wears long pants by choice and not just from mere necessity.   It usually lasts from late September to early May.

This weekend’s Mass Ordinary matches the crisp weather; it wakes you up the way a cold morning clears your head.  Hassler’s Missa Secunda is a well-known piece which is able to endure repeated performances well.  It is simple, but when treated  with care it is as rewarding as a composition of Palestrina or Victoria.  Much of it recalls Renaissance dance, particularly in the Gloria and the Sanctus, where time changes add to the rhythmic vitality.  It is sometimes tempting to rush the 3/4 sections in an attempt to add life to the music, but this just makes a muddle.  Real energy comes from an inner rhythmic drive that holds the entire composition together, and a very satisfying clarity results.

Other notes:

—This week we’ll celebrate the Feast of the Holy Rosary, so we’ll sing the Arcadelt Ave Maria, which is only slightly less over-performed than the Schubert.  Nevertheless, it’s a good ensemble piece, being homophonic and affording us the chance to listen to our voices and gel in relative leisure.

—It is often easy to figure out how old a particular feast is by the way its Proper chants are composed.  The more awkward the chant, the newer the feast, generally speaking.  The chants for this feast are really awkward; I dare say that Ned Rorem himself wouldn’t attempt some of the melodic leaps in the gradual for this Sunday.  In a way it’s nice to think that the composition of new chants is theoretically possible, but the truth must be faced that the monks who anonymously composed these chants over centuries were steeped in a musical culture that we could not possibly know now; so maybe it’s best to apply the texts of new feasts to already existing melodies, as is often done anyway.

—Modern Italians are known neither for their organ building nor for their compositions for organ—their strengths being in other areas of music such as opera—but Marco Enrico Bossi (1861-1925) offers us some fine pieces of music to choose from.  I’ll play his Ave Maria tomorrow.

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