Tag Archives: Liturgical music

Musical Mystagogy: Conversion of St. Paul

Carolyn Pirtle
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today we celebrate an unusual feast: the conversion of St. Paul. There are countless stories of other holy men and women who experienced profound conversion: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi, and in our own day Blessed Oscar Romero and Servant of God Dorothy Day. Indeed, one does not become a saint without experiencing not simply a momentary conversion but a lifetime of conversion, a continual turning away from sin and turning toward Christ. And yet St. Paul’s is the only conversion that appears on the liturgical calendar. Why? Because when Paul left Saul behind—the one who had made it his life’s mission to wipe out Christian communities—the entire trajectory of Christianity changed. After his conversion, Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, traveling and teaching and dying for the sake of spreading the faith to all peoples in all corners of the world, and in his epistles, he continues to draw souls to Christ even to this day.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, c.1600–1601)
Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, c.1600–1601)

In the first reading for today’s feast, we hear Paul himself relate the story of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, a scene that has been famously depicted by many artists (twice by Caravaggio alone). In many cases, these paintings focus on the moment in which Saul falls to the ground as the catalytic moment of his conversion. This moment was indeed the beginning: Saul sees a blinding light, falls to the ground, and hears a voice he does not know asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 22:7; see also Acts 9:3ff). Yet, this moment was only the beginning. Saul did not rise from the ground as the fully-fledged Apostle to the Gentiles he would become. On the contrary, he was rendered blind and helpless by his encounter with the light of Christ, and it was only with the assistance of his companions that he was able to reach Damascus at all. Then, it was only with the help of Ananias that he regained his sight, discovered the truths of Christianity, and was initiated into the community through Baptism. In other words, Paul’s conversion that we celebrate today was not a just singular moment that could be captured in a painting or a snapshot; rather, beginning from that singular moment, his conversion encompassed a lifetime of turning away from his old ways in order to follow the way of Christ, the way of the Cross.

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847
Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847

Felix Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of St. Paul’s conversion in his oratorio Paulus, op. 36 helps to capture this ongoing sense of conversion in a way that perhaps a painting cannot. Musical performance by its nature involves a journey through time, and as such, it can serve as a powerful metaphor for one’s journey through life. The story of St. Paul’s conversion unfolds over several movements in this oratorio, beginning in the fourteenth movement. This movement consists of two parts: in the first part, Acts 9:3–6 is proclaimed in a recitative (sung speech) by a tenor narrator, a baritone (Paul), and a three-part treble chorus (the voice of Jesus). The jagged tenor melody soars at the moment the narrator describes the blinding light. The strings create tension-filled harmonies through a technique called tremolo (literally meaning “trembling”). The hesitant baritone melody conveys the fear that must have overcome Saul. All of these elements work together to create an incredibly dramatic moment, translated from the German below:

And as he journeyed, he came near unto Damascus
when suddenly there shone around him a light from Heaven: and he fell to the Earth;
and he heard a voice saying unto him:

Saul! Saul! Why persecutest thou me?
And he said: Lord! who art thou?
and the Lord said to him:
I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutes.

And he said, trembling and astonish’d:
Lord, what wilt thou have me do?

The Lord said to him: Arise and go into the city,
and there thou shalt be told what thou must do.

What is perhaps most striking about this section is the way in which Mendelssohn chose to set the words of Jesus by using a three-part treble chorus, a marked departure from the model set forth by the Passion oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach (who greatly influenced Mendelssohn), where the words of Jesus were sung by a bass soloist. The effect is stunning: the drama described above melts away as Jesus speaks; the tension is dissolved and the voice of the risen Christ is heard as something utterly luminous, radiant. Whereas in Caravaggio’s paintings we see the light enveloping Saul through the beauty of chiaroscuro, in Mendelssohn’s setting of Jesus’ words, we hear this light pierce through the darkness, and its radiance penetrates the listener’s heart just as it must have penetrated Saul’s. When we hear or read Jesus’ words proclaimed in Scripture, we might interpret his question to Saul as accusatory, as judgmental; but here, these words are set in such a way that we hear Jesus genuinely questioning this lost son of his. This is the Man of Sorrows speaking, the Good Shepherd himself reaching out to a lost sheep so that he might be brought into the fold. In setting the words of Jesus this simple, vulnerable way, Mendelssohn makes a profound theological statement, calling to mind to the self-emptying love of Christ wherein power is made perfect in weakness. In a way, the unexpected vulnerability of this music hearkens back to the Incarnation itself, when the eternal Word stripped himself of glory to be born of the Virgin, as well as the Passion and Death of Jesus, when the Word made flesh emptied himself all the more for our sakes by enduring a horrific and humiliating death in order to redeem the world from sin.

It is this gentle, merciful beauty that attracts, that draws Saul in, that illuminates his heart even as his eyes are blinded; it is the beauty of his encounter with Christ that provides the catalyst to Saul’s conversion. Yet neither Saul’s story nor Mendelssohn’s oratorio ends with this moment of conversion; Saul must arise and follow the command of Jesus by proceeding into Damascus to find Ananias. Saul must become Paul. And to do this, he needs the love of Christ shown forth in the merciful witness of those around him.

It is at this point that Mendelssohn’s music itself turns, transitioning into a triumphant choral response to the narrative that has just unfolded. Throughout the oratorio, the chorus is designated in the score as Stimme der Christenheit, or the Voice of Christendom, and so it gives voice to the Christian community, encouraging Paul on the road toward Christ. The text Mendelssohn set for this movement (Is 60:1–2) also makes a theological statement by providing a beautiful complement to what has preceded it:

Arise, shine! For thy light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness [thick clouds] the people.

But shall arise upon thee, the Lord,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.

This is the moment of Paul’s illumination; he has been visited by the very light of Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon him, and the Christian community is now exhorting him to arise (as we hear in the glorious ascending melodies) and follow that light (as we hear in the intricate imitation and echoes) so that God’s glory might be seen not only upon him, but through him as well. And for us listening, this music can provide a moment of illumination as well. Just as the Scriptures are never read as a simple story but are proclaimed so that they may take root in our hearts, so too is this music a moment meant to serve as a proclamation, reminding us that we are on our own road to Christ, that we must allow his light to heal our spiritual blindness and be converted ourselves. This music serves as a reminder that, in our Christian journey, we are both Paul and the chorus: called to lifelong conversion and called to encourage others along their path of discipleship.

As we listen to the voice of Christ and the voice of our fellow Christians represented in the chorus, may we pray for the grace of continual conversion for ourselves, and for the conversion of those who continue to persecute Christ in the members of His Body throughout the world. May we hear in this music the radiance of Christ’s light and allow it to permeate our hearts all the more deeply, so that we, like St. Paul, might continue on our journey toward Christ.

St. Paul, pray for us.

Musical Mystagogy: Singing the Incarnation

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Every year, I lament the fact that there simply aren’t enough days in the Christmas season to listen to all of the incredible music that helps us enter the exultant hymn of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus. Let’s face it: there’s a reason we secretly start listening to Christmas music around the middle of Advent (or that we at least really want to). Christmas music is sacred music par excellence. Whether it’s a traditional carol like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing or Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, or a chant like Of the Father’s Love Begotten, or a more recent addition to the repertoire like Morten Lauridsen’s anthem O Magnum Mysterium, or Alfred Burt’s carol Jesu Parvule, the songs of Christmas make real the idea of “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” a phrase that comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions as he addresses God himself. Some may balk at this analogy between the earthly beauty of music and the divine beauty, but I maintain that one can indeed use Augustine’s description with reference to Christmas music, because its material beauty points beyond itself to the divine beauty present in the very mystery this music helps us celebrate.

On the one hand, Christmas music does seem ancient: we know it intimately. It has accompanied us to the manger each and every year. And yet, on the other hand, it is indeed ever new: we never seem to grow tired of it. The reason for this, I believe, is that every year, we approach this season and this music different people than we were at this time last year, and as a result, though the music remains the same, we will hear it differently. This is the gift of a set repertoire of carols and hymns and chants, and the gift of the new additions to the repertoire that have slowly and steadily found a home within this treasury over time. The music of Christmas allows us to return to it year after year after year, and, like a wellspring, it continually slakes our thirst for beauty and mystery and meaning.

So, with the vast breadth of music, how does one choose a single piece to encapsulate the Christmas season? With the understanding that there is not ever going to be one piece that does so, but with the hope that, at least for this year, this one will help unfold the mystery a little more fully. With that, I offer Egil Hovland’s The Glory of the Father. I came across this piece as an undergraduate member of the St. Isidore Catholic Student Center Choir at my alma mater, Kansas State University, and I have come back to it every Christmas since then. This piece, written in 1957 by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland, uses as its text excerpts from the stunning prologue of St. John’s Gospel. This passage is proclaimed on Christmas at the Mass during the day, which perhaps seems an unusual choice. There is no mention of a journey to Bethlehem or a manger, no angels singing or shepherds dropping in. Instead, what we have is light. The light of the human race. The light that shines in darkness. The light that no darkness can overcome. The true light which enlightens everyone. The true light that was coming into the world. And what is this light? St. John tells us.

The Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.

This text serves as the beginning and end of Hovland’s stunning yet simple piece. In constructing the piece this way, Hovland is holding up the Incarnation—Jesus Christ Himself—as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The music in these sections is open—hollow sounding and yet somehow also full. The first words of the piece—“The Word became flesh”—are sung with a chant-like rhythm using the interval of a perfect fifth, one of the two intervals used in the medieval period to create the first instances of harmony. The other interval was the perfect fourth, and Hovland ends the phrase “dwelt among us” on this sonority (the italics designate the syllables on which this interval occurs). Why mention this? To demonstrate that the openness of the piece comes from a compositional technique that signaled the birth of harmony as we now know it. A beauty ever ancient. On the other hand, the composer uses close harmonies and controlled dissonance (clashing notes) to create a sense of fullness, particularly when the choir sings “We beheld the glory of the Father” the second time. A beauty ever new.

At the heart of the piece, Hovland returns to the beginning of the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God.” The piece takes on more life and movement here, indicating the life and movement of the eternal Word, the second Person of the triune God. With the text “In him was life,” a stirring drama builds, and suddenly, a tension is introduced with the phrase “and the life was the light of men.” The startling chord on the word “men” indicates a new presence: darkness. Through the sin of humanity, darkness enters the world and threatens to blot out the life of the Word, “the light of men.” This darkness continues as the composer holds up for our attention a reality that we would rather forget as we celebrate Christmas: “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” This child, the Word made flesh, the true light which enlightens everyone, was rejected by those whom he called his own. Is still rejected.

And yet, immediately after this sobering, convicting statement, the composer returns to the opening section, indicating that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Moreover, the abrupt shift from the darkness back to the light indicates that the glory of the Incarnate Word—“the glory as of the Father’s only Son”—is not contingent upon our acceptance of Him. The light has come into the world. It is offered as gift for those with the eyes to see it, and “to those who did accept him”—who accept him still today—“he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). This season, as we sing the mysteries of the Incarnation, may we open our eyes to see and our hearts to welcome the light of the world, the Word made flesh, the glory of the Father.

Musical Mystagogy: Advent Longing

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Ask a friend to rattle off their Top 10 Christmas Carols, and you’re bound to get an instant response of the perennial favorites. For example: O Holy Night, Silent Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, What Child is This, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem—this list could go on and on. Ask that same friend to rattle off their Top 10 Advent hymns, and you’re more likely to get one or two right away (maybe even four or five), and then perhaps the stymied silence of trying to come up with a few more: O Come O Come Emmanuel, On Jordan’s Bank, Creator of the Stars of Night, Wait for the Lord, My Soul in Stillness Waits, People Look East, Awake! Awake and Greet the New Morn, Wake O Wake and Sleep No Longer, O Come Divine Messiah, The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns (or, if you’re a Stephen Colbert fan, The King of Glory).

The truth is, we’re more familiar with Christmas music because we’re inundated with it 24/7 beginning the day after Thanksgiving. It’s piped over the speakers of stores and restaurants; it’s performed in children’s school concerts; it’s on the radio; it’s everywhere. In such an environment, our experience of Advent music can often become relegated to what we hear and sing at Mass, meaning that we might only spend four days of the Advent season singing of our longing for the Messiah. In many parishes, the celebration of Advent Lessons and Carols provides a way to bring the music of this season front and center but outside of that, it can be difficult to find opportunities to immerse oneself in this repertoire. There are a number of excellent recordings that feature music exclusively for the Advent season, and a recent composition that’s finding its way onto more of those recordings is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come. More than ten years ago, Minnesota Public Radio ran a profile on the composer and his wife (who compiled the lyrics to this piece from Scripture), which detailed how this composition grew out of the couple’s anguish in facing a child’s life-threatening illness, and when one listens to this piece knowing its back-story, its impact becomes all the greater. The longing expressed in this piece is not disembodied; it’s not detached from real life or written merely to tug at the heartstrings during what many people find to be an emotionally difficult time of year. This piece is an expression of one couple’s longing for the coming of Christ as an answer to their prayers during a time of great duress, and now, it has the capacity to give voice to the anguished longings of those who hear it this season and every season, whatever those longings may be.

Gregory de Wit, OSB, from the chapter room of St. Meinrad Archabbey The scroll in Jesus' hand reads: "Behold, I am coming soon." (Rev 22:12)
Gregory de Wit, OSB, Saint Meinrad Archabbey (Chapter Room)
The scroll in Jesus’ hand reads: “Behold, I am coming soon.” (Rev 22:12)
Image used with permission

The minor key and the dark color of this piece seem at first glance to clash with the text of the opening measures: “Peace be to you and grace from him who freed us from our sins, who loved us all and shed his blood that we might saved be.” Yet, the minor key testifies to the fact that the peace and grace of Christ are stained with his blood, shed out of pure love to save the human race. This saving work of God in Christ is the reason for the acclamation in the next section of the piece: “Sing Holy, Holy to our Lord, the Lord Almighty God, who was and is, and is to come—Sing Holy, Holy Lord.” Following this acclamation, an exhortation: “Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein; rejoice on earth, ye saints below, for Christ is coming—is coming soon! For Christ is coming soon!” This section represents the musical climax of the piece: the soaring soprano line and the noble harmonies suggest the majesty of Christ’s return in glory, but the section ends with the harmony unresolved. Christ is coming soon, but not yet.

William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (1851–2)
William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (1851–2)

The final section returns us to the here and now, where the coming of Christ in history has not taken away our present trials and tribulations, but insofar as we unite our sufferings to his, Christ may transfigure those sufferings and give us the grace to endure them until he returns in glory, when he will end suffering forever: “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more. They need no light, nor lamp, nor sun, for Christ will be their all.” The title lyric of this piece takes the final prayer from the book of Revelation—“Come, Lord Jesus,” and heightens it—“Lord Jesus, quickly come.” Come, quickly, Lord Jesus, delay no longer, for the night is vast and the world is in need of your light, the light in and by which we see light (Ps. 36:10), the light no darkness can overcome (Jn 1:5).

Our annual observance of Advent and Christmas doesn’t suspend the trials and sufferings we experience as human beings. As individuals, we may be facing loneliness or illness or death, and as a members of a global community, we live in a time plagued with violence and poverty and corruption, just like Jesus himself lived in a time that was plagued with violence and poverty and corruption. Nevertheless, Jesus’ coming in history, his future coming in glory, and his coming to us even now in the liturgical life of the Church provide sure footing for us in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations, and even as we lift our hearts and voices in anguished longing, we also look forward to the day “when night shall be no more,” “when Christ will be [our] all.”

Singing the Season: Advent Introits (part 1)

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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As we begin a new liturgical year, I thought it an appropriate time to take a look at an often-overlooked liturgical moment: the beginning of the Mass. People often make the mistake of thinking that the truly mysterious part of the Mass doesn’t “kick in” until about 10 minutes in to the liturgy, but this isn’t actually the case. The mystery of the Eucharistic celebration doesn’t begin with the Liturgy of the Word, or even the institution narrative of the Eucharistic Prayer. The mystery of the Eucharistic celebration begins the moment you leave for the church. The grace of the Holy Spirit, the love of God poured into the hearts of men and women everywhere and at every moment and in every place, draws people to seek the source of their life and discover their true end in its summit, and there is only one place on earth that is both the source and the summit of the Christian life: the Mass (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11).

So if the mystery of the Mass begins with the promptings of the Holy Spirit, before a person even darkens the door of a church, then it stands to reason that no part of this celebration stands outside of the realm of this mystery. Every word, every gesture, every action is rife with richness and meaning. Including the words, gestures, and actions that get the whole ball rolling: the Introductory Rites. And what introduces the Introductory Rites? Music.

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the music sung at the beginning of Mass is more than an aesthetically pleasing way to move the priest from the back (or side) of the church to the front. This music serves to “open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity,” and, yes, “accompany the procession of the priest and ministers” (GIRM, 47). In other words, this music gathers the individuals of the assembly—who have come from across the street, across town, or even across the country—and draws them into one voice, one body, offering one prayer to the Father through the One Mediator, Christ (1 Tim 2:5), through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In many Catholic parishes today (if not most), the Mass begins with a congregational hymn, usually chosen because its text compliments or highlights other elements of the liturgical celebration like the Scripture passages prescribed for the day or the liturgical season. Many beautiful hymns have been written throughout the history of the Church, and during Advent, perennial favorites are brought forth from the treasury such as hymnalO Come, O Come, Emmanuel, Creator of the Stars of Night, and People, Look East. As beautiful as these hymns are, and as much as I love singing them throughout this season, I’ve found myself drawn to the texts actually given to us by the Church for this liturgical moment, discovering within them a source of contemplation—a new (old) point of entry into the mystery of the Eucharist; a mystery that, like God himself, is ever ancient and ever new. This Advent, I’m rediscovering the Introit.

Before the now familiar four-fold pattern of congregational hymns became normative (Entrance, Offertory, Communion, Recessional), Mass began with the Introit, which takes its name from the Latin word for “entrance,” introitus. Every single celebration of the liturgy has a designated Introit, found in the Roman Missal along with the various prayers of the priest like the Collect, the Prayer over the Offerings, and the Prayer after Communion. Mass_001-200x300What is remarkable is that the texts for the Introit are specifically and intentionally chosen according to the liturgical feast being celebrated, and they serve an important, beautiful, mysterious purpose. Equally remarkable is that many people are unfamiliar with them.

Over these four weeks of Advent, I’m going to spend time with these texts that open the door, as it were, to the marriage feast of the Lamb. I’ll be taking a look at their sources in Scripture, the ways in which they tie in to the liturgical season, and how they’ve been sung across the centuries. Believe it or not, composers today are still setting these texts to music, and many of them—like the composer of this week’s contemporary setting—are even drawing inspiration from the ancient chant melodies of these Introits, using those melodies as a springboard in their crafting of a new “song of praise to our God” (cf. Ps 40:3). I hope to discover a new layer of depth within the Entrance Rite of the Mass that will enrich my (and hopefully your) understanding of and appreciation for the Advent liturgies. At the very least, there’s going to be some beautiful music involved.

adtelevavi700In the original Latin, the Introit for the First Sunday of Advent is:

Ad te [Domine] levavi animam meam, Deus meus, in te confido: non erubescam neque irrideant me inimici mei. Etenim universi qui te expectant non confundentur. Vias tuas, Domine, demonstra mihi: et semitas tuas edoce me.

Now if, like me, you know just enough Latin to get yourself in trouble (“Et tu, Brute?”), here’s an English translation, courtesy of the monks of Solesmes:

Unto you have I lifted up my soul. O my God, I trust in you, let me not be put to shame; do not allow my enemies to laugh at me; for none of those who are awaiting you will be disappointed. O Lord, make me know your ways. Teach me your paths.

And finally, in the current Roman Missal, we read:

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God. In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame. Nor let my enemies exult over me; and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

(In case you were wondering why the current version is shorter, the first two versions contain the antiphon and the first verse of the accompanying Psalm, while the third version contains only the antiphon. Nevertheless, the proper Psalm may still be sung with the antiphon.)

Both the Entrance Antiphon and the Psalm verse are taken from Psalm 25, which is the proper Psalm for the First Sunday of Advent (cycle C), and has also been designated as one of the seasonal Responsorial Psalms for Advent. So right away, even on the surface, we see that this Entrance Antiphon ties in with other Scriptures proclaimed during Advent.

On a deeper level, though, it is profoundly significant that the first words the Church sings during the Advent—in fact the very first words of the new liturgical year—are “To you, I lift my soul, O my God.” In just nine simple words, a relationship is established: a relationship of humility between us and God, between creature and Creator. But why do we lift our souls to God? Because without God’s help and protection, our enemies (sin and death) laugh at us—the devil exults over us in our sinfulness, and in this sorry state, we lift our souls to God as an acknowledgment that we are in need of a redeemer. We lift our souls to God because God is the only one who can help us. And God helps us by showing us his paths, revealing the way to himself by sending the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Jesus Christ is the answer to our prayer when we beseech God, “O Lord, make me know your ways. Teach me your paths.”

In 2006, Belgian composer Ludo Claesen composed a setting of this Introit using the Latin text (he composed settings of the other Advent Introits in the years following). If you listen first to the original chant melody,


and then listen to Claesen’s setting,


you can perhaps hear some similarities between the two melodies. What is so striking about this piece, not even ten years old, is that it is firmly rooted in a musical tradition that is centuries old, and yet it still sounds fresh and new and beautiful to our ears, for it is written in a musical language that is entirely the composer’s own. This is ancient beauty that has been made new. This is sacred music that draws from the treasure house of the Church’s tradition and yet breathes forth new life by engaging with that tradition in a creative way.

Even without knowing that this piece of music was inspired by an ancient chant source, a person can still sense the yearning conveyed in its melodies and harmonies. Even without knowing the translation of the Latin above, one can still perceive in this music a lack, an incompletion, a need that, in the end, can only be fulfilled by God. “To you, I lift up my soul, O God.” Because my soul is broken. I have broken it by my sinfulness. And you, God, are the only one who can heal it. You are the only one who can triumph over the enemy who would exult over me, and you are the only one who can guide me back to your heart. “To you, I lift up my soul, O God,” and I can lift it no higher, for I am too small. Reach down and receive my soul—stoop down from heaven and save me.

This is how we begin the Advent season, and we will conclude it by celebrating God’s response to our desperate plea, when God does indeed reach down to us and heals our souls by becoming small himself—by taking on a body that can be broken as our souls have been broken by sin, by offering that body, lifting it up to the Father in love so that we might all be lifted up. We pray: “To you, I lift up my soul, O God,” and God replies: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12).

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Musical Mystagogy: The Requiem Mass

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Throughout the month of November, the Church has invited us to remember in a special way the souls of the faithful departed, so a few weeks ago I shared a piece by Geraint Lewis written for All Souls Day. As we near the end of November, we are also nearing the end of the liturgical year, which means that the readings in the Lectionary cycle are focused on what is often referred to as the “end time,” so it seems an appropriate moment to highlight a musical tradition that for centuries has shaped the way the Church has sung about the final things: the Requiem Mass.

Autograph (original) score of the first movement of Mozart’s Requiem

Musical settings of the Requiem Mass began to emerge during the Renaissance, and even today, composers are still producing works in the Requiem tradition (though most of these are written for the concert hall rather than the liturgy).

Over the centuries, the theological focus of the Requiem Mass has shifted somewhat, particularly with Pope Pius V’s addition of the Dies Irae sequence to the Roman Missal in the late 16th century. The added sequence required new music; thus, throughout the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras of the next three centuries, numerous composers set the Dies Irae as part of their Requiem Masses. Because “text painting” was a popular compositional technique during this time (in which composers would create musical pictures of what was happening in the text), settings of the Dies Irae often included dramatic and even terrifying music that highlighted the text’s vivid and often disturbing imagery of the final judgment and the fiery punishment awaiting sinners. And yet, these same composers also drew attention to passages in the sequence expressing heartfelt prayer for the mercy of God on behalf of the deceased and on one’s own behalf by setting those texts with some of the most luminous music that has ever been written. The multi-movement setting of the Dies Irae sequence found in Mozart’s Requiem is a stunning example of music that holds these two facets of the text in fruitful tension—the somber, dark reality of death and judgment is shot through with radiant hope in God’s gracious mercy and tender love.

Medieval illuminated manuscript showing a funeral liturgy
Medieval illuminated manuscript showing a funeral liturgy

The Dies Irae remained part of the funeral liturgy until the Second Vatican Council, when the sequence was removed in order that “funeral rights should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §81). In the current Rite of Christian Burial, the images of judgment have given way to reassurances of the merciful love of God and exhortations to hope in the resurrection, and yet, even in the years since the Council, ensembles continue to perform the great Requiems of the past, and composers have continued to set the sequence (see Richard Danielpour’s 2001 An American Requiem), which means that on a certain level, the Requiem in general and the Dies Irae in particular still resonate with people. It seems that, while it is of course a good and holy thing to place our trust in God’s love and mercy and to entrust our beloved dead to that love and mercy, we as human beings must also acknowledge that we will eventually be confronted with the mysterious realities of death and judgment.

The music of the Church can provide us with a way in to this struggle. The settings of the Requiem Mass that have been penned by composers down through the centuries are among the most famous, the most moving (even if this movement is one of disturbance), and the most stunningly beautiful pieces in the repertoire of sacred music. They place the reality of death, the holy fear of judgment, the horror of hell, and the hope of heaven before our eyes and ears, and allow us to contemplate these realities even as we struggle with them. They invite us not only to pray for our departed brothers and sisters, but also to consider the implications of mortality, the consequences of sin, and the need for God’s mercy. In short, the Requiem Mass is an musical momento mori, an aural reminder that we, too, will die, and that we have to give an account of our lives. And yet, the Requiem Mass is also a musical reassurance that Christ has broken the chains of death, and for those who have died with him in the waters of Baptism, death will not have the last word.

Duruflé's autograph score for the Requiem; the Gregorian chant melody is outlined at the bottom
Duruflé’s autograph score for the Requiem; the Gregorian chant melody is outlined at the bottom

While there are numerous settings of the Requiem Mass that are worth listening to on repeat, the one I would especially like to highlight is the setting by French composer Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986). Duruflé completed his Requiem in 1947 and dedicated it to the memory of his father. Musically speaking, what is so striking about Duruflé’s Requiem (as well as  several of his other sacred choral works) is that its melodies are drawn from the ancient Gregorian chants of the Requiem Mass, and yet its harmonic language is crafted from twentieth-century compositional techniques. In other words, this piece utilizes contemporary musical expression and yet is also completely rooted in a centuries-old musical tradition. In this way, it can be seen as a musical form of catechesis: (re)introducing listeners to the beauty of the Gregorian chant melodies while simultaneously appropriating that tradition within an equally and uniquely beautiful contemporary musical idiom.

Like Gabriel Fauré before him, Duruflé sought to highlight the merciful love of God in his Requiem; thus, all but the last two lines of the Dies Irae have been omitted. Yet, the reality of judgment is not altogether absent: it finds a place here in the setting of the ancient Responsory text, Libera me, Domine. The trials of death and judgment are not circumvented or glossed over or skirted around; rather, they are passed through, and as the tumultuous and trembling music of the penultimate Libera me, Domine movement gives way to the utter radiance of the final movement—the In Paradisum—where all is light and peace, the “paschal character of Christian death” pierces through the darkness and gives hope to all who place their trust in God.

Movement VIII: “Libera Me, Domine”

Movement IX: “In Paradisum”

Listen to the full work here.

Musical Mystagogy: All Souls Day

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today the Church observes the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, better known as All Souls Day. Indeed, the entire month of November has come to be associated with the remembrance of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and the music of the Church in no small way helps us to remember and to grieve, but ultimately, to find hope in the promise of the Resurrection.

Today’s piece is one that finds a balance between acknowledging the human struggle in the face of death and upholding faith in God as the only answer to that struggle. Welsh-born composer Geraint Lewis (b.1958) began composing his All Souls Day anthem The Souls of the Righteous in December 1991, and finished the piece in 1992, in the wake of losing his close friend and colleague—fellow composer William Mathias—to cancer. The piece testifies not only to his grief, but also to his faith in God as a source of solace and comfort even in the midst of that grief.

The text for this piece is taken from chapter three of the Book of Wisdom, which is one of the optional Old Testament readings for All Souls Day (Wis 3:1–9). It is also one of the optional Old Testament readings listed in the Rite of Christian Burial. Rather than set the entirety of the passage, Lewis distills the Wisdom text down and focuses on the texts that convey its two most essential truths: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them,” and “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.”

Musically, Lewis conveys these two truths by constructing the entire piece around two central motifs. The first of these motifs unfolds in the extended organ introduction; the second is sung by the choir at its first entrance. The first motif consists of two brief phrases followed by an extended phrase—each phrase feeds into the next, and the effect here is evocative perhaps of the shortened inhalations and exhalations of a person in the final hours of life, culminating in the breathing forth of one’s spirit in the soaring extended phrase.

The second motif, in contrast, is constructed of long, even, sustained notes as the choir sings the text, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.” The simple yet noble choral melody seems to suspend the text in mid-air as an object held up for our contemplation. Here is the consolation offered by a loving God—the truth that never wavers, that sustains both those who face their final trial and those who mourn them after they have passed from this life into the next.

The organ and the choir engage in a dialogue, each repeating and developing its own motif as though the music is trying to help the listener come to terms with these truths which are ultimately beautiful and hope-filled, yet still challenging in the midst of grief. This dialogue continues until the piece reaches a turning point and, after an extended organ interlude, everything fades away save one low sustained note. It is in this moment, suspended between time and eternity, that the choir takes over the first motif with the text, “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.” This is what the organ has been trying to tell us all along. The souls of those whom we love and mourn are at peace, and we, we are the foolish, the slow to understand, the ones who struggle against their passing in our limited human ability to perceive the truth—that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.

Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day
Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day

Even though we might assent to this profound truth intellectually and spiritually, the process of grieving is still a profound human and emotional struggle, because the experience of death remains shrouded in mystery. To gloss over this struggle or seek refuge in worn-out, shallow platitudes is to reduce the gravity of death. Yet, every moment of heart-rending grief can become a moment in which we who mourn can make an act of faith by acknowledging our devastation and, from the depths of our grief, placing our trust in God and the souls of our loved ones in his hands.

Lewis reflects this continuous struggle to seek and find consolation in God through his gentle use of dissonance in the organ accompaniment. Every so often, a chord grates against our ears as a reminder that there will always be moments in which we rail against the harsh realities of death; nevertheless, by turning to God in faith, even these moments of struggle will become moments in which we are drawn ever closer to the One who holds our beloved dead in his care.

The final phrase captures this mysterious juxtaposition beautifully: the choir sings “but they are at peace” one last time in a return to the sustained notes of their original motif, and the final chord of the organ lingers in its dissonance as a musical symbol of the fact that we who are left behind will continue to struggle with the mystery of death, a struggle that can only be ultimately resolved for us when we ourselves pass from this life, for it is only when our own souls are in the hands of God that we will truly be at peace. Nevertheless, in the meantime, we are comforted and sustained by the truths that invite us to put our faith and place our trust in God, even—and especially—when we are confronted by the mysteries of death.

Follow Carolyn on twitter: @carolyn_pirtle

Musical Mystagogy: St. Margaret Mary and the Sacred Heart

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today marks the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–90), a Burgundian nun who experienced a series of visions from 1673 to 1675 that ultimately resulted in her petitioning Church authorities to institute a feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Because of her role in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Margaret Mary's visions feature prominently in the stained glass windows of Notre Dame's Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Because of her role in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Margaret Mary’s visions feature prominently in the stained glass windows of the Lady Chapel in Notre Dame’s own Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

In addition to the feast itself, St. Margaret Mary promoted acts of devotion in honor of the Sacred Heart, chief among which was the reception of Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month, a devotion many still practice to this day. It is for her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and her untiring efforts to spread that devotion to others that Margaret Mary Alacoque is honored as a saint, and so today’s musical piece will focus not on the saint herself, but on the object of her unwavering devotion: the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart is twofold: on the one hand, we honor the physical heart of Jesus, the pulsing heart of muscle and blood with its valves and chambers whose very existence encapsulates the mystery of the Incarnation—the heart that testifies that “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); the heart that was pierced by a lance and poured forth the precious lifeblood of Him who loved unto the end. On the other hand, we also honor what the Sacred Heart of Jesus symbolizes: the sheer, unmerited gift of God’s unsurpassable, unfathomable love and mercy, offered without reservation to all who would receive it into their own hearts.

Today’s musical piece, the motet Improperium Expectavit by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Casali, is a setting of the Offertory text for the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, taken from Psalm 69 [68]:21–22b. Translated from the Latin, the text reads:

My heart expected reproach and misery
and I desired one who would grieve with me
and there was none:

I sought one to console me, and I found none:
and they gave me gall as my food,
and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

The text of today’s piece draws attention to both the physical and the symbolic elements of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From the symbolic standpoint, the heart of the one proclaiming the psalm—understood in the context of the feast as the Heart of Jesus himself—is broken; it is inconsolable, overcome with grief at the devastation of reproach and abandonment. And yet there is also an immense physicality in these lines. Hearing this passage from the Psalms in the voice of Jesus, we are reminded perhaps of his words from the Cross: “I thirst” (Jn 19: 28). Here is the one who hungers and thirsts to draw all into the communion of life he shares with the Father and the Spirit, and his longing is met with derision; his thirst for love is slaked with a drink of malice. We see the juxtaposition with stark clarity in the Reproaches for Good Friday: “I gave you saving water from the rock to drink, / and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.”

To contemplate the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not simply to contemplate the overwhelming love that Jesus pours forth from his Heart; rather, it is to contemplate the mystery that Jesus pours forth his love for us even as we wound his Sacred Heart with our sins. We see this mystery in the way that the Sacred Heart is represented in visual art: pierced, surrounded with the crown of thorns, surmounted by the Cross which ultimately stopped its beating, and yet, even in the midst of these wounds, it is still ablaze, burning with divine love, the love of the God-man who longs for nothing more or less than perfect communion with his people.

We hear this mystery in Casili’s motet in the way that musical dissonance (clashing/grating of pitches) gives way to serene consonance (rest/resolution). This is the way that nearly all Western music operates at some level: tension arises in the music that is ultimately resolved. The dissonance somehow serves to help us appreciate all the more the consonance that resolves it. In this sense, consonance seems to purify the dissonance as the notes are brought into harmonious communion with one another in the movement toward resolution. This is what happens when we allow the dissonance of our sinfulness to give way to the love of the Sacred Heart: we ‘sour notes’ are brought into a radiant harmony with Jesus as we learn to sing with ever greater fidelity the hymn of self-giving love he intones from the Cross.

In contemplating with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we learn to give ourselves over to the ardent love of Christ as it blazes forth from his pierced Heart, that the dissonance within our own hearts may be melted away and dissolve into the consonant, radiant harmony of life in God; that, in the words of St. Paul from the proper reading for today, we may be “rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17b–19).

Musical Mystagogy: The Archangels

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today marks the feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael—the three archangels named within the canon of Scripture. St. Michael, whose name means “Who is like God?” is most commonly identified as the warrior, leading an army of angels in defeating the great red dragon and his legions in the book of Revelation (see Rev 12:7ff). St. Gabriel, whose name means “God is my strength” is arguably the most well-known of the three archangels. Gabriel is the herald of the Incarnation, announcing first to Zechariah that he will be father to John the Baptist, forerunner of the Messiah (Lk 1:11–21), and then announcing to Mary that God has chosen her to be the Mother of his Only-Begotten Son, Jesus, who will save the world from sin and death (Lk 1:26–38). St. Raphael, whose name means “God has healed,” appears only in the Old Testament book of Tobit, where he not only heals Sara of the demon Asmodeus and brings her to a happy marriage with young Tobias, but he also heals the eponymous Tobit (Tobias’ father) of blindness (see Tob 4:17).

The archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are held up to the Church today for their obedience to God as messengers (the literal meaning of the word “angel”): they stand before God, ready to do his will, and at God’s bidding, they go where they are sent and proclaim the word given to them by God. In other words, the angels are evangelists. They proclaim the Good News of God’s power over evil (Michael); they announce God’s plan to redeem humanity by becoming one like us in all things but sin (Gabriel); and they reveal God’s desire to heal humanity of every illness and iniquity (Raphael).

Catholics today may be more likely to turn to saints who were, well, human beings, instead of turning to the archangels we celebrate today or the guardian angels whom we will celebrate on October 2. Because we may never have seen an angel (or at least think we’ve never seen one, for as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2)), we are perhaps more ready to dismiss angels altogether not only as beings whom we are incapable of imitating, but also as beings incapable of understanding our human plight. But today’s feast shows us that such is not the case. We can imitate the angels and archangels by imitating their readiness to serve God and their fidelity to God’s will, and angels do understand our plights because, as Scripture shows, they are always ready to help us out of them.

In the realm of sacred choral music, we find the angels and archangels placed front and center in Benjamin Britten’s The Company of Heaven. Originally written in 1937 as incidental music for a BBC radio program broadcast on the feast of Michaelmas (prior to the revision of the sanctoral calendar, only St. Michael was celebrated on this date), The Company of Heaven is an extended work featuring music, Scripture, and poetry by authors including Christina Rosetti and Emily Dickinson. The structure is less like an oratorio or cantata (which are entirely sung), and more akin to Lessons and Carols services often seen during the Advent and Christmas seasons (a combination of spoken and sung texts). Throughout the work, Britten demonstrates a familiarity with various traditions of liturgical music including chant and hymnody, as well as a remarkable musical dexterity in taking these forms and infusing them with his own distinct musical voice. This music is rooted in tradition, making it recognizable and accessible to listeners, and yet it is also wholly Britten, making it a unique contribution to the treasury of sacred choral literature.

For our musical and spiritual edification today, we’ll focus on the finale of the work, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,” a grand setting of the famous hymn text written by Athelstan Riley set to the tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen (most commonly paired with the text “All Creatures of Our God and King”). The way Britten sets this well-known tune is a particularly brilliant example of his taking something familiar and arranging it in such a way that it becomes something wholly new. He sets up expectations in the listener’s ear and then stunningly subverts them more often than he fulfills them: a resolution that we think is coming around the bend never appears; the key changes unexpectedly; the rhythm with which we’re familiar is changed ever so slightly. In other words, this music zigs one way when we think it’s going to zag the other. It surprises us. And when we listen to it in light of today’s feast, these musical surprises can call to our minds the ways in which God beautifully and lovingly surprised his faithful ones with the messages they received through his archangels.

Britten’s setting of “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” gently shows us the folly of familiarity, of thinking that we’ve heard everything there is to hear when it comes to a tune we think we know well. We can fall into such a pattern of familiarity in the life of faith, too, thinking that we’ve heard everything we need to hear, or worse, that we know everything we need to know. The musical surprises present throughout Britten’s music invite us to rethink that which may have become familiar, and to open our hearts once again to being surprised by God. By cultivating such a stance of openness, we will more closely resemble the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael in their openness and readiness to hear and obey God’s voice, and, perhaps, we will even be more readily able to perceive God’s messengers—the angels and archangels—still at work in the world around us.

Musical Mystagogy: St. Matthew

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Caravaggio, The Inspiration of St. Matthew
Caravaggio, The Inspiration of St. Matthew

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, and although this is only the second post of this series, I’m going to depart from last week’s model of sharing a piece written specifically for a feast day and turn instead to three brief excerpts from a famous sacred choral work which utilizes the very Gospel text for which Matthew is celebrated today as a saint: Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

After an early version was performed on Good Friday in 1727, Bach revised and expanded the work in 1736, and continued to make adjustments until 1746, when the piece was finalized in the form we now know it today. While today the St. Matthew Passion is often performed in concert halls, Bach actually wrote it for use during a service held at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig, where he oversaw the music used in worship. As music scholar Michael David Shasberger puts is, the St. Matthew Passion is to be heard “as an active witness to the Gospel not as a museum piece.”[1] This music was intended to instill in those listening an awareness of the fact that the Passion of Jesus Christ is not merely a historical event; rather, it is a mystery that must be contemplated and appropriated by believers in every generation.

J.S. Bach (1685–1750)
J.S. Bach (1685–1750)

In terms of structure, the St. Matthew Passion is written in the “oratorio” style: the text of Matthew’s Gospel is sung by a narrator (designated as the “Evangelist”), various soloists (representing different characters), and a chorus (not only representing the crowd in the Gospel but also drawing the congregation into the action). There are also other movements such as arias (solo songs) and chorales (strophic hymns) interpolated throughout the Gospel text. These movements utilize poetic texts, some of which incorporate other scriptural sources, but many of which are wholly original. These non-Gospel provide theological commentary on Matthew’s Passion narrative; they pause the dramatic action and provide the listening congregation with an opportunity to contemplate the mystery being presented.

Countless books and articles have been written on various facets of the St. Matthew Passion. But I want to focus here on the way in which Bach’s music brings the words to life in such a way that the music itself becomes a form of theological commentary. With regard to the text of Matthew’s Gospel, this theo-musical drama is particularly apparent toward the end of the work.

One of the final movements featuring the text of Matthew’s Gospel is a recitative—sung speech. Singing in German (since the Lutheran tradition utilized the vernacular), the Evangelist proclaims:

And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying:

At this point, the chorus provides the voice of the witnesses, confessing: “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Mt 27:51–55)

The relationship Bach creates between the text and the music enhances our awareness of the incredible drama in this moment. As the Evangelist describes the Temple veil tearing from top to bottom, the cellos paint a musical portrait of fabric ripping through a series of incredibly fast descending and ascending scales. The description of the earthquake is accompanied by a low cello tremolo (a string technique that creates a trembling or rumbling sound), and steadily climbing notes underscore the description of the dead rising from their graves. The Evangelist’s description of the fear descending on all present is reflected in the haunting and dramatic melody, sung at a hushed volume.

The radiant music of the chorus confessing Jesus’ divinity pierces through this dark moment, and from that point on, the Evangelist resumes the Gospel narrative with music suggesting that, even in the face of Jesus’ death on the Cross, there may yet be reason to hope.

While Bach’s setting of the actual Gospel text is dramatic and memorable, without a doubt, the most famous excerpt of the St. Matthew Passion is the chorale that appears throughout. Often sung in Good Friday liturgies today as O Sacred Head Surrounded, the music of this hymn actually did not originate with Bach. In its first instantiation, the melody was a secular love song by Baroque composer Hans Leo Hassler; however, by pairing this tune with a text by Paul Gerhardt in the St. Matthew Passion, Bach gave it new life as a hymn contemplating the depths of Christ’s Passion.

The chorale appears several times throughout the St. Matthew Passion, and, in keeping with Bach’s practice of utilizing music to provide theological commentary, each iteration varies slightly according to what has just occurred in the Passion narrative. In the penultimate appearance of the chorale (just after Matthew’s description of the crowning with thorns and mocking), the chorus sings two verses: the first in a powerful, declamatory style, hailing the sorrowful beauty of the Sacred Head crowned with thorns; the second in a spirit of trepidation and fearfulness, acknowledging the utter gravity of what is unfolding.

O head, full of blood and wounds,
Full of sorrow and full of scoffing!
O head, wreathed for mockery
With a crown of thorns!
O head, once beautifully adorned
With highest honor and renown,
But now highly abused:
Let me hail thee!

Thou noble countenance,
Before which shrinks and cowers
The great weight of the world,
How art thou spat upon!
How pallid art thou!
Who has treated the light of thine eyes,
Light that no light else can equal,
So shamefully amiss?

In the final appearance of the chorale, Bach transforms it into a dirge as the chorus pleads with Jesus to assist them in the hour of death.

When once I must depart,
Do not depart from me;
When I must suffer death,
Then stand thou by me!
When I most full of fear
At heart shall be,
Then snatch me from the terrors
Of fear and pain by thy strength!

The lower key, the tension-filled harmonies, the sparse use of instruments, and the altered melody—all of these musical decisions reflect the somber bitterness of Christ’s Passion, and the reality that all must eventually face death. And yet, even in the darkness of the Crucifixion, the chorale ends with a beautiful and perhaps unexpected resolution on a quietly hope-filled major chord, reminding the listener that all is not lost. Christ’s life does not end with death; rather, Christ tramples down death by his own Death and becomes the source of eternal life for all who make the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel their own: “Truly this was the Son of God.”


For more on the St. Matthew Passion:
•  Read the text and translation here.
•  Listen to the full work here.


[1] Michael David Shasberger, An Introduction of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for the Contemporary Congregation (D.M.A. Dissertation, University of Southern California, 1983), 41.

Musical Mystagogy: Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Confession: even after having studied music throughout college and graduate school—throughout my whole life, really—I find that I still feel woefully lacking in my musical knowledge, particularly of the treasury of sacred choral repertoire. To be fair, there’s a lot of music out there. A LOT a lot. More music than any one person could listen to in ten lifetimes. But still. As someone who thinks and writes about liturgical music, who regularly plays and even sometimes writes liturgical music, I know I can (and should) always be learning more about the musical heritage of the Catholic Church. The well of riches in this area is indeed bottomless, so, in this series, I hope to begin to plumb its depths more intentionally. Why? Because this music has been and continues to be an integral part of our language in worshiping God, and can help us to discover a richer vocabulary of praise. Because this music stretches across time and space, connecting us with those who heard and sang it centuries ago, and with those who will hear and sing it centuries into the future. But most of all, because this music is beautiful, and in its beauty, our hearts and minds are lifted to the One who shows us how to become beautiful. In short, I am undertaking this project because I hope that it will help me grow closer to God.

The confusion is real.
Singing liturgical music is hard. Exploring it can be even harder.

But where to start? The process of trying to find a friendly, fruitful inroad into the vast world of sacred choral music can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the Church herself provides me—and consequently this series—with a road map in the gift of the liturgical year. Much of the sacred choral repertoire was composed specifically for liturgical use, and through the magic of the internet, one can, with just a little bit of searching, discover multiple pieces composed especially for a particular feast or season. And so, once every week, I will be offering little points of entry into the world of sacred music by sharing both well-known works and hidden gems written for specific feasts as they arise on our journey through the liturgical calendar. I will offer a commentary on said pieces accessible not just to trained musicians, but to anyone who “has ears to hear” (cf. Mk 4:9, 23; Mt 13:9, 43; Lk 14:35), where I hope to draw connections between musical construction and theological reflection.

Because the ultimate goal is to get to the listening, my commentaries will be brief (this first post notwithstanding), and because people are busy, the pieces I will feature will also be relatively brief. With any luck, these posts will provide weekly opportunities to take a 5–7 minute respite from the craziness and busyness of the day, and enter into the beauty of a feast through the beauty of sacred choral music. I hope that you’ll bust out your headphones and join me in this sustained expedition through some of the most beautiful music that has ever been written, and I hope that it will help us all discover in this music a via, a way of growing in the knowledge and love of God.

In this first post, I begin—appropriately enough for someone working at a Holy Cross institution—with a recent choral setting of the Introit (Entrance Antiphon) written for today’s celebration: the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Composed in 1997 by British composer Grayston (Bill) Ives (b. 1948), Nos autem gloriari is a setting of the Introit, or Entrance Antiphon, which is intended to “give a name to the entire celebration” of the Eucharist, as Paul Turner asserts in his foreword to Jason McFarland’s book Announcing the Feast: The Entrance Song in the Mass of the Roman Rite (xviii). The Introit sets the tone for the feast, alerts the congregation to what we will be celebrating during this Eucharist; it is the musical door through which we enter the liturgical celebration. It is decidedly not just a song that will cover the time it takes for the priest and ministers to process from the back of the church to the front.

Today, the Church invites us to enter the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross with these words, based on Galatians 6:14: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered.” The Cross, once an ignominious sign of humiliation and shame and agony, is transfigured in Christ as the sign of our very salvation. Christ’s death on the Cross becomes a bridge, spans the chasm between God and humanity created by sin, and if we are to cross this bridge, we must not only accept the Cross for ourselves in whatever way it may present itself in our lives, but we must also glory in it. It is the great challenge and the beautiful paradox of Christianity. Life out of death.

Ives demonstrates this paradox musically by refusing to sugar coat the challenge posed by the Cross: the opening of this piece is haunting, eerie, quietly unsettling. The lower voices (basses and altos) stay on the same note while the upper voices (tenors and sopranos) sing a jagged melody, until all of the voices converge and, together as one chorus, ultimately find resolution on the final phrase of the Introit, which affirms that it is precisely through the ignominy of the Cross that we are saved from sin and death itself. The musical effect here is stunning. After wandering adrift through disjointed, dissonant harmonies, we reach a place of peace, of hope. The musical resolution for which we long comes only after we have confronted and accepted the reality that salvation cannot come apart from the Cross. It is our only way. It is, as the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross have taught us, our only hope.

Ave Crux, spes unica.