BY PETER RUTENBERG
The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary defines ‘mystic’ as “a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption into God, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the understanding.” The realm of mysticism is vast indeed, its boundaries vague, its tenets obscure. Yet its followers all have something in common. Like a leaf in late autumn, they surrender to the allure of external forces and sail on unpredictable winds to unforeseen destinies. The music that comprises Mystics at the Cathedral invites us to abandon our preconceptions for a time and, like that leaf, to transcend our earthly roots — floating among the sonic reverberations and becoming absorbed in their splendors.
In positing its premise, the program follows two paths — that of French colorists whose music spans the late-Romantic through postwar eras, and that of texturalists representing the Scandinavian and Baltic schools of the late 20th century.
Like his contemporary Maurice Duruflé, Jean Langlais (1907- 1991) held fast to the music of the church with a collection of compositions firmly rooted in Gregorian chant and religious faith, but considerably invigorated by the broadest spectrum of color, derived from both a well-developed sense of harmonic freedom and a surpassing talent at improvisation. Born in La Fontenelle, he first studied at the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles: blindness apparently did not slow his progress. At the Paris Conservatoire, he studied at the forefront of his profession — as an organist with the great Marcel Dupré, and as a composer with Paul Dukas. He succeeded Franck and Tournemire as organist at Sainte-Clothilde in Paris in 1945 and frequently traveled to the United States, both as composer and performer, beginning in 1952.
The Messe Solennelle (1951) for chorus and organ demonstrates rhythmic and harmonic freedom through frequent changes of key and meter — the latter in keeping with the asymmetric accents of Gregorian chant. The organ is assigned dual “roles,” called “grand” and “petit” according to the composer’s meticulous registration, each with a special sound and purpose: the lighter registration supports the choir, the larger sounds for solo display and final cadences. The Kyrie is energized with drama from the start, building from the middle voices to the full range of choral color. The outer sections are in A-minor, while the middle Christe section follows a succession of transmogrifying modulations. The Gloria sets up as a fugue in the D-Dorian mode (similar to the key of D-minor, but with a B-natural instead of a flat and a somewhat brighter mood). The flowing triple-rhythm of the Sanctus and the unison declamation of its text provide just the right ambience for the dialogue between the great and small organs. The men are silent during the Benedictus imparting an added brilliance to the angelic incantation of the women’s voices. Rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities introduce the Agnus Dei. With each succeeding phrase the chorus enters in layers, from darker to lighter colors. The motion is persistently upward until the sweeping climaxes of grant us peace, when the “great” organ responds in downward cascades — an apparently ‘divine’ answer to this plea.
The earliest work on the program is the well-known setting by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) of the Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11, from 1865. The gentle, undulating character of its accompaniment supports a gracious and refined choral harmony, sung in the style of a hymn. Fauré’s music would prove to be a dominant influence in the development of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). Their lives overlapped by the quarter-century that Fauré held the reins of the Paris Conservatoire; the former’s mastery of lyrical nuance would often be summoned in the latter’s melodies. No less important to Poulenc was the rhythmic vitality and bold palette of Stravinsky’s three major ballets, just debuted in Paris. But the urbane and witty likes of Poulenc’s own ballet for Diaghilev, Les Biches from 1924, and his Concert champêtre from 1928, gave way in the 1930s to a rediscovery of spirituality, and to a spate of works for the Roman Catholic Church.
The first of these was Litanies à la vierge noire (1936) for three-part women’s chorus and organ. A visit to the miraculous medieval fortress-town of Rocamadour, which hangs like a gargantuan bas-relief carving off a high cliff in southern France, provided the inspiration for the Litanies. The work was inscribed to “Our Lady of Rocamadour.” Poulenc’s style is present in all its eccentric grandeur — the brief and angular gestures, the surprising, pungent harmonies, the layering of color on color — as the mysterious and mystical history of that ancient church is recounted in the text.
From the French colorists, we sail north to the texturalists of the Balto-Scandinavian school. Americans tend to impose a marked difference, at least geographically, between these two regions. But taken historically and culturally, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Estonia have all had a rather intertwined and tumultuous past. Many of us may not recall that each held sway over the other at some time, nor that on a clear night in Helsinki, you can’t see forever because Tallinn, Estonia gets in the way. Today, the biggest differences are economic, yet they all share an abiding love and enduring tradition of choral music, counting among their national treasures a number of world-famous choruses.
The styles of these musical microclimates favor the avant-garde. What they have in common is a highly-articulated consciousness of texture. How many voices are in play? How quickly does the number swell or shrink? Do pitches change rapidly or slowly? Are there words or just sounds? How do various rhythmic patterns interact? Is there a predominance of harmony or dissonance, or shifting between them? These are the questions that determine the textural surface of the music, whether smooth and silky, light and wispy, or rough-hewn and barbed, heavy and complex. Moreover, this vocabulary defines the texturalist’s emotional message.
Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) has come to enjoy worldwide recognition, having been stifled and discouraged in his youth by the Soviet Union’s rigid control. There are at least two watershed years in the composer’s life that must be acknowledged: 1968 and 1980. While the rest of the world was demonstrating for an end to the war in Vietnam, Pärt was accomplishing his greatest musical feat to date — the composition of his Credo — which applied serial (or 12-tone) techniques to Bach’s famous Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier. If Serialism wasn’t high on the list of approved musical styles, the work’s brash profession of Christianity was even more unwelcome. A dark and strained period followed, but by 1976, consistent creativity returned and in 1980, the composer and his family emigrated to Vienna and the blue-sky opportunities that awaited beyond.
What evolved in this second phase of life was a fundamental compositional technique Pärt called tintinnabuli after the sound of ringing bells: here, nothing is left to chance; every gesture has a purpose. At its core are two voices — one singing notes in a stepwise pattern around a fixed pitch, the other outlining the notes of a triad or chord. In different ways, all the Pärt works on this program engage this technique, the most obvious and direct being found in The Beatitudes (1990; rev. 1991). In the motet Cantate Domino canticum novum (1977; rev. 1996), the chordal aspect is present only as a phantom of acoustics and at phrase finals, however, the opposing melodies are exact mirror images of each other that do indeed anchor in harmony. The text of Psalm 95 is delivered in the flexible rhythm of chant.
In Solfeggio (1964; rev. 1996) the two tintinnabuli tasks merge deftly into one: in this case, it literally “takes a village” singing a very careful sequence of notes by different voice parts to achieve the single melody that constitutes the entire piece. The syllables do, re, mi, etc. form the text and no voice sings more than one pitch without a rest. Harmony results from the overlap of held notes. By contrast, the Magnificat (1989) offers a sophisticated and more complex interpretation of this technique, beginning with a moving melody in the second soprano against a static note in the first soprano. This note returns again and again, often in its original place with a solo trio intoning it, elsewhere in other voices. No matter where it turns up, the opportunistic vines of the stepwise melodies enshroud its tonal center. The chordal outlines are more complex as well, often sounding like mystic horn calls in an orchestra. The rhythm becomes more strictly measured than in the Cantate Domino, but is still under the control of natural word stress. More importantly, the mood alters with the changing textures and reveals beneath its stoic surface a white-hot core of sacred passion.
Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström (b. 1942) studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm from 1968-1972 and was professor of composition there until 1995. His years of experience as a choral singer contribute to an organic understanding of the inner workings of the chorus, aptly demonstrated in his Christmas motet In dulci jubilo. A native of Czernicka, Poland, Henryk Mikolaj Górecki (b. 1933) studied and later taught at the Music Academy in Katowice, where he has spent most of his life. It was not until 1980, however, that the fourth commercial recording of his Third Symphony brought him international star status. Written in February 1975, the Amen, Op. 35 for eight-part chorus shares inspiration with the more substantial works from this period, Beatus Vir and Miserere (heard on these concerts in February 2002). While the tempo is pensive throughout, there are moments of greater urgency, marked not only by the quickening pace, but by double-time rhythms. In all, the mystical frameworks created by these composers give us ample room to apprehend “truths that are beyond the understanding.”