April 12, 2018


Gregorian Chant Sampler. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Paraclete. $16.95.

Gregorian Chant Anthology. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Paraclete. $16.95.

Hannah Lash: Requiem; David Lang: statement to the court; Ted Hearne: Consent. Yale Choral Artists and Yale Philharmonia conducted by Jeffrey Douma. Naxos. $12.99.

     Among the many church leaders who took the name Gregory or Gregorius – 16 popes and two antipopes – two are associated with gifts to the world of nearly inestimable value. It was Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) who commissioned the Gregorian calendar that is now used virtually throughout the world. And it was Pope St. Gregory I (590-604) during whose papacy the liturgical music now called Gregorian chant was codified – although not quite in the form we know it today, which blends the type of chant collected in St. Gregory’s time with a chant known as Gallican. Whether the calendar or the chant is of greater value to humanity depends largely on one’s point of view. The calendar is of exceeding secular importance and so integral to everyday life, whatever one’s religion may be, that it is scarcely imaginable to get along without it. The chant, however, although originally created to accompany the Mass and divine office of Roman Catholicism, eventually became no less than the foundation of Western music – an emotional and spiritual experience that is every bit as crucial in some ways as the calendar is in others. Pure Gregorian chant is very rarely heard outside abbeys and some very conservative Catholic churches – a fact that makes its beauty and immense spiritual power when sung by the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France, all the more striking. Because Gregorian chant involves unison singing, it tends to sound simple to modern ears, but it is anything but simplistic. There were eight modes originally, expanded to 12 in 1547, and from them (especially the Ionian mode) derives the entire later system of tonality. These days there are actually 14 modes, and even in the 21st century, composers use them to give a particular “feel” to their music beyond what is provided by keys containing sharps or flats – modes do not have these. So how do modes sound? That is what the Paraclete recordings called Gregorian Chant Sampler and Gregorian Chant Anthology let listeners find out: the 23 chants on Sampler and 26 on Anthology are as authentic as listeners will hear anywhere. The numbers of the chants’ modes are given, for anyone wishing to explore modal matters, and the Anthology disc provides specific connections between chants and feasts or seasons – what is known as the Proper of the Mass, in contrast to the Ordinary, which remains the same throughout the year. Anthology offers chants for the entire liturgical year, including Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter and other celebrations; Sampler has chants connected with the Introit, Offertory, Responsory, Communion, Alleluia and more. But if all this seems impossibly abstruse for lay listeners – and even for many secularized Catholics – it need not be off-putting. In fact, the music is exceptionally inviting, engaging listeners’ ears with beauty and elevating their thoughts no matter what their spiritual or religious beliefs and doctrines may be. The beauties of Gregorian chant were intended to enhance and ease the connection of humans with the divine. And even in a primarily secular age, they encourage inward looking, contemplation, thoughtfulness, a kind of separation from mundane affairs that somehow makes it easier to return to everyday matters after spending time in an environment where Gregorian chant resonates. Yes, the sensitive, careful, beautifully measured performances here can be used as an entry point to an earlier time, if scarcely a simpler one; but they can also be heard, quite literally, as background music, providing a canvas against which one’s mundane life may be painted in more-beautiful and less-brassy colors.

      Among the many contemporary composers who still find communicative value in the old Latin texts of Roman Catholicism and elsewhere in Christianity is Hannah Lash (born 1981), whose handling of the text of the Requiem is right in line with the approach of many moderns: she uses a new English translation, without the Credo, and she places her emphasis in different places, in different ways, from those used by composers in the past. The liturgical concept of the Requiem is acceptance and peace, and some composers have taken that a bit further into something approaching joy at the reunion of the soul of the departed with God. Not so Lash, who wrote this version in 2016. The Dies irae here is far from threatening or terrifying; it is at most a bit unsettled. The Sanctus includes some lovely writing for solo harp (played by Lash herself) and cor anglais (Lydia Consilvio), with an emphasis on the words “the sky is full of light.” And the Lux aeterna reintroduces the same mood after Agnus dei and Psalm: De profundis clamavi have taken the work in a different direction. Lash’s work is primarily choral, although countertenor Eric Brenner provides some affecting solos in three of its eight sections. The Requiem is traditionally for and about the deceased,  but Lash’s version is more focused on those left behind and how death affects them – it is in some respects closer to a wake than to the traditional Mass. Jeffrey Douma leads the chorus and instrumental ensemble with feeling and understanding throughout in this world première recording. Another world première on this Naxos CD is statement to the court (2010), its title all in lower case, by David Lang (born 1957); but this is a work that is too aware of its supposed importance to be fully effective. Its text is the words of Eugene Debs, union leader and avowed socialist, made in court when he was charged under the Sedition Act of 1918, which extended the wartime Espionage Act of the previous year to cover more offenses – including some forms of speech. Lang sees Debs as an unvarnished hero and undoubtedly intends this piece as a warning against similar excesses, or potential excesses, in the United States today. Certainly the Sedition Act – which was repealed in 1921 – represents a level of government intrusion and censorship that deserves to be decried, although these days such censorship is more strictly enforced outside the government (on many university campuses, for example) than by act of Congress. Historically, though, Debs is not the best choice for a free-speech hero, and his words, while thought-provoking enough, do not ring with great emotional power – a fact of which Lang himself seems to be aware, since he uses a pounding drum to highlight their supposed dramatic importance. Of more interest is the shortest work on the disc and the only one that has been recorded before: Consent (2014) by Ted Hearne (born 1982). It juxtaposes four different texts to explore language, love and religion, raising some interesting questions even if it never quite answers them. In a sense, it does not have to: the uncertainty that underpins modern life is foundational here, and while religion does enter the picture, it does so very differently from the way it does in, for example, Gregorian chants – which were designed to organize the entire year carefully and help listeners, worshipers, understand exactly where they stood during their time on Earth and would stand in their anticipated life to come.

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