Konstantin N. Rega / Life / Music

The Heart of Sacred Choral Music

By Konstantin N. Rega

Having been raised hearing such works as Handel’s Messiah and Coronation Anthems and the absolutely ridiculous amount of different Mag & Nuc’s, I feel a special attachment and love for Choral Music. For over half my life I have sung in a church choir and for about six years I have played the pipe organ—as well as the piano for around eight. In this time, I have been exposed to numerous styles and a veritable panoply of composers (Howells, Stanford, Britten, Dyson, Ireland, Duruflé, Fauré, Bairstow, Purcell, Palestrina, Victoria, Rachmaninoff, Bruckner, etc.). However, Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre have made a notch in my heart that cannot go unspoken of!

In a day and age where such classical writing is not in vogue, it is amazing to see a re-awakening of interest in it. Eric Whitacre, the better known of the two, has made huge waves in, not only choral, but contemporary music in general. Although he is not strictly “Sacred” all the time, I think the definition of sacred in terms of being solely religious can be stretched to music that’s lyrics don’t specifically have words like, Holy, God, Jesus, Mary. There is fluidity, now, in the term that can be connotated as “Spiritual”, rather than “Religious”. Anyway… Whitacre’s mesmerizing use of anti-traditional harmonies finds space for dissonance where it was not previously wanted. My favorite pieces, and really the best exhibitions of his unique musical interpretations, are “Water Night” (1995), “Lux Aurumque” (2000), and “Sleep” (2000, and which is his most known and sung).

As a young boy, Mr. Whitacre actually wanted to be a rock star and played in his school marching band, instead of the chorus. He claims that, during his undergraduate years, singing Mozart’s Requiem inspired him to start composing. And now his Virtual Choir Projects receive millions of views on YouTube and have allowed thousands to participate in a wonderful collaboration of vocal brilliance. Listening to his music, there is an inherit spirituality.

Now, you do not have to be religious to feel the closeness of something bigger than one’s self; an immensity of time and space and connectivity all collide in the delicate sounds floating from throats of passionate singers. Music is something that that brings people together. It is a force to solidify and unite, a force that is beautiful and strange that births new experiences in our ears.

All three of the composition I have mentioned by Eric Whitacre have a design where the traditional melody, such as would be written in any Bach chorale, is unexpectedly allowed to be swallowed by the surrounding lines from the other parts (Alto, Tenor, Bass). Compared to such coevals as Ola Gjelio or John Rutter, there is a distinct neo-impressionism at work in his pieces. A staple of Whitacre’s compositions is the appearance of harmonies that build one note after another: as in “Water Night” where the line “darkens you” is a combination of a B-flat minor chord in the bass clef and a (tone cluster) chord of D-flat, E-flat, F, and G-flat in the treble clef. What an odd but singularly beautiful use of traditionally clashing notation. Now, other composers have done this, notably Michael McGlynn in “Incantations” from his Celtic Mass. However, Whitacre’s airy compositions shimmer about a space and are not paced like a sprinter going for a leprechaun’s pot of gold (regardless of how many rainbows sparkle about it). Eric Whitacre has taken a step towards beauty through daring to defy conventional constructions of choral music and through a clear love of sound.

Fellow musician and composer Morten Lauridsen is just as accomplished, but sticks with a less experimental fullness. As an aside, I found it fascinating that he has a shack on Waldron Island where he occasionally goes to compose on an upright piano (and one wonders how in the world it stays in tune!). Listening to him, I have come to love “Dirait-on” from Les Chansons des Roses (1993), “O Nata Lux” from Lux Aeterna (1997), and O Magnum Mysterium (1994, and which is his best-known work). As with Whitacre’s, each of these three compositions have a similar build and sound. Each have a clear melody, always mellifluous and pretty, delicate and powerful; yet, unlike his younger contemporary (whose “Water Night” goes into a 14-part divisi), Lauridsen does not blur it with an array of tonal colors from the other voice parts. Instead, he acts in a more traditionalist way and usually shares the melodic line with the other sections. So often, it is the sopranos who hog the tune, jealously guarding it from the altos, tenors, and basses.

Like English composer John Tavener, Morten Lauridsen seems to have a minimalist awareness. Take for instance Tavener’s homophonic work, “The Lamb”. There is a wonderful presence of silence and peace woven between the often haunting exchanges of melody and harmony that create a place of isolation simultaneously encompassed within a collective, communal space. “Dirait-on”, I think, also does this effectively. It does not crowd the listener as O Magnum Mysterium and relies on occasional stillness and silence to make a place where its music then burgeons and blooms. This sort of minimalism is not that of Philip Glass or John Cage. Lauridsen uses musical lines that are similar—dually creating a composition that does not move away from its initial start but also creating a sort of sequence or repetition of notes that feels expansive in its range. This is not unlike Samuel Barber’s famous and devastatingly expressive Agnus Dei (1967). The underlying beauty and sophistication here, is the evolution of when to load specific sections with notes and when not to.

At the heart of contemporary Sacred Choral Music is a desire to connect with someone, to something greater than ourselves, whether it be God or a community of music-lovers or with a deeper “self”. Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre are always in conversation with fellow composers, like John Rutter (who plays with and eschews traditional harmony, especially in pieces like Dormi Jesu) or Bob Chilcott (whose Jazz Mass blends loose jazz influences with classical composition), and they have thus created an intriguing niche through their similarities and distances to the rest of the genre. This inner being beats with a unique sound, a unique rhythm that can only translate as a beautiful experience into sound and self. At the heart of the heart of Sacred Choral Music, are Lauridsen and Whitacre weaving and tenderly articulating the marvels and potentials for music composition.


NOTE: Special thanks to: St. Michael’s Church, Bon Air; All Saints Church, Richmond; Douglas S. Freeman Chorus; St. Stephens Church, Canterbury.


About Konstantin

Born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Konstantin N. Rega studies British & American Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Kent in Canterbury, England. Rega has been published by The Claremont Review, Pointed Circle, Four Ties Lit Review, AOM, Minetta Review, Platform Review, Crack the Spine, Badlands Literary Journal, and has won the ZO Magazine Silver Prize for Poetry, and is currently a Review Assistant for Newfound. Rega also presents Jazz Jams on CSRfm 97.4.


Article by Konstantin N. Rega of Neo Modern Konstantine | The Black Lion is a humble interdisciplinary journal that values your voice. | Copyright Policy


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