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Review — Cappella Romana The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and Ensemble Organum: Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siecles

My copies of The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and the latest installment of Ensemble Organum’s Chant de l’Eglise de Rome arrived while I was traveling for Thanksgiving, and upon my return I was neck deep in finishing things up for the semester. Now that fall term of 2009/2010 is in the books, time to give these recordings its due attention.

My experience with a lot of the four-part Orthodox liturgical music that’s out there is that, frankly, it’s either terrible or plain mediocre. I have sometimes heard it said that Western ears are too used to harmony to like unison singing, so we have to add parts to chant melodies, and this attitude seems to be borne out in much of what we sing in our churches today. A lot of what I’ve encountered consists of Byzantine melodies harmonized very badly, as though somebody said suddenly, “Oh! I need a four-part arrangement of this hymn for tomorrow!”, proceeded to bang the melody out on some keyboard instruments, and wrote down whatever progression underneath it that was simplest and most tonal (and which also typically produced part-writing errors). A related problem is an overabundance, at least in some scenarios, of simplistic utility music. At the other end of the spectrum is really overblown, self-consciously polyphonic music — I can think of one example (which I decline to name) that seems to essentially ask the question, “What if Palestrina wrote a Divine Liturgy?” There are, of course, exceptions; Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music is very nice and singable, for example, and I’ve expressed my appreciation for Kurt Sander before.

I am very happy to add Peter Michaelides’ Divine Liturgy to the list of exceptions. Michaelides’ choral music is certainly prayerful, and while it is certainly not an exercise in compositional excess (like, say, Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy), neither is it so restrained as to simply be an unnecessary sheen over the text. The character of the music is evocative enough of the Byzantine tradition that it is identifiably Orthodox music; some of the melodies of Sakellarides are used as a jumping-off point, but then the medium of the mixed choir is used to its advantage, always sounding like a completion of, rather than an addition to, the melody. That is to say, the music actually needs the harmonies — the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the music are complementary rather than one being tacked on. The Cherubic Hymn of the setting is perfect example of this balance; the different voices intertwine and interlock beautifully but never gratuitously.

The recording strikes a very nice aural balance of clarity of text and resonance of the room, and it is a credit to Cappella Romana that they have the flexibility to sing this kind of choral music and the Byzantine repertoire as beautifully as they consistently do. One thing I am very appreciative of is that the setting is presented practically, as a real Divine Liturgy, with the Very Rev. Archpriest George A. Gray III singing the priest’s parts (including the Gospel reading) and Alexander Lingas chanting the Epistle. This is music that should be presented in a liturgical, rather than a concert, setting. As an additional “realistic” detail, parts of the setting are alternated between Greek, English and Arabic — both a nice touch and a nod towards the pastoral reality in many parishes. It is exactly because of this attention to liturgical authenticity, however, that Lingas speaking the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by himself, rather than these parts being said by the entire choir, comes off as a bit jarring.

It has been said that, in terms of how Orthodox liturgical music might develop in this country, what the Byzantine repertoire has to offer is a richness of melody, and what the Western idiom has to offer is a richness of harmony. Along these lines, while acknowledging that the Sakellarides material does not necessarily represent the best of what the Byzantine tradition has to offer, Michaelides’ music nonetheless suggests what could be a way forward. Rather than haphazardly forcing modal melodies into a tonal box with sloppy part writing that’s little more than a sop to “that guy” in the congregation who instinctively sings parallel thirds to everything, with the result sounding neither like good chant or good four part music, it is possible for these melodies to serve as a springboard into something more carefully crafted and more, dare I say it, iconographic in quality.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Ensemble Organum’s recording? Hang on for a second and I’ll explain.

Over the last twenty years, Ensemble Organum has put out a series of recordings of Western liturgical music off of manuscripts that represent the so-called “Old Roman” repertoire. I’m probably the wrong guy, at least at this stage of the game, to try to go into all the issues surrounding this music; suffice it to say that the liner notes of these recordings present this is as the older, pre-Gregorian chant repertoire of the Roman church.

Now, these recordings are, essentially, reconstructions of what they think the chants sounded like; knowing what notes the signs represent are only half the battle, of course, there are also the questions of rhythm, tuning, ornamentation, and overall vocal approach. Working with Lycourgos Angelopoulos, Ensemble Organum has taken the approach of interpreting these manuscripts more like Byzantine chant than Gregorian chant, complete with isokratema (drone) and very Greek ornamentation. Are they right? I don’t know — it sure sounds convincing enough. On the other hand, I can imagine that there is no shortage of counterarguments. Maybe something like this: how convenient for Byzantine psaltai that the Old Roman repertoire, which may or may not date from before the sixth century, sounds exactly the same as their music (which of course isn’t really Byzantine at all, but Ottoman, per the “narrative of decline” which I’ve discussed earlier). I’m not a musicologist, so I can’t really argue one way or the other for Ensemble Organum’s performance practice, but I do think that seeing the diversity of liturgical practice within the context of a unified Roman Christian identity is a fascinating idea.

What I can say is that these recordings sound really beautiful. For that reason alone, whatever their musicological merit might be, I find them quite compelling.

The latest in the series is hymnody from Christmas; the Vigil Mass, the Midnight Mass, the Mass at dawn, and the Mass of the day itself. If you’re used to the Gregorian repertoire, something like “Puer natus est nobis,” the introit for the Mass of Christmas day, is going to be quite foreign to you. It’s over twice as long as presented by EO (almost six minutes, as opposed to the two and a half minutes the Gregorian version typically takes), it’s a much more elaborate melody, it’s in a different mode, and the earthy, rich Byzantine approach is very different from the austerity employed by the typical Gregorian schola.

I suppose the value of a recording like this is that it gets people thinking differently about the context in which the Gregorian repertoire emerged and what that might imply for how it should be approached. It also suggests a way we might aurally frame the united Christendom of the Roman world, and how could have been both alike and different from the modern received chant traditions inherited from that world.

In the case of both of these recordings — told you I’d get to this eventually — you have a suggested musical ethos that draws from both the Christian East and West. Michaelides uses Western harmonic vocabulary to elaborate Eastern melodies and does so in a way that creates something new; Ensemble Organum uses Eastern stylistic practice to interpret Western melodies in order to suggest something very old.

These recordings share a common problem, too — essentially, what is the impact either of these recordings could potentially have on modern parish practice? Is there a Catholic church out there that is going to be rushing out to incorporate the Old Roman repertoire in their Christmas festivities? Despite Cappella Romana’s presentation of the Michaelides setting as music for practical use in worship rather than as a concert piece, is it likely to find a place in a church culture that sees the Liturgy as a sing-along and defines “participation” as “everybody sings everything”? Are people going to hear the recording and say, “Wow, our choir should sing this!” or are they going to say, “Boy, that sounds like it would be too hard for the congregation to be able to sing along with.” One thing about bad part-writing that caters to parts people are improvising anyway — it makes congregational singing very easy, if that’s the goal.

At any rate, I would love for the answer for both recordings to be “yes”. I would love to think that this kind of music could find a place in the venue for which it was written, the church, and not be treated as concert pieces best appreciated at arm’s length. I would love for Catholic and Orthodox churches to be striving for musical excellence, and to be incorporating music like this as a way to pursue that excellence. Time will tell.

In any case, both recordings would make excellent stocking stuffers, and consider them recommended.

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1 Response to “Review — Cappella Romana <i>The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides</i> and Ensemble Organum: <i>Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siecles</i>”



  1. 1 Some last-minute gift ideas… « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 22 December 2011 at 3:41 pm

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