Thursday, February 26, 2009

Another Example of Music I Like

Here's another example of the kind of sacred music that I'd like to hear more of. :-)

Now, this music is a setting of the Ave Maria; and being non-Catholic, we're thus not likely to get it in our church anytime soon. Nevertheless, it's absolutely gorgeous. I first learned it when I was in the Choraliers at San Jose State University in the early '90's, and it's been rolling around in my head ever since.

Interestingly enough, although it sounds like really old music on first listening, it's not. The writer, Franz Biebl, lived from 1906 until 2001, and wrote his Ave Maria in the mid-'60's. Originally it was for seven male parts--and in this form was picked up by the Men's chorus Chanticleer; but after it became popular, Biebl himself arranged it for seven-part mixed double chorus. This was the version that I learned with the Choraliers, and it's just as gorgeous. (And you need some serious sopranos to do it right).

The text of the piece combines the Angelus Domini texts, sung as plainsong chant:
Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ.
Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto.

Maria dixit: Ecce Ancilla Domini.
Fiat mihi secundum Verbum tuum.

(The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary.
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to your Word.)
with the Ave Maria, presented as a gorgeous seven-part double chorus:
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostræ. Amen.

(Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.)
And while this music--and the liturgy and doctrine it's based upon--isn't part of my faith tradition, I still have to marvel at just how powerful and lovely this music is, and how elevated the sentiments are that led to someone composing such a thing. And from personal experience, I can honestly say that learning and singing it was--despite my not-entirely-compatible religious background--still a powerful worship experience for me. And even though I occasionally become jaded about Christian music--after a while, it all sounds the same for me--something inevitably reminds me of this piece and breaks through my cynicism.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy. This is Angelus Domini, by Franz Biebl, sung by Chanticleer.


Roger Z said...

Tim- I'm Catholic, and I can assure you there's very little chance we'll ever hear music like this in church in *our* faith tradition, either. :(

(for the record- I'm not saying I'd prefer pre-Vatican II church, I'm just saying a chant like this in the middle of mass would usually be, uh, jarring, to put it mildly)

That said... have you ever listened to Russian Chant? To me, it makes Gregorian Chant seem second-rate. Slavyanka is a men's choir that my Russian history professor in undergrad liked. I got one of their CDs, and it still moves me like no other sacred music I've ever heard. If you can find the CD "Russian Church Music" by Slavyanka, look for "Othce nash" (Our Father) or "Slava v vyshnikh" (Glory to God in the Highest).

B. Durbin said...

There's a version of this on one of my Gonzaga University choir CDs, and it's for the mixed voices. Yeah, I love this.

You'd like the GU choir CDs. Unfortunately, they only seem to be available in Spokane, after one of the concerts.

Or by having lots of music students as friends, but that's another story...

Timothy Power said...


I love Russian sacred music. I love any Russian music for that matter, but the music that came from Russian Orthodox tradition is amazing, and on those rare occasions when I get the bug to write music for use in my church, I often throw on a CD of Rachmaninov's Vespers, or his liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, or Tchaikovsky's liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, to get a little inspiration. I also did a few Russian church pieces when I was in college. We did Chesnokov's Duh Tvoy blagíy (Дух Твой благий if you read Russian, which I don't), and I was one of the very few basses who could actually hit that low B (without sounding like gargling Drain-O). I've met a few more guys since then who could do it, but we remain the few, the proud. :-)

You mention something that I've been scratching my head over, though--and this is something that I've read at many blogs written by Catholics (notably including The Anchoress). The Catholic music tradition includes some of the finest music ever written anywhere, from medieval times through the present. The Catholic tradition claims Gregorian Chant, as well as music by Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Pergolesi, Mozart, Bruckner, Poulenc, Biebl, Duruflé, and a host of others. And yet when I hear (or read) Catholics' opinions of their own services, none of this music is actually in regular use today; what is in use is often described with terms like "hokey", "insipid", and everything in between.

Of course, we Protestants aren't much better; even with the likes of Bach, Handel, and Ralph Vaughan Williams to draw upon, so much of what's in our hymnals these days is warmed over Christian radio-tunes, most of which won't be remembered five years from now.

Why do we do this to ourselves? I certainly agree that there is a constant need to make way for new talent. And I agree that people are particular about their musical tastes, and we should accomodate as many of these tastes as practical. And I agree that the music in our worship services should have a purpose more than just sounding good--which puts some serious constraints on what can be deemed appropriate, and which rules out many great works from regular use in worship services.

But why must the modern inheritors of these magnificent traditions throw out the old, many of which were works of absolute genius, and replace it with something so ephemeral (and so sappy, and cloying)? Don't they realize they aren't so much making their worship services more "relevant", but rather making their music as expendable and dated as the latest popular fad?

It almost seems as though we are in a competition to out-cool popular culture--we fear that if we aren't hip enough, we'll be rejected by today's sophisticated, savvy, urbane youth. Of course, the most un-cool thing in the world is an unsuccessful attempt to appear hip.

I wonder whether we wouldn't be better off providing an alternative: No, our music doesn't attempt to compete with the popular culture; it attempts to transcend popular culture. This is music intended to humble our minds, yet elevate our condition; to get us to think about the Big Things; to help us understand what Adoration is; to steel our will against temptation and doubt.

Music that accomplishes the above mission isn't likely to be hip, since hipness incorporates a certain amount of cynicism--but it may still be timeless. Biebl's music isn't hip, but it accomplishes exactly what it was written to do. And it's gorgeous too.

Why can't we have more like it?

(Sigh. Rant off.)

Roger Z said...

Tim- have you ever checked the dates on the music in our (I'm using the collective "our" here, not just my church) liturgy? Many of the songs we (and now I'm going back to the personal "we" here- if there is such a thing) dates from quite a ways back. I can't name them off the top of my head, but I know there are several songs both in the Catholic and Lutheran (half my family is ELCA) hymnals that are regularly used and date back as far as the 1600s. Oh, who knows, maybe they've changed the chords around. But it's not like the traditions have been utterly abandoned.

Besides... could you imagine your fellow parishoners trying to sing Handel? :o We have a hard enough time in the Catholic Church getting ANYONE to sing, I think the entire parish would run home screaming if they were forced to sing the Messiah! There's something to be said for recognizing the beauty of many of these masterpieces by letting them remain in our memories as beautiful.