Music: Modern Mysteries

I am generally suspicious of modern interpolations in traditional religious texts, like the Requiem or Stabat Mater. For centuries, the Latin words seemed perfectly capable of expressing themselves without being interlarded with commentary from other sources. I am suspicious because this is often done to make the texts “relevant” to modern audiences by relating them to contemporary political events.

Composers who indulge themselves in this way often fail to grasp the essential meaning of the basic texts they are setting. (For an example of complete failure in this genre, see Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which demonstrated his total misunderstanding of the liturgy.) What is universal in its relevance is thereby demoted to something passing and too particular to endure.

On the other hand, this practice of interpolation has a noble pedigree. Bach regularly interposed texts from outside sources in his magnificent Passions, motets, and oratorios. In the 20th century, Benjamin Britten showed how brilliantly modern poetry could enrich the text in his powerful and heartbreaking Requiem.

These thoughts are provoked by two new religious works that engage in this hybrid practice with varying degrees of success. The first is a highly unusual endeavor by Washington, D.C., composer Thomas Beveridge. His Yizkor Requiem, recorded by the budget Naxos label, is an attempt to meld Catholic and Jewish memorial services into a coherent whole, using both the texts of the Requiem and the Our Father, and the Jewish Prayer for the Dead and Psalm 23.

Since the composition is dedicated to his parents, I at first supposed that one parent was Catholic and the other Jewish. This seems not to have been the case. Rather, Beveridge was inspired by his father’s musical “quest for spiritual roots” and his ecumenical work in searching for “the Sacred Bridge” between Christianity and Judaism during a long career at the Virginia Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and at a Middle Eastern ecumenical institute.

The Yizkor Requiem (Yizkor is Hebrew for “May [God] remember”) immediately reminded me of several things that carry great emotional weight, all of which recall how deeply the liturgical practices of the Church are rooted in Judaism. One was the scene in the movie, Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), in which Anthony Quinn, as the pope, sneaks out of the Vatican and finds himself in a poor neighborhood in which a Jewish man has just died. The pope enters the room and, standing at the foot of the bed, joins the family in singing the Kaddish. Though it appeared in an otherwise weak movie, I confess that I wept at this scene, so powerfully did it reconnect the old and new covenants. The pope stood and sang a liturgy Christ Himself might have actually sung. With the troubled history of the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jewish religion, I was deeply touched by this—as if by a long-delayed homecoming.

The Yizkor Requiem also reminded me of the experience of a friend of mine who took a Jewish friend to Mass. At the reading from the Old Testament, the Jewish friend began to cry. There is something terribly poignant at the realization of how close we are to the “people set apart,” and they to us. As political philosopher Gerhart Niemeyer, himself a late convert to Catholicism, once put it: “Before you can be a good Christian, you must be a good Jew.” The Yizkor Requiem was clearly written in the spirit of Niemeyer’s profound remark.

The work itself is distinguished by an avoidance of clichés. It could have easily lapsed into a caricature of traditional Jewish and Catholic musical styles—a little Gregorian chant here, a little klezmer melody there. The cantorial style of melismatic singing may predominate, particularly in the parts featuring tenor Alberto Mizrahi’s impassioned performance, but the work is rich in its allusions without being overly imitative of either tradition. It is also traditional in its musical means, thoroughly tonal and even 19th-century in its melodic and orchestral luxuriance. At times, it is almost operatic. The exquisitely delicate Lux Aeterna could have come from a Gounod Mass.

Ultimately, I may be more moved by the idea of the Yizkor Requiem than I am by its music, but moved I am nonetheless. The Naxos recording of a live concert in the Kennedy Center in April 1996 leaves nothing to be desired in its sound quality. The soloists, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, and the Choral Arts Society Orchestra, under Norman Scribner, perform magnificently. Whatever the enduring value of this work, it is heartfelt in its intention and passionate in its execution.

The second work that employs a traditional text with interpolations is Chicago composer Frank Ferko’s new Stabat Mater. Presented on a Cedille Records premiere release, it features a brilliant performance by His Majestie’s Clerkes, under director Anne Heider. As popular as settings of the Stabat Mater were from the Renaissance through the 19th century, few modern masters have done well with this text, or even tried to. Notable exceptions are Francis Poulenc and Arvo Part, who succeeded magnificently. Ferko’s choral setting is traditional, even self-consciously archaic at times. Stylistically, it is located somewhere between Part’s reverential, contemplative approach and Poulenc’s more overt dramatization of the text. In fact, Ferko’s setting of the closing Paradisi Gloria seems such an obvious variation on Poulenc’s setting of the same text that it must be intended as a tribute to him.

Ferko’s general intention is laudable and seems to comport perfectly with the words of the Stabat Mater, which, he wrote, “spoke of the pain and death of a young man, the grieving of his mother, and the hope of life after death.” Ferko’s very beautiful work, however, contains an element of confusion created by the outside sources he has selected to make his piece “connect the Stabat Mater with the present.”

Ferko has set the stanzas of the Stabat Mater as separate, but musically connected, mini-motets. Interspersed with these are four sections in English drawn from highly disparate sources, all focusing on the suffering of mothers who have lost children. They include Andromache’s Lament from Euripides’s Trojan Women, an Irish poet’s protest over the death of two sons in the struggle for Irish independence, four short poems by Charlotte Mayerson inspired by the loss of her son to AIDS, and finally Sally M. Gall’s “Elegy” for a lost child.

The redemptive power of suffering—which is the whole point of the Stabat Mater—is not a notion present in any of the English texts Ferko has chosen. The Stabat Mater is an invitation to join in the sufferings of Christ’s mother and so to connect with His redemptive sufferings. Obviously, such a notion could not have occurred to the pagan Euripides; nor is it present in what seem to be the neopagan utterances of these modern poets. Ferko’s effort to “universalize” the message of the Stabat Mater by connecting it to the sufferings of all mothers who have ever lost children fails because the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross is not something that needs to be understood at a level higher than itself. There is nothing higher than it. Mary and Christ are not symbols that need to be subsumed into some universal experience to obtain their “relevance” (this might be called the Joseph Campbell fallacy). Mary is not representative of the spirit of womanhood; she is its actual fulfillment. The suffering of others does not give Christ’s suffering its relevance. Rather, it is the other way around.

As disruptive as these texts are, they too are beautifully set by Ferko, who points out “that these interpolated pieces are optional additions and do not have to be included in any given performance.” Ferko simply warns us that their omission will cause a significant loss in the connection of his work to the “present.” I do not think so. The eternal is more present than the “present.” If you have mastered the art of programming your CD player, play Ferko’s moving Stabat Mater without the interpolations and you will hear something coherent and quite compelling.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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