Music: Mourning Ritual

Ritual and ceremony are essential parts of life. We need them so that we do not take life too personally. After all, life is not about us in the way in which we would like to think it is. Ritual teaches us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. The highest form of ritual is liturgical ceremony, in which we learn the fullest extent of our insignificance. Only when we realize this insignificance can we come to understand how important we are.

Unfortunately, our lives have been practically denuded of ritual, courtesy of our cultural “liberation.” The magnitude of this loss is brought to mind by a question posed in William Butler Yeat’s beautiful poem, “A Prayer for My Daughter,” in which Yeats asks, “How but in custom and ceremony are innocence and beauty born?” Indeed, and if lost, how are they then restored? The beauty of which Yeats spoke is, of course, not physical. And the only real ceremony of innocence is baptism and, after it, confession: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Liturgical ritual, unlike other rituals, is centered on sacraments, which affect what they represent. They are not simply communal rememberings of ancient truths, though they are that. More importantly, they are the real presence of the eternal in the temporal. And that presence changes the temporal in a profoundly real way Liturgy, when it is done well, lets us know that this is happening.

These seemingly dour thoughts are brought to mind by a number of recent compositions, and some not so recent, of liturgical music. Most of them deal with mourning the dead and, in so doing, return to neglected liturgical forms that once again prove their lasting worth. No matter how secular a culture, death intrudes; death is the chthonic shock that we cannot avoid. What more do we need to be convinced of our insignificance than death? Death proves that we really did not need to be here, so why were we? There is no moment at which we are in greater need of transcendence than that of death.

In dealing with the experience of death, a number of contemporary composers, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who are not known for liturgical works, have turned to the Requiem. One probably hopes in vain for the use of these works in actual liturgies, because the damage to the Church’s liturgical life is so deep that they would probably not even be considered. Nevertheless, it should be a lesson to modern liturgists that laymen turn to forms they have discarded when they need to deal with life’s darkest mystery.

It is especially interesting that a number of these works appropriate plainchant and early Church polyphony to express themselves. It is as if the composers feel the need to reconnect with something ancient and proven. This is a tricky thing to do because it is so easy to lapse into mannerisms or literal imitation. These dangers are not entirely avoided in the first two works discussed here, but they are saved by the power of the underlying personal grief to which they give expression.

Also, many of these compositions exhibit a confidence in sheer beauty to carry the expressive weight of their message. Simplicity of means and beauty of utterance are their hallmarks.

Zbigniew Preisner is a Polish film composer, renowned for his scores to a number of films by director Krzysztof Kieslowski, including the trilogy Blue, White, and Red. Kieslowski died in 1996 and, in his memory Preisner wrote Requiem for My Friend. (Can one imagine a Hollywood director being commemorated in a requiem by a Hollywood composer? Is someone toiling on such a work for the recently deceased Stanley Kubrick?) It is Preisner’s first liturgical composition. Over it hovers the spirit of Arvo Part, who pioneered the neomedieval and neo-Renaissance music of the past several decades, and to a lesser extent, of Preisner’s countryman Henryk Gorecki. Part is recalled by the pregnant silences, Gorecki by the slow-moving but nonetheless ecstatic vocal line. Preisner adds a nice touch with an ostinato in the low strings that replicates the human heartbeat. As derivative as some of this work may be, it is extraordinarily beautiful in places. It is organized in two halves. The first is the formal “Requiem,” the second is entitled “Life.” The second half has more contemporary allusions, including a mournful jazz saxophone. The idiom is more typical of film music and, consequently, this part of the work is considerably less impressive. Soprano Elzbieta Towrnicka sings beautifully in the performance by the Varsov Chamber Choir and Sinfonia Varsovia, conducted by Ryszard Zimak. This is worth hearing for the Requiem portion.

British composer Gavin Bryars lost his friend and sound engineer, Bill Cadman, in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. He wrote the Cadman Requiem in 1989, revising it in 1997. The title of the work carries a double meaning. Bryars interpolates sections of Caedmon’s Creation Hymn into the traditional requiem text. This hymn is the earliest English poem, and it is used here in both Bede’s Latin paraphrase and in the original Old English. The Caedmon text introduces another element most of these works share: the unqualified praise of God in the face of loss. The beautifully blended voices of the Hilliard Ensemble intone the texts over the string drones of a six-viol consort. There is a strong whiff of antiquity in this mostly homophonic work, but it nonetheless has an eloquent austerity. The Hilliard Ensemble and Fretwork give it a moving performance. The rest of the album contains beautiful song settings that are superior to their modern poetic texts.

Unlike the Latin Church, the Orthodox has never abandoned her musical traditions. So British composer John Tavener was able to have his Funeral Canticle performed at his father’s funeral. This 24-minute piece appears with four shorter works on Tavener’s new release, entitled Eternity’s Sunrise, performed by the Choir and Orchestra of The Academy of Ancient Music and various soloists, led by director Paul Goodwin. Tavener has complete confidence in beauty and simplicity. In fact, he has said that complexity is a manifestation of evil. His asceticism, however, has an almost voluptuous quality to it. The melismatic vocal lines in Eternity’s Sunrise, a setting of a short poem by William Blake, and Song of the Angel, in which the soprano sings only one word, “Alleluia,” are soaringly beautiful. They are sung seraphically by soprano Patricia Rozari. Eternity’s Sunrise, written to mark the academy’s twenty-fifth anniversary, is Tavener’s first work for period instruments but, unlike Bryars’s Requiem, it does not have a period sound. Tavener’s Funeral Canticle employs a gently rocking motion in the music that slowly ascends and descends the scale, as if it were cradling one to sleep. It is touching but restrained; it does not call attention to itself. This is ceremonial music, meditative and mesmeric. The text from the Orthodox funeral service conveys the real substance: man’s frailty, the hope for salvation, and God’s surpassing goodness. As in almost all of Tavener’s works, the constant refrain is “Alleluia.” Funeral Canticle is not a concert work, and should not be judged as one. However, as a concert work, it is the least musically interesting piece on the disc. I cannot imagine any of these works being more beautifully performed than they are here. They are recommended to those who can meditate to music.

American composer Nevett Bartow was a casualty of our century’s obsession with atonal music. Its dominance left little room for his aspirations. Born in 1934, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music with Vittorio Giannini, then with Mdebrando Pizzetti in Rome, and, finally, in Vienna, where he was the only non-twelve-tone composer at the academy. He was repulsed by serial music and found other contemporary music too harsh for his taste. As the odd man out, he fell silent, producing only occasional works. In 1967, Bartow contracted leukemia; six painful years later, he died at the age of thirty-nine. What was missed in this composer is now apparent in a new compact disc produced by his musical executor, Anthony Morss, who conducts the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Choir in five of Bartow’s pieces. The most substantial work is the extraordinary Mass of the Bells, written as a masters thesis when Bartow was only twenty-three. This is a gloriously lyrical, dramatic piece that shows occasional influences from Poulenc mostly and, to a lesser extent, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams (hardly an avant-garde array for 1957). The Mass is strikingly bold in conception, completely confident in execution, and thematically coherent. Above all, its inspiration is vibrant. Bartow begins with an authentic twelfth-century Spanish plainchant Kyrie that then gives way to a full-blown Romantic orchestral variation of it, followed by an exhilarating choral and orchestral Kyrie. The Christe, eleison is sung to a woodwind variation of the Dies Irae. The opening of the Credo is particularly striking. The one God is proclaimed in a massive, thrillingly powerful fugue. The Mass of the Bells is a marvelously rich work, full of traditional references but still freshly original, that I am growing to love the more I listen to it.

The disc also contains the lovely Summershadow Elegy for Orchestra, written by Bartow as he saw his own death approaching. Earlier works, the sprightly Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra, again show the influence of Poulenc. Morss’s performances are acts of devotion to his late friend. The musical forces at his disposal are more than adequate, but the glorious Mass cries out for performance by top-tier soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Earlier in this century, a composer facing death at an even younger age than Bartow turned to the psalms to express her anguish and hopes. Lili Boulanger (1893¬1918) was so enormously gifted that her almost equally extraordinary sister, Nadia, chose a career as a teacher rather than compete with her as a composer. (She became the most famous music teacher in Europe.) Lili could read music at three years old and became the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome, which she did at age nineteen. She was chronically ill and knew she would have a short life. The last psalm to which she turned her musical talents was Psalm 130: “Out of the depth of the abyss.” Written at twenty-three, the same age at which Bartow penned his magnificent Mass, Psalm 130 likewise shows a command of resources and a confidence well beyond the years of its composer. It is a close to overwhelming work in its expression of affliction and desperate hope. Boulanger’s use of minor harmonies and the lower registers of the brass and strings creates a subterranean pull throughout the piece, against which the rest of the music painfully strives upward. Surely the abyss into which Boulanger was staring as she wrote this was her own death, which came the next year. Therefore there is no easy victory in this magnificently dramatic music. The painful cry at the end of the piece still comes from the abyss, though the light has shone into it. Yan Pascal Tortelier leads a magnificent performance by the BBC Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, and soloists. The disc also contains Boulanger’s Prix de Rome composition, Faust et Helene, and several other works.

Pope John Paul II has written that “We must have art to keep us from despair.” These are composers who worked or are working in this struggle, and I think he must have had in mind art such as theirs when he said this.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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