Performing Sacred Music in Liturgical Context

Warren Stewart

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The performance of sacred works within a re-construction of a contemporaneous liturgical context has been a feature of Magnificat’s concert series since our first season in 1992 with our performances of Schütz’s Weinachtshistorie (Christmas Story) in collaboration with the San Francisco Early Music Society, which we will be performing this season, in another co-production with SFEMS, on the weekend of Dec. 16-18 2011. Since then, Magnificat has performed over two dozen programs based on reconstructions of historical liturgies. It has almost become an “article of faith”, reinforced by comments from members of our audience and the musicians who have contributed their talents to these performances, that the experience of the work, whether a setting of the mass by Gabrieli, vespers music of Cozzolani, or a Lutheran liturgy with the inclusion of the audience as the “congregation in the singing of chorales, is enhanced by the accompanying liturgical texts and additional music that the composer took for granted when conceiving the work.

My personal interest in placing sacred music in the context of liturgy stems from an experience in the early 80s, while studying baroque cello at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland.  I Was thrilled to get the opportunity to play continuo for a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion at a lovely church in the Schwarzwald. There are few assignments for a baroque cellist that can compare with being in the middle of this consummate masterpiece and I set about studying the work in preparation for the project. I was just learning German at the time and I struggled to stay afloat in the rehearsals with the help of an expat colleague who sat near me in the orchestra. I eagerly looked forward to the performance but I was a bit perplexed at first by by the fact that it was scheduled for 3:00 pm on a Friday afternoon.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that, of course, Bach’s work was to be performed as part of the Good Friday liturgy. More than just the unusual timing made sense to me that afternoon. Anyone who has played or attended a concert performance of the St. John Passion is struck by the imbalance of the two sections of the work – so counter to the accepted wisdom of good programming. The first half is always longer than the second and the intermission arrives uncomfortably early in the program. This, of course, is not an issue in the liturgy for which the piece was intended.

Once the liturgy made its way through Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, prayer, and epistle, I remember a certain satisfaction in hearing the congregation singing a chorale that would later appear within Bach’s Passion setting. The balance and integration of the full experience left me convinced that Bach, the great master, knew what he was doing – he wrote his Passion with a specific liturgical context in mind and never even considered the possibility that it might be performed in a concert hall, divorced from that liturgy.

I considered other great musical works that set liturgical texts and became intrigued by the notion of performing them in their original liturgical context, albeit in a concert, rather than an actual liturgy. I first had a chance to try this out in Magnificat’s first season in performances of Schütz’Weinachtshistorie, and found that the experience of reconstructing the liturgy for a mid-century Dresden Christmas Vespers was immensely challenging and rewarding. The overwhelmingly positive response of the audiences at those concerts convinced me that this was an approach worth pursuing that fit perfectly with Magnficat’s emphasis on the historical and social context of the music we were exploring and performing.

Over the two decades since that first experiment, I have had many opportunities to offer audiences the chance to hear great works of sacred music surrounded by chanted texts, chorales, and service music that would have adorned the music originally. Each project has presented a different musical-historical puzzle through which I have learned a great deal about the aesthetics and culture of the music I programmed – knowledge that has enriched the experience for performers and audiences alike.

As I have researched and constructed these programs over the years, the polyglot stylistic brew that inevitably results from a liturgical reconstruction has sometimes felt like cheating. After all, the Roman liturgies had a millennium of gestation before the composers of the 17th century applied their talents to its elaboration. The architecture provided by the liturgy almost guaranteed a balanced and coherent concert program. Additionally, the 16th and 17th centuries saw a remarkable revitalization of the ancient structures as a result of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the integration of new musical styles. The genius and inspiration of many of the finest musicians of the period were devoted to the elaboration of liturgy – and not just the mass ordinary or the festal psalms and Magnificat of Vespers.

Important scholarship by Jerome Roche, Robert Kendrick, Jeffrey Kurtzman and many others has demonstrated that sacred music in the 17th Century was not merely reactive – incorporating stylistic developments from the world of sacred music – but was an equally innovative and vibrant sphere of musical composition in its own right. The exquisite motets of Monteverdi or Cozzolani and the many cycles of instrumental sonatas and organ versets, intended as substitutions for vespers antiphons or mass propers as well as private devotional situations, demonstrate the same vibrance and experimentation that makes the secular music of the 17th Century so compelling.

A liturgical reconstruction does alter the traditional, largely 19th Century, norms of concert protocol – and this is no doubt what new audiences notice first. Most obviously – no intermission and no applause until the end. This is rough on performers, as it eliminates the most obvious interaction between them and the audience. On the other hand, the intensity that results from the unbroken attention and the inexorable flow of the liturgy creates an atmosphere that is in some way more intense than formalized clapping and bowing. (For me, the sound of a hundred of pages turning in unison – an indication that many in the audience are intently following the translations – is more than adequate compensation for the absent applause!)

Magnificat’s liturgical reconstructions will never be like my experience in the Schwarzwald church two decades ago – there is no pretense that these programs are anything but concerts. However, they have given the musicians and audiences a very special sonic taste of those who first participated in and listened to so many of the great works of sacred music.

The background image is Albrecht Dürer’s altarpiece for the Wittenberg Castle, commissioned by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony in 1496, now in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

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