The starkness and purity of Gregorian chant continues to inspire musicians. A number of 20th-century French composers based choral compositions on plainchant – liturgical texts set to melodies sung in unison. Sacrum Convivium, the new recording from Jaan-Eik Tulve’s Estonian choral ensemble Vox Clamantis, mingles such works by Maurice Duruflé, Francis Poulenc, and Olivier Messiaen with original plainchant. The contrast and commingling sets the modern composers’ creativity in high relief.
The album opens with Duruflé’s Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens. Here the composer built rich, multilayered choral pieces around lines of plainchant. The ancient melodies introduce each motet, then wind amid the harmonies.
Before moving on to the next 20th-century composer, the album pulls back with 14th-century composer Guillaume de Machaut’s “Lai de Nostre Dame,” a kind of religious retort to the bawdy songs of the trouvère tradition. Sung by a solo female voice, it creates a spaciousness at the center of the album.
Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938–39) abruptly collapses that lightweight hollow sound with forceful harmony. The funereal “Tenebræ factæ sunt,” for example, evokes Jesus’ crucifixion with especial darkness. But dividing Poulenc’s four pieces are corresponding movements of plainchant, sung here by male or female voices or by both in parallel octaves. As with the Duruflé motets, but in a different way, juxtaposition of the original plainchant with modern music inspired by Gregorian chant gives valuable perspective to both.
The album closes with Messiaen’s “O sacrum convivium,” a setting of text attributed to Thomas Aquinas. The ghostly harmonies mark it as quintessential Messiaen and leave the listener with a mix of calm quiet and a sense of something not quite resolved.
Klára Jirsová’s liner notes point to “the idea that the essence of Gregorian chant can reach beyond its stylistic boundaries and blend freely with the music of modern times and other cultures.” Anyone who visited dance clubs during the 1990s knows that quite well. The notes also explain the religious significance of the texts. But Sacrum Convivium can be enjoyed equally well whether in a spiritual frame of mind or purely for the beautiful music. The album is available now.
For choral music of a more firmly modern bent, also on themes we can broadly call spiritual, have a listen to The Crossing‘s superb recording of the oratorio Zealot Canticles by Lansing McLoskey. McLoskey has set selections from the poetry and prose of Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka to challenging yet accessible music of substantial beauty and fascination in this “oratorio for tolerance.”
The music mirrors the words in ways Bach would have approved. Sopranos and woodwinds almost shriek as the poet describes “the vampire acolyte” “[p]erched on church steeple, cupola, minaret.” A sense of height, airiness, and whistling wind devolves to darkness as the final lines evoke hell. A baritone soloist intones a passage about the poet’s lapsed Christianity over insistent arpeggios from the cello; after a pause, Soyinka quotes Langston Hughes: “There is no lavender word for ‘lynch’.” On that final chilling word the singer jumps to a note far above his usual range, suggesting both hanging and loss of manhood.
There’s nothing peaceful about the dissonances with which the chorus sings of “the Heights/Of peace” in a poem about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The same poem envisions an Islamic cleric in Egypt swearing “he’ll keep the streets clean/Of the unclean,” but there’s nothing neat and no solace in the persistent dissonance.
A soprano almost spits the words “the spattered graffiti of blood on the walls” from a Soyinka speech. The full chorus expectorates similarly at “The Dog in Dogma,” which skewers each religion equally. You can feel the itch of “that infernal pod” the werepe; the sting in “I Shall Place Nettles on My Tongue”; and the “kiss of death” of the ratsbane. Three striking movements center on irritants and poisons as the poet seeks to “sear the tyrant’s power.”
The composer’s thoughtfully chosen selections of text, many from Soyinka’s Twelve Canticles for a Zealot, weave a web of condemnation of both religious and political zealotry – the “face of Power in whatever guise.” The most chilling movement may be “I Am Right, You Are Dead.” Here for six minutes a lone baritone intones “I am right, you are wrong. I am right, you are dead” as the women’s chorus quietly tries to slip in a word.
The composer’s wide range is evident in the monumental “Seek Havens of Peace” with its jazzy clarinet, the Handelian “I’ll Drop Some Ratsbane on My Tongue” with its “spout of bile” and stuttering, and “Where Are All the Flowers Gone?” with its eerie five-note motif.
Zealot Canticles, as advertised, shines a glaring light on the “thin line between devotion and intolerance, zealotry and radicalism.” It’s also a tremendous demonstration of music’s power to unite eras and peoples in light of what Soyinka described in a 2013 lecture as “the latest, smirking, unctuous face of Power.” McLoskey tells us in his liner notes that he composed the final movement, which includes those words, as the 2016 U.S. election took place and hate crimes surged. As I write these words, yet another mass murder has taken place in the Land of the Free, this one at a southern California bar. Music can’t stop violence and hate. But it offers incentive to resist and counteract them with art and humanity.
The monks retreated behind stone walls to chant their devotions. McLoskey stands in the agora with his. This work, and this performance, deserve a wide hearing. Zealot Canticles is available now.