Saturday, October 04, 2008

Soul Music: aspiration versus affectation

Striggio's Ecce Beatam Lucem.

Tallis' Spem in Alium

I have just spent a very pleasant half an hour listening to, in my opinion, three of the most uplifting pieces of music written: Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, Ecce Beatam Lucem by Alessandro Striggio and O Bone Jesu by Robert Carver which I'm yet to find on YouTube, but I thoroughly recommend that you purchase the recordings properly as they sound much more glorious than these rather grainy videos.

I'll readily admit that I am a big fan of polychoral motets - pieces of music which involve more than one choir of voices. On a much feebler scale I write my own which come nowhere near to the sheer genius of these highly talented and gifted musicians. I find that writing such pieces puts an enormous strain on my grasp of music, trying to get the noises in my head into some sensible and orderly form to express some form of my worship of God. It is a vast effort on my part, but then I am not a trained composer and have very little knowledge of form, structure or texture. I also doubt that I will ever hear my compositions performed other than by the munchkin chorus that inhabits my computer. That doesn't worry me too much - I don't write for performance because I worry that I might become conceited from any adulation and dispirited by any criticism.

However, the point is that I try to do something that pushes against the everyday tendency to ignore God. Music requires effort if it is to be done well and inspire people and worship God. The blood of the composer must be spilt into the manuscript page, and likewise the blood of the performer must be drawn if the music has any chance of lifting the soul from this veil of suffering and to touch the Divine who in His great act of humility permits us to touch Him.

Tomorrow, I shall go into Church and I shall hear songs half-sung, words half-read and prayers barely prayed. The angelic voices to which I have recently just listened will be replaced by songs that are easy to sing, that speak of the comfort of our position and how nice that chap Jesus is. There will be no aspirations, there will be no desire to move forward, there will be no wish to upset the status quo. All will be done to maintain a nice atmosphere while we watch the Rector putting on his performance at the altar, and it will mean absolutely nothing. And then we shall all get up and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, ignorant in our bloodless existence of the sheer and titanic effort that He made in order that we might receive that Communion.

It doesn't matter which parish I'm talking about - it's the face of Sunday worship in the C of E, with its modern take on things and its desire to make it easy for people to come through the door. to understand what's going on, to enjoy oneself.

Church Music is one single aspect and barometer of the spiritual state of the Church. I am not saying that every church needs to sing Striggio's 40/60 part Missa sopra Ecco beato giorno as its weekly Mass setting. The dear monks at Elmore Abbey do their level best at singing the simple chants in their hard Office. I don't think they are trained singers, but their simple effort and hard work make that music special even though it's a single unison line of music. If they can do it, then we should be thus able. We just need to get rid of the gimmicks, the affectations such as tambourines, guitars, drums and Clavinovas with their helicopter sound effects and put some effort into singing hymns of worship that are directed God-ward and not "Here am I Lord, look at me, Lord" which the majority of these ridiculous and offensive worship songs are, both from a theological and aesthetic point of view.

Sing to the Lord a new song? Yes, but one that we've actually made an effort to compose well.

1 comment:

Nicholas Jackson said...

You probably know this already, but there's a nice story about an early performance of Spem in Alium in the presence of the Duke of Norfolk at Arundel Castle.

According to an account written in 1611, the piece was "songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other that the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke & gave yt him."

I find it strangely moving to imagine this scene: the last notes echoing sublimely throughout the hall, and the Duke, one of the most powerful men in England at the time, wordlessly standing up, walking across the hall, unfastening a large gold chain from around his neck and giving it to Tallis in recognition of his genius.

And he deserved every last troy ounce of it.