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St. Bart’s Festival of Sacred Music and Some Thoughts on Art-Music for Liturgy

August 24, 2011 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

SoundWalk 2011: October 1st

St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City offers a marvelous Festival of Sacred Music at liturgy during the summer months. The Sunday my wife and I were there, the choir sang music by Tomàs Luis da Victoria, genius of the golden age of Spanish polyphony. His motet and Missa O Quam Gloriosum, plus the gorgeous Vidi Speciosam were offered in observance of his 400th anniversary year.

These cellphone videos were made during the final rehearsal before liturgy.

The works were presented liturgically. The mass ordinary was sung, minus the Kyrie and Benedictus, in their proper places. The Agnus Dei was sung as the communion procession began. The choir received communion, then sang the communion motet in it’s entirety.


For those familiar with common-practice in the current Roman-Catholic tradition, I make the following observations: the entire liturgy lasted one hour and 4 minutes including announcements but not the postlude. In addition to complete organ prelude and postlude, all hymns were sung in their entirety, regardless of whether a simultaneous liturgical motion had finished. The homily was easily 20 minutes, thoughtful, and contemporary. The service was sublime. The music was inclusive and offered opportunities to enter into a mode of feeling and expression that words cannot adequately convey- hence the liturgical role of music.

What a shockingly different liturgical experience from that afforded by most contemporary church music where the notes serve as delivery devices for text. I liken it to cough syrup, as though music were the sweet cherry-suspension for medicinal lyrics.

Don’t confuse the style of the music for its substance! My point is that any style of authentic liturgical music better serves the liturgy when the art is served. Musical beauty reveals its own truths. Music’s ephemeral and transitory nature is a symbol for our earthly lives. Are we trying to cultivate lives that are loving, compassionate, and worthy of Creation, or trite, kitschy, manipulative ones?

There is plenty of music that strives to transcend. Whether Victoria or Arvo Part, shape-note or spirituals, jazz or folk-traditions of the world, choosing inspired and authentic music requires personal, financial, and corporate sacrifices be made to present it. Such music is a manifestation of a community’s spirituality. It doesn’t matter if the musician’s fail. Art, like life, is demanding and the process for both is refined over a lifetime. If this is the spirit in which the music ministers practice their art, I believe the liturgy is served.

Granted, St. Bart’s is on Park Avenue in New York City and historically can afford a vibrant music ministry. However, it is really more about values than wealth. Liturgical music serves best when it is nurtured and faithful to its unique tradition and aesthetic.

From Wikipedia:
Tomás Luis de Victoria, sometimes Italianised as da Vittoria (1548 – 27 August 1611), was the most famous composer of the 16th century in Spain, and one of the most important composers of the Counter-Reformation, along with Giovanni da Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso. Victoria was not only a composer, but also an accomplished organist and singer. However, he preferred the life of a composer to that of a performer. He is sometimes known as the “Spanish Palestrina” because he may have been taught by Palestrina.

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