Reflecting on “Matins”

I recently came across the notes for my pre-concert lecture at the 2003 Cantata Singers’ premiere of my work for oboe, string and chorus, Matins. Here are those notes, polished a bit, and followed by a program note for the piece. You can hear an excerpt from Matins here.


 

Tonight we will hear music by one of the greatest geniuses ever to grace the planet; I also have a piece on the program. Having made clear my understanding of the relationship between the two composers on the concert, I can be so bold as to talk about what we both have in common. We are both church musicians – Bach as the cantor of St. Thomas’s  church in Leipzig, composing hundreds of cantatas and other works for use in the liturgy; myself having at times worked at various churches, in Cleveland, in New York, and in Philadelphia, my current home. I have also had my music performed in a liturgical context at various churches where I was not a member of the music ministry, including Emmanuel Church here in Boston. Curiously, the efforts of both Bach and myself, however distant they may be from one another in their quality, are both underappreciated by our worshipping communities. Bach was not the first choice for the Leipzig job, the sense being that a less difficult composer would have been more to the community’s liking.  In my own case, while the motets I have written for Emmanuel have been warmly received, my own Roman Catholic denomination generally has little use for musical efforts that extend beyond a sort of pop/folk/broadway-ish idiom. There have been exceptions, like the work I composed for St. Jean Baptiste church in New York, but those are rare. Most of my church music consists of about 2 dozen or more works intended for congregational participation and amateur volunteer choir. I don’t mean to suggest that such songs are easy to write, or that they are beneath me – it is a challenge to do that kind of piece well. But it is a curious fact that my own worshipping community does not have a place for my best compositional efforts. And despite a few exceptional churches that prove the rule, you are more likely to hear a cantata by Bach in a concert hall than in a church these days, just as my own most high octane stuff is found either in a church not my own, or in a concert hall.

Despite the fact that this music, and these composers find themselves in the community of the concert hall, I want us to be wary about drawing too easy a parallel between a church and a “temple of Art” like Jordan Hall. When a church presents a Bach cantata, the music is at the service of the liturgy, meaning, at the service of the community at prayer. We form a sort of community here tonight, but it is obvious that we are not of one mind in our relationship to the spiritual. Furthermore, let us beware the idolatry that would suggest we are here to worship at the altar of music. It is a fine thing to value music, to live a life sensitive to this most evanescent of arts, but a musical experience should not be confused with a religious experience. Music can point the listener toward the divine; indeed, by its very nature, it seems the art best suited to do that. But it is not itself the divine.

Many centuries of cultural practice associates the spiritual with the choral medium. The voice is the ur-instrument, animated by the breath – the very word “respiration” echoes with the numinous. Tolkien speaks of God as having sung the Creation into being, and the Genesis account of creation speaks both of the spirit of God hovering over the waters, and of how God breathed the breath of life into the first human. Atmen gibt das leben is the title of a choral work by Stockhausen – breathing gives life. Besides the practical consequence of singing a sacred text together – a unanimity results that is not possible when a text is simply spoken – there is a sense of tapping into the divine when a community at prayer sings, and I think that sense springs from the breath, and the way that mindful breath (certainly the singers tonight will be mindful of their breaths) makes for an experience that is focussed on the present, giving us an experience of reality outside of the chaotic rush of clock time. Madeleine L’Engel has written of the difference between chronos – clock time, and kairos – God’s time – the God who is. In music, whether vocal or instrumental, we live in kairos. The vocal medium, with its direct reliance on the breath, seems to embody that reality most vividly.

The Bach cantatas we hear tonight are connected to the spiritual by virtue of their medium, but in a much more direct manner, they are connected to the spiritual through their liturgical origins. It is essential to remember that the cantatas are related to the cycle of Bible readings in the Lectionary, which is, in turn, structured by the cycles and seasons of the church year. For example, the first piece we hear tonight, Cantata 187, was written for the seventh Sunday after Trinity Sunday, a liturgy with a Gospel reading telling of Christ’s miraculous feeding of a crowd of 4,000 – the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Bach, referred to in David Hoose’s elegant program notes as the greatest preacher in music, explicates the sacred story in multiple ways through the remarkably varied expressive character for each of the cantata’s arias, even though they are all dealing with the theme of how God generously provides for us. For example, in 187, there are three arias – the alto aria, with its dancing quality, reflecting a joyful confidence in God’s gifts; a bass aria that sets Christ’s words from scripture in a direct and forceful manner, and a poignant soprano aria, with oboe obbligato, that questions whether God is to deny the singer that which he has promised to all. Note the contrasting dance-like music in this aria at the words “be gone, you worries”.

The second cantata to be heard tonight is on an enormous scale, divided, like 187, into two parts, but including some 14 musical numbers! The grandness of the conception bespeaks Bach’s ambitions near the beginning of his tenure in Leipzig, but also reflects the scripture readings for the day, the second Sunday after Trinity Sunday. For example, the tenor aria might strike us as bizarre, with its setting of the words “hate me, then, hate me with all your might” – but listen to the words of the first letter of John: “You must not be surprised, brothers, when the world hates you…” The gospel reading for the day is the parable of the wedding feast, where those who were originally invited do not attend, and instead the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame are invited in – of such folk is the kingdom of God. Again the theme is God’s lavish magnaminity. Surely the overwhelming abundance of the contrapuntal texture in the cantata’s opening chorus reflects this generosity. This is another means for Bach to explicate the scriptures of the day. Not only does he write music whose general expressive character reflects the readings, but uses musical word painting to reflect the text, creating musical images, whose physiognomy illustrates the text under consideration.

In my own piece, I was not working from a liturgical context, nor was there the additional background layer of scripture text, resonating behind the actual libretto that is sung. Rather, I simply chose two poems and tried to create a musical setting that would reflect their message. However, as I state in the program note, there is a kind of liturgical reference point for my piece – the very title, Matins, refers to one of the liturgical hours of the day – morning prayer. I was uncertain which of these two poems to set. Consulting with David Hoose, I found that he liked them both. I finally noticed how the dawn at the end of the Hopkins poem could lead into the beginning of the poem Matins, with the words “now we are awake”.

The first thing I set in the process of working on the piece was that phrase: now we are awake. It is interesting that I memorized the phrase incorrectly, and thought the Oliver poem began “And now we are awake” – which resulted in a melodic shape with an “extra” pitch at the beginning of the phrase. I did take out that first note when it came time to set the Oliver, but in the instrumental introduction for the piece, the oboe, sounding below high string chords, keeps that extra note. I like the “opening-out” quality of the gesture, which seemed to aptly reflect the words.

The first line of the Hopkins – very similar to the text beginning BWV 76’s opening choral psalm setting – I set with a gradually opening out texture for the chorus – from a single pitch to a full chord, and a contrapuntal texture for “it will flame out” . There is plenty of  word painting in my piece, such as the multiplicity of imitations on the phrase “generations have trod”. The phrase “why do me then now not reck his rod?” suggested a fugato texture to me, as though the different sections of the chorus were asking each other this perplexing question. I employ a darker harmonic idiom for the more troubled moments in the Hopkins text – note the dissonance at the passage about “man’s smudge” – perhaps the variety of harmonic idioms that I, like many of my colleagues, employ is the contemporary parallel of the variety of expressive characters employed by Bach, as mentioned earlier. There is a return to the musical material of the opening entry at the end of the poem, something that seemed to be musically demanded, rather than being a decision driven by the text. One of the few extended melismas in the piece occurs on the “ah” in “ah! bright wings”.

Trills and tremolos permeate the texture for the setting of the Oliver poem. It is as though the world, now come awake, is vibrating with life and joy and praise. A perfect example of word painting comes at the lines about how God has raised us up and lowered us – you will hear how the music ascends and descends at that moment. The threefold repetition of the closing phrase “that are the world” recalls the similar repetition at the end of the Hopkins, and the chords and oboe material from the introduction return at the end of the Oliver, with the chords fading away and oboe soloist left to finish the piece alone.

Though I do not use a Bachian format of choruses, recitatives and arias, there are some quasi baroque touches – the dotted rhythms in the Hopkins, the imitative textures, the use of the oboe as an obbligato instrument. I didn’t use the vocal soloists that David offered me, not for lack of interest in the resources the Cantata Singers could offer in that regard, but I think partly because the oboe became my soloist, a kind of vocalist beyond words – in the wrapt, ecstatic place that the Oliver text leaves us, I felt the oboe alone could round things off, and carry us outside the frame of the piece, full of praise and now truly, in mindfulness “awake”.

In her memoir The Virgin of Bennington, Kathleen Norris write of a poetry reading she once attended, talking about how unsatisfying the first part of the reading was, with a poet whose work came across as clever but shallow. The second poet on the program that evening was Denise Levertov. Norris writes: “By the time she finished one poem, I felt as I had been refreshed by a glass of cool water. To employ a phrase Betty sometimes used to explain why people go to poetry readings, it was the relief of hearing language again after so much verbiage. No clever surfaces here, but only words that mattered, words with authority. No longer did I feel merely a passsive witness to a poet’s vanity. Levertov brought the world in, and allowed me in as well, and the darkened auditorium became a sacred space, a place of prayer and meditation. She made me aware that a poetry reading could be an act of generosity to an audience, to which anyone might respond with the whole heart.”

Friends, I have used my modest gifts to make music and I offer it to you as an act of generosity. I made it for myself, I made it for this choir, this conductor, this oboist – but friends, I made it for you. If it is in you to give your heart to the music while it is sounding, to attend to the music with mindfulness – as Simone Weil remarked, perfect attention is prayer – then I will be deeply grateful. Thank you.


 

Matins                                                                     Program Note

The most familiar form of Christian worship is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the community gathers to break the bread that is God’s word, to bless the bread of remembrance, and to be the bread of life in Christ. It was for such gatherings that Bach’s cantatas were written. But there is another traditional component of the Christian life of prayer called the Liturgy of the Hours, through which the community seeks to saturate the very hours of the day with prayers of praise, thanksgiving and petition. Matins is the name given to Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Matins is also the name given by Mary Oliver to the closing section of her poem Her Grave, Again. This poetic sequence, memorializing a beloved dog, closes with a song of praise to the creator who permeates our world, who acts in it, and who has filled it with gifts by which we know his goodness. The text seems within itself to enact the praying of Morning Prayer, and fairly cries out for a choral setting. I chose to join Oliver’s text with a poem of Hopkins that similarly praises the God who is manifest in the creation. But in the Hopkins there is also a sense of our brokenness, of how the world is “bent”, expressed in images that prophetically resonate with our contemporary sense of impending ecological catastrophe. Still, Hopkins attests that renewal is possible, beautifully imaging God as a feminine, mothering presence. With this affirmation of God’s brooding presence at the close of the Hopkins, we can go on to joyfully sing Matins together.

My settings of these poems acknowledge the musical world of the Bach cantatas, sometimes using textures and rhythmic shapes that recall Bachian gestures. The concertante writing for the oboe, which acts as a kind of vocal soloist beyond words, also honors the role that the instrument plays in Bach.

I am deeply grateful to Peggy Pearson, David Hoose, and the Cantata Singers for the invitation to write this work. Knowing my music would be entrusted to artists capable of such passion and depth was a great blessing. I offer these settings that we might “make our songs for him as sweet as we can”, aware of how we sear the world with our trade, but grateful for the “bright wings” that enfold us.

-James Primosch

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