Music that's food for the soul,... and the ear

Raise your hand if you really enjoy listening to the music on the National Public Radio show Hearts of Space. To those who raised their hands, bless you, but you may not enjoy this article. If you didn’t raise your hand, I agree with you, that music puts me to sleep. In general such music is typically intended to relax the mind and aid in meditation. In order to not be distracting such music typically is of slow tempo and evolves slowly. As such this music is not really intended for listening enjoyment, but as an adjunct to meditation, massage or other relaxation exercise. Personally when it comes to listening to it, it bores me out of my mind.

As a trained musician used to music with greater dramatic content new age music provides a less than satisfying listening experience. Yet it seems that such music has found a home among those who profess new spirituality. My intent with this article is to bring your attention to music that has spiritual content and intent that does provide a satisfying listening experience for me. The two works I have in mind are works for choir, one of which uses a piano for accompaniment. Both are readily available on Youtube, so I’ll refer to some of the better performances I’ve found there. The two pieces I’m going to suggest are; Ubi Caritas, by Maurice Durufle, and Sure on this Shining Night, by Morten Lauridsen.

First I need to say that I understand some may shy away from choral music due to a very personal experience with religion. Choral music is a communal expression of the human voice and because of its effectiveness it has found wide use by organized religion. However, in our modern world there are many excellent secular choirs, yet still they often sing music composed for religious occasions. There are some contemporary choral composers who write music that avoids specifically religious themes (Eric Whitacre), but I intend to bring your attention to wonderful music that touches on universal themes that is both secular and religious. The Durufle work was composed for use in the Catholic Church and the Lauridsen piece was not.

I’ll start with Sure on this Shining Night. Morten Lauridsen is a living composer who teaches at USC. The text was written by James Agee and was included in the collection of poems titled A Death in the Family. The first link is to the text. The second link is to an excellent performance by the University of Utah Singers. I love everything about this piece.

The imagery of the text uses meaningful words that touch upon universal themes without offering any specific meaning. I don’t know what “Sure on this Shining Night of star made shadows round, Kindness must watch for me this side the ground” means but the meaning of the last four words is an obvious reference to mortality. Yet my heart finds meaning in the words “shining night” and “kindness” If a “late year lies down the north” that strikes me as an obvious autumnal reference. Perhaps the next phrase regards a personal vision of eternal life? “All is healed, all is health, high summer holds the earth hearts all whole. The next phrase, “Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand'ring far alone,” seems to bring us back to human life on earth yet the final line, “Of shadows on the stars,” takes us back to eternity yet touched by human experience.

The University of Utah Singers do an outstanding job with this difficult piece. There are many videos of this piece on Youtube, I consider this one of the best. Also a free MP3 is available of this recording on iTunes University.

Maurice Durufle didn’t compose a lot of music, but that which he left us is exquisite. This piece, Ubi Caritas Et Amor, was composed in 1960 and is a challenging piece for any choir. The Latin text essentially states that, Where charity and love are found so will God (be found). We should rejoice that our love of Christ brings us together. Let us love and respect God and let us love one another sincerely. The melodic and harmonic language of this piece is quite sophisticated, but it is also sincere and accessible. I like listening to music sung in Latin (because I only get snippets of understanding of it). It helps to see a translation, yet they tend to vary somewhat. This piece was composed before Vatican II and the Latin text was appropriate for use in the Catholic Church at the time.

The phrasing in these two recordings is quite different. The Cambridge Singers do not pause with each phrase (per the included music notation in the video), but the other choir (unidentified) does. One is not necessarily better than the other, they are simply different. I’ll let the reader choose which they prefer. The introduction by a boy soprano of the first part of the melody in the first video is not something in the actual musical score, but this is often done to let the listener know that the piece itself is based on plainsong (Catholic liturgical chant).
(latter by the Cambridge Singers)

I find both pieces deeply moving spiritually and emotionally. The inspirational sources of the two are very different and yet both find ways to touch the heart. There may be some reading this that may shy away from choral music because of personal religious experience. I do hope any such readers will take the plunge and listen to these pieces for what they are, spiritual expressions of divinity wonderfully performed.

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