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Choral Arts Society sings Castaldo’s ‘Ancient Liturgy’BY: Tom Purdom 03.16.2010
Can the rituals of an obsolete religion teach us anything about the relationship between music and the classic Western religious texts?
Choral Arts Society: Harvey, Come Holy Ghost; Castaldo, Ancient Liturgy (Nicholas Muni, narrator); Part, Te Deum; Whitacre, Cloudburst. Matthew Glandorf, conductor. March 14, 2010 at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 38th and Chestnut. (215) 240-6417 or www.choralarts.com.
Beyond religion, beyond languageTOM PURDOM
Why do we respond to religious music even if we don’t believe in the religion itself? Do we applaud great choral works like Bach’s Mass in B Minor or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis merely because we value their musical qualities?
The Choral Arts Society conducted an interesting experiment this week when it scheduled Joseph Castaldo’s Ancient Liturgy. Castaldo’s 1990 work recreates the liturgy of a religion that everyone in the audience can contemplate with undiluted emotional detachment: the pre-Christian Roman mystery cult of Mithraism.
As the Haverford College Professor Anne McGuire explained in her fascinating pre-concert lecture, Mithraism conformed to Aristotle’s dictate that people participated in mystery cults not to learn but “to experience and be changed.” The Mithran liturgy led devotees through several planes of existence until they finally encountered the ultimate god, Mithra, and experienced a rebirth. The liturgy sought to achieve a direct contact with the aspect of life McGuire called “the Divine.”
To me, that’s the common aim that runs through all religions and unites them with the arts. At the heart of our existence is a fundamental mystery. We dress it in different costumes and give it names like Zeus, Jehovah, the Life Force, the Divine, the Flow of Life, the All-Seeing and the Guiding Light. But we’re essentially responding to a feeling that the mere fact that the universe exists is mysterious and sacred.
Made-up Greek words
Dr. McGuire touched on an aspect of the Mithran liturgy that may explain one reason why music can overcome our objections to the literal meaning of a religious text. One of the key elements in the Mithran liturgy was the use of made-up words such as pitetmi meo enarth, composed of Greek vowels and consonants. As she explained, the experience of the Divine is supposed to transcend language.
Castaldo incorporates long strings of those artificial words in the choral text of Ancient Liturgy, but you can also argue that a powerful musical setting serves the same function all by itself. The great choral works can take us beyond the surface trappings of a particular religion because music is a series of sounds without words— a language without specific referents that colors the words with a more universal significance.
Ancient Liturgy is scored for narrator, chorus, strings, piano, and percussion instruments. The narrator guides the audience through the levels and explains their meaning, just like a priest leading a service.
Castaldo’s music should be judged primarily by the effect it creates, and in that area it’s an overwhelming success. But his score also contains great contrapuntal writing and some surprising twists. It’s never obvious, even when he’s creating a quietly mysterious mood in the beginning. The final encounter with Mithra is a shattering cacophony that mixes speech and music.
Most experienced concertgoers will perceive an obvious connection between the made-up Greek words in Castaldo’s text and the use of an archaic language in the Latin mass. The Choral Arts music director, Matthew Glandorf, underlined this link by placing Ancient Liturgy between two modern settings of traditional Latin texts.
High, hollow women’s voices
British composer John Harvey starts his setting of Veni Creator Spiritus (“Come Holy Christ”) with a traditional Gregorian chant, but it shifts to something much more complex, with unexpected developments like the high, hollow women’s voices that hover over an early passage.
Estonian composer Arvo Part stuck with Gregorian chant for most of his setting of the Te Deum, but you could hear unusual chords and sonorities in the choral part, and the chorus was accompanied by a prepared piano, a pre-recorded wind harp that added a persistent drone, and unpredictable string writing that ranged from the ultra-high passages favored by Shostakovich to sonorities reminiscent of period instruments.
Part’s composition is a major work that would be the pièce de résistance in most concerts. In this program, it was just the third entry in a parade of major works.
The program’s final item set a Spanish text, so it transcended language only for those of us who adhere to the monolingual traditions of American culture. Cloudburst is a popular work by Eric Whitacre, a highly successful contemporary choral composer. Whitacre calls it “a ceremony, a celebration of the unleashed kinetic energy in all things.” It ended the concert with an outbreak of handclapping and cowbells saluting, appropriately, one of the commonest wonders of the natural world.
The Choral Arts Society dedicated this concert to the memory of its founder, Sean Deibler, who commissioned Ancient Liturgy for his other choral organization, the Music Group. It was a perfectly conceived, beautifully executed tribute to a musician whose contributions to our musical life incorporated the same mix of high-spirited novelty and deep respect for tradition.♦
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