There’s an old joke about how much the archaeologist’s wife liked being married to an archaeologist. The older she got, the more interesting he found her!
I tend to take a similar approach to music. I appreciate music that’s been recently composed, but I find that the history of a piece of music adds a depth to the emotion behind the composition.
At tomorrow night’s rehearsal, we’re going to be starting work on a piece of music by C.L. Talmadge. It’s a musical setting of a prayer written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. It was originally recited for private devotion at the elevation during the Mass (and was written in Latin at the time).
Very bread, good Shepherd, tend us
Jesu, of Thy love befriend us,
Thou refresh us, Thou defend us,
Thine eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see.
Thou who all things canst and knowest,
Who on earth such food bestowest,
Grant us with Thy Saints, though lowest,
Where the heavenly feast Thou shewest,
Fellow-heirs and guests to be. Amen.
We’re going to be singing this on the first Sunday of February, and I’ll talk more about the prayer itself as it gets closer to that Sunday. Tonight I’d like to discuss the music. Charles L. Talmadge wrote this anthem in 1971, but he wrote it in a motet style, which originates from hundreds of years ago. So I think now is as good a time as any to talk about the way way way beginnings of the church music we know and love today!
Back in the day, music happened in the church. The church was starting to see the influence that music could have on the soul, and as they tended to do, they decided they had to have a monopoly on that kind of thinking. And so, successful musicians worked for churches, wrote music for churches, and religious was one of the only ways to go as far as music went.
Some of the earliest written music from the “western culture” of music was Gregorian chant. If you’re a Catholic, chances are you’ve heard chanting in your service before. If you’re any kind of Protestant denomination, you may not have. If you haven’t: they have many of the same parts of the rituals we’re familiar with, only the leader sings certain parts in a monotone instead of speaking the words. The leader picks one note, one pitch, and centers their chanting/praying around that note and nearby notes. Parts of the Catholic and some Episcopalian services still retain chanting, only it’s evolved into what’s called “plainchant” or “plainsong”. An example that’s we’re all familiar with is O Come, O Come Emmanuel, which has its origins in plainchant from long ago.
At some point during the medieval period, people realized that some notes sounded good sung at the same time, so they started to harmonize the plainchant, and suddenly polyphony was born! And of course, the church had something to say about that. Since they couldn’t stop it, there were very strict rules that you had to obey, lest the congregation be unduly influenced by the power of music and get carried away. They even labelled a certain pair of notes “the Devil’s Interval”.
As this music and the harmonizations became more and more popular, the motet evolved from being primarily liturgical and sacred into a secular form of music, made its way out of the church setting, and soon took the form of a madrigal, which is a more familiar type of music to many people today. And this basic form that was established by motets serves as the template for which many older hymns were composed, and is the form which we recognize for traditional hymns today.
What I like about this anthem is that Talmadge took this prayer from the 13th century and wrote the music in a style that originates from the same medieval period. This kind of unity between words and music gives the piece authenticity, and helps us as a choir to paint an image that harkens back to Christians of long ago.
I think as modern Christians, sometimes we have a tenuous relationship with music from years past. Some say, “that kind of music won’t attract the young people,” and others say, “that music is old and boring,” and still others say “give me a melody! I just don’t know what I’m supposed to sing!” It’s sometimes easier to give in and go contemporary because there is some good music in the contemporary world as well. The problem is, the heritage that these hymns gives us connects us to generations and generations of Christians, and that importance should not be underestimated.
In my opinion, older hymns are like the works of Shakespeare and Dumas: there’s a reason that they have lasted hundreds of years– they’re good, the music is gorgeous and the message is theologically sound. The problem is that it doesn’t always mean they’re accessible to the congregation member, to the layperson who has no idea who St. Thomas Aquinas is, or to the non-musician who wants to sing and raise their voice in praise to their Lord.
If we ignore the historical importance of our hymnody, we lose an important connection to our Christian ancestry. But if we fail to acknowledge our audience, we may as well not even be singing at all. So the question becomes, how do we help congregation members connect to the history of our hymnody, and yet make sure that the music remains accessible to the untrained layperson?
I don’t have an answer to that. At any rate, I’m looking forward to working on this anthem with my choir. It’s a beautiful prayer, and the harmonies of the motet really let you sink your teeth into them. But mostly I pray that this offering of music is meaningful to just one member of the congregation, which is my prayer each and every Sunday. 🙂