Modernised chant

In a previous post I noted that this week we use a John Bell tune to sing Canticle 9 from Isaiah with the children. (The canticles sometimes replace or appear with the psalm set in the lectionary.)

Anyone at all is welcome to join us to help us lead the Hallelujah for evermore response.

This is certainly an example of a modernised chant – an old song to a new setting, in this case accompanied by ukulele: but it was not the primary motivation for this post.

Just for interest…

Take himIn fact the author had not intended to post this week, let alone  refer to the next concert, this Sunday afternoon with The Oriana Chorale, 5 pm at Wesley, to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK.

The program notes, however, are notable for frequent commentary on how this contemporary reflective music draws heavily on the chant tradition, including Gregorian themes, style and literature.

Just for those who might be interested in this thread in a broader musical context, therefore, the notes are appended.

Conductor David MacKay writes:

This is a concert of reflective and philosophical music. Despite the common theme of each of the works on the program, each composer represents some of the best of three quite different musical traditions. And so, although it may not seem so on the surface, it is as much a concert of contrasts as it is a concert on a unifying theme. Underpinning it all is each composer’s engagement with melody and rhythm and, in particular, the centuries-old tradition of chant singing.

We begin with Morten Lauridsen’s ‘Lux Aeterna’ for choir and organ. Originally written for the 120-voice Los Angeles Master Chorale, its long and demanding vocal lines can present a challenge for a much smaller ensemble! The work’s texts are taken from several Latin sources (including the Requiem mass), each referring to Light, which Lauridsen describes as a “universal symbol of hope, reassurance, goodness, and illumination at all levels”.

Lauridsen’s musical language is highly accessible, based as it is in the strong foundations of Western tonality. But it is deceptively simple, and rewards close study for both performers and audience. In reviewing Oriana’s 2010 performance of Lauridsen’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’, Jennifer Gall wrote in the ‘Canberra Times’ of having been “ambushed by the composer’s skill”. I have enormous regard for composers who are able to write so skilfully in this way, and there are several moments of potential emotional ambush waiting for you in the ‘Lux Aeterna’.

Paul Salamunovich, the conductor of the LA Master Chorale, considers Lux Aeterna to be one long chant. Lauridsen says “[this] did not happen by accident—I was writing for one of the world’s foremost experts not only on Gregorian chant but of Renaissance music in general—and while I do not incorporate an overt reference to the single-line chant anywhere in the piece, the conjunct and flowing melodic lines contributing to the work’s overall lyricism … certainly have their underpinnings in the chant literature.”


Herbert Howells’ ‘Rhapsody for Organ No. 3’, written one night in March, 1918, is a testament to the profound impact that the events of World War I had on the young composer. Of this work the organist Gillian Weir (a student of Howells’) writes: “Howells … wrote the Rhapsody No 3 during an air raid, which has given it great dramatic tension and force. Every note of it means something; it has beautiful lines, and an inevitability about it.”


In 1935, Herbert Howells’s nine-year-old son Michael contracted polio during a family holiday. Three days later, in London, he died. It was an event that coloured Howells’ musical output for the rest of his life. At the suggestion of his daughter, Ursula, he expressed some of his grief at Michael’s death through music, writing at that time much of what eventually became his ‘Hymnus Paradisi’. Twenty-eight years later, commissioned to write a work for the memorial service for President John F Kennedy, Howells returned to the text that he had used as an epigraph on the ‘Hymnus Paradisi’ — Helen Waddell’s extraordinary translation of Prudentius’ fourth-century ‘Hymnus circa Exsequias Defuncti’. The resulting work, ‘Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing’ is both a public statement of grief at the death of a statesman, and a deeply felt personal response to the death of Howells’s son.

Howells’s writing, although again not directly referencing Gregorian chant, and steeped though it is in his distinctive, plangent harmonic language, still demonstrates remarkable fluidity and flexibility, and in this way reflects the same focus on melody as the later work by Lauridsen, and Duruflé’s earlier ‘Requiem’.


On the subject of Duruflé’s ‘Requiem’ Mass, who better to hear from than the composer himself? Duruflé wrote of this work:

“The Requiem is composed entirely on the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead. Sometimes the musical text has been respected in full, the orchestra intervening only to sustain or comment on it; sometimes I was simply inspired by it or sometimes removed myself from it altogether. … Generally speaking, I tried to get the particular style of the Gregorian themes firmly set in my mind.

“I also endeavoured to reconcile as much as possible the Gregorian rhythm, as has been established by the Benedictines of Solesmes, with the demands of modern metrical notation. The rigidness of the latter, with its strong beats and weak beats recurring at regular intervals, is hardly compatible with the variety and fluidity of the Gregorian line, which is only a succession of rises and falls.

“The strong beats had to lose their dominant character in order to take on the same intensity as the weak beats in such a way that the rhythmic Gregorian accent or the tonic Latin accent could be placed freely on any beat of our modern tempo.

“This Requiem is not an ethereal work which sings of detachment from earthly worries. It reflects, in the immutable form of the Christian prayer, the agony of man faced with the mystery of his ultimate end. It is often dramatic, or filled with resignation, or hope or terror; just as the words of the Scripture themselves….. It tends to translate human feelings before their terrifying, unexplainable, or consoling destiny.”

Duruflé’s writing gives the impression to the listener of effortless sinuousness, as if a single line of chant has been extended and developed into four-part harmony almost without external intervention. It is, however, delicately and intricately constructed, with immense thought having gone into each note of melody and each syllable of the text. It traces a wide emotional arc, before ending with one of the most ineffable depictions of eternity in the choral repertoire. Unlike the optimistic certainty of Fauré’s ‘In Paradisum’, or the final redemption of the ‘Lux Aeterna’ of Mozart’s ‘Requiem’, Duruflé ends on an unresolved chord of great complexity, leaving an aural canvas onto which each listener must project their own conclusions and beliefs.

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