Music That Heals
We cannot think of a more fitting and beautiful way to close our first full season since the pandemic began in 2020 than with Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (1888), nor a better place to sing it than this church. After all the losses, loneliness, and disruption of the last three years, the glorious acoustics allow Fauré’s harmonies to keep shimmering in the air, tenderly wrapping us in healing beauty. Our other four pieces complement the requiem: Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere takes us out of ourselves and our failings into a resonant space of forgiveness. The young Fauré’s Cantique expresses a serene faith in God’s generous mercy. Joshua Shank’s alleluia (from quarantine) both creates a unified beauty out of many separate voices and uses music to provide actual physical healing to struggling musicians. And Stephen Paulus’s The Road Home reassures us that we can find our way back to wholeness even after loss and sorrow.
We begin with Miserere Mei, Deus, by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). Born in Rome, Allegri sang as a boy chorister, took holy orders as a priest, and in 1629 became a singer and a composer in the Chapel of Pope Urban VIII. Around 1638, he wrote his best-known work, this setting of Psalm 51. Scored for nine voices arranged in two choirs, this work took advantage of the unique acoustics of the Sistine Chapel. Settings of the Miserere had been part of Holy Week services at the Vatican for over 100 years, but Allegri’s quickly become a constant at Tenebrae services there. In fact, for many years, it was sung only in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week, with the Church allowing no copies to circulate until the late 18th century. As the two choirs sing alternating verses of the psalm, they ask forgiveness, contrasting worldly offerings with those of a contrite heart, before joining together at the end with renewed trust in God’s mercy.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), our featured composer, revealed his musical talent as a small child in rural southern France. Whenever he could get away from school, he would run to a nearby chapel to play on the harmonium, despite having no musical training. His father decided to educate him to become a church organist and choir director, so he enrolled nine-year-old Gabriel in a school in Paris that focused on intense training in religious music. There he met his most influential mentor, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), who taught advanced piano and encouraged him to compose. Saint-Saëns promoted Fauré as principal organist at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris and later helped him become director of the Paris Conservatory. As both a composer and teacher, Fauré served as a bridge from early 19th-century romanticism, through impressionism, to 20th-century modernism.
Fauré composed Cantique de Jean Racine at age nineteen, and it won first prize in a school competition. He dedicated the piece to César Franck, who conducted its first performance the following year. He chose a text by Jean Racine (1639-1699), one of France’s greatest playwrights, who published this translated setting of a matins hymn in 1688. Fauré named the piece after Racine rather than the Latin original because he preferred the elegant French text.
Our next work, alleluia (from quarantine), by Joshua Shank (b. 1980), offers a striking contrast to the serene simplicity of the Cantique. Instead of four gracefully overlapping but distinct vocal parts, Shank refracts the choir’s sound like light through a prism, with sometimes over a dozen vocal lines happening at once. Instead of carefully crafted rhymes, Shank’s text consists of a single word in different moods. He has said that the word alleluia expresses varied emotions, including “gratitude…but also the growth that can come from sadness and grief over things we’ve lost.” Choral Arts Ensemble has sung other imaginative and richly harmonic works by Shank, but this alleluia evolved in a unique way. Experiencing the isolation of the early pandemic and wanting to do something for those in even more desperate circumstances, Shank came up with the idea of crowd-sourcing a commission with small donations from choirs all over the country. The money would go not to him, however, but to an organization called Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a charity based in New York City that provides financial assistance to career musicians in need, especially for gigging musicians struggling to make ends meet. During the pandemic, the charity set up a new fund for musicians directly affected by Covid-19. Shank hoped to raise $7,000 but actually raised over $10,000, from choirs of all sizes (Choral Arts Ensemble among them) and all donated to Sweet Relief. (To learn more about this impressive organization, check out the website: www.sweetrelief.org.)
We close the first half with The Road Home, with music by the prolific Dr. Stephen Paulus (1949-2014) and words by poet Michael Dennis Browne (b. 1940), his long-time friend and collaborator. In 2001, the Dale Warland Singers commissioned Paulus to compose a folk-type arrangement for them. He began with a haunting tune he’d found titled “The Lone Wild Bird,” which itself had evolved from a Sacred Harp hymn published in The Southern Harmony Songbook in 1835. He found something universal in the simple tune, and so did Browne—a deep longing to find our way home after feeling lost. The words fell into place when Browne returned to his native England to spend time with his sister in her illness; for him the first notes even recalled the homesickness of “Loch Lomond.” As was their custom, composer and poet worked back and forth, paring and polishing this seemingly simple song to heal so many profound losses.
Fauré’s Requiem sounds and feels like no other. While most requiems focus dramatically on the “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath), depicting the end of the world on the Day of Judgment, his barely mentions it. Instead, the beatific final movement, “In Paradisum,” sets words that are not even in the requiem mass itself, but in the burial service, when the soul is at last free and in Paradise. Fauré was not especially religious, despite his eleven years of training in religious music and over twenty years as a church musician; his son described him as a religious skeptic. So, when he came to set the Catholic Mass for the Dead, he modified it to express his personal vision and what mattered most to him. As he told an interviewer, “My Requiem…is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.” He agreed with those who called the work “a lullaby of death,” because that was how he saw death – “as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.” He had played the organ for so many funeral services at the Madeleine that “I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.” While his requiem does invoke eternal rest for the dead, it really offers its most tender comfort to those left behind. Singing and listening to his requiem, we can let go of our fear, pain, and grief as the music gently enfolds us in healing and peace.