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On October 29, my horoscope (Aquarius) read, in part, "Tonight, [go] out where there is good music," so that evening I went to the beautiful sanctuary of Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Raleigh, where the North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir presented an all a cappella program entitled "My Soul Sings." The church was full – if anyone else had come in, they might have had to stand.
The eclectic program – music of the soul to be sure, but varied by era, language and style – began with the renaissance landmark Mass for Pope Marcellus by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
During the 16th century, the issue of music in the church was addressed by the Council of Trent. Two main concerns loomed large: one was the number of popular secular melodies that were finding their way into Mass settings, and the other centered on musical elaboration – long melismas and complex polyphonic structure that, it was feared, might obscure the meaning and understanding of the text. Although Pope Marcellus reigned for only three weeks, he took the opportunity to address the Papal Choir (of which Palestrina was a member) in 1555 and registered his disapproval of such musical "defects." Perhaps this event explains the dedicatory title of the Missa Papae Marcelli, which seems to address the recommendations of the Council of Trent and Pope Marcellus. It is symptomatic of Palestrina's genius that he was able to satisfy the demand for more direct musical style without abandoning his natural refinement and conservatism.
In the shorter movements of the mass – Kyrie, Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei – Palestrina weaves a tapestry of truly transcendent sound, repeating the text in polyphonic intricacy that actually enriches its meaning. In the longer mass movements – Gloria and Credo – he uses a tighter, more homophonic structure with polyphony hidden in the inner parts and with considerable phrase imitation, a practice renaissance worshipers of the time knew quite well.
The myth is that Palestrina's mass saved polyphonic music in the church for the ages. The truth is that the debate continued for many decades, while at the same time the Church and music in general moved on, inspired by the genius of Palestrina. There is no question that the music sung by the NCMC Chamber Choir came from the soul of a great composer and reverberated in the hearts and minds of one of the leading choral groups in the Triangle area. Alfred E. Sturgis is a master of the art of preparing vocal groups both technically and emotionally (spiritually).
After the intermission, we moved ahead over 400 years to music by Polish composer Henryk Górecki. He wrote Totus Tuus for Pope John Paul II's first trip to Poland in 1987. The text is a simple Marian prayer: "Mary, Mary! Entirely thine am I, Mary..." The music is in the minimalist vein of the time, however inaccurate that term is. It is simple, with sweet harmonies and lilting melody, repeated over and over, fading out at the conclusion like a devotional candle burning to the end of its wick. The piece is mesmerizing and moving, and even the obvious sounds of the traffic outside on McDowell Street could not break the spell. What devotional peace this music conveys!
Ever since singing it in the college choir at the University of Richmond, I have been partial to the music of Heinrich Schütz. Born one hundred years before J.S.Bach, Schütz was Germany's most renowned composed up to that time. He studied with Giovanni Gabrieli, and throughout a long and productive life he produced music that still retains power and charm. Die Himmel Erzählen die Ehre Gottes (Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God"), from his 1648 collection, Geistliche Chormusik (Spiritual Choir Music), was perfectly placed in the program, providing something of a link back to the Palestrina and a lively change in mood after the Górecki.
Eric Whitacre's three songs of faith, settings of poetry by e.e. cummings, are works of a different kind, from the soul of the 20th century; these are more earthy and more humanist, expressing through Whitacre's astonishing harmonies a transcendent spirituality that leaves the soul enriched and enlarged. The songs were very nicely done by the Master Chorale Chamber singers, with a special touch added by soprano soloist Leanne Glasgow.*
The program closed with two exuberant expressions of the soul's singing: Brazilian Ernani Aguiar's magnificently uplifting Salmo 150 ("Praise the Lord...") and the late, great composer/arranger/pianist Moses Hogan's "I'm Gonna Sing 'til the Spirit Moves in My Heart." These were like a perfect cup of coffee and a sip of Grand Marnier to wrap up an evening of soul music of extraordinary beauty that brought deep devotion and exhilarating joy.