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Catching up: Pentecost XX

October 14, 2010

As you can imagine, the maintenance of this blog is not the priority in this job, so every now and then I will miss a week.  Last week I never got around to posting the music for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, so here it is:

Prelude:  Erik Satie:  Gymnopedie I

Opening Hymn:  Thine Arm, O Lord, in Days of Old (Kingsfold)
Asperges (chant)
Propers from the Graduale Romanum/Liber Usualis
Andrea Gabrieli:  Missa Brevis
Credo III
Offertory motet:  Palestrina:  Super flumina Babylonis (will be sung in place of the chant)
Closing Hymn:  Christ is Made the Sure Foundation  (Westminster Abbey)
Postlude:  David German:  Festive Trumpet Tune
Andrea Gabrieli (c.1533-1585) was the uncle of the slightly more famous Giovanni Gabrieli; both worked as musicians at one time or another at the well-known San Marco Cathedral in Venice, a place which inspired much music-making, particularly during the counter-reformation.  The elder Gabrieli taught, among others, Hans Leo Hassler, whose Missa Secunda we recently sang at St. Paul’s.
A. Gabrieli’s Missa Brevis is a curious piece.  At first glance it can look like sweet musical nothings in the style of a canzona.  But in the learning-by-osmosis which is necessary in music one gets the sense of lots of interesting things in here.  There are, for instance, many places where the music is not only simple but downright unmelodic, such as in sections of the Gloria, where the rhythm alone keeps things going.  This only heightens the beauty of the cantabile sections, however.  The Sanctus is the foremost example of this; it’s as if the composer were asserting in unmistakeable ways that this is the crown jewel not only of the Mass setting, but the centerpiece of the liturgy itself.   The Hosannas which follow the Sanctus and Benedictus offer an obvious  contrast and the most challenging material of the entire Mass, in which fast rhythms and syncopations resolve in a concluding phrase in declamatory style, inscribing exclamation points on these movements.
One strange and interesting piece of useless information concerns the use of the title Missa Brevis.  This does not mean for practical purposes that the Mass is necessarily short.  Instead, generally speaking, a Mass gets this title if none of the text is repeated superfluously; that is, the text is sung straight through, i.e. “Dominus Deus Sabbaoth. Pleni sunt caeli…”  In this Mass, however, we have:  “Dominus Deus Sabbaoth; Dominus Deus Sabbaoth.  Pleni sunt caeli.”  This is one example of a few instances.  Perhaps the definition of “Missa Brevis” which I’ve been given is wrong; in any case it’s one of the curious things about this piece.
I had a professor in college who loved to say that when Palestrina ran out of notes, he stopped.  This was his way of claiming that the music and the text weren’t really all that related.  I was young and credulous, so I bought it, but further reflection has convinced me otherwise.  Palestrina’s four-voice setting of Super flumina Babylonis, one of my favorite motets, can be offered as a proof against the professor’s proposition.  The first phrase is flowing and melismatic, like you might expect the waters of Babylon to sound.  But when the next phrase—Illic sedimus, et flevimus (There we sat and wept)—the music comes to a complete standstill, and a rich homophonic texture takes over, a musical sitting down if there ever was one.
More impressive, perhaps, is the way Palestrina sets the final phrase, suspendimus organa nostra—we hung up our harps.   Each voice part takes up the same general motif, one that has a mournful, downward motion.  This is not enough for Palestrina, though.  All four parts do this twice, the second time singing a third above their first entrance, so that while this downward melodic contour is repeated, it is emphasized by a rising motion, like the raising of the voice, a rhetorical flourish, or maybe even an unabashed cry.  Adding to this effect is the use of the lower three parts as a unit, with the soprano coming in a bit later.
This phrase must really have resonated with Palestrina.  After all, this is quite the desperate image: We are hanging up our harps.  We have nothing more to say, nothing more to sing.   There is more than just mourning in this; there is cultural decay, a society that has no more ideas.  If you want to know what a culture’s ideas are or were, listen to its music; it is one of the foremost ways of sharing a mode of thought.  What happens when a society becomes fragmented and can no longer share a common mind?  How do we sing together?  What happens when the fragmentation leads to the singing of different tunes?  We are left only with the task of making ours the most beautiful.
Fr. Carbonnara, substituting for Fr. Carey this weekend, made a beautiful point about this in his sermon.  His springboard was the epistle, but I’m sure he was aware that he was drawing a connection to the Offertory antiphon as well.  He told the story of the Sirens, two temptresses who sang such a beautiful song that ships would crash into the tight rock formations, owing to distraction.  No one knew what to do until Ovid came up with the solution of making a melody that was more beautiful than that of the Sirens.  We are faced with the same task.  Otherwise, we will be left to hang up our harps and go home.
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