Reflecting Catholicism… in music?

It’s 20 days until the off-book rehearsal, and I’ve almost got the large chorus first movement portions of the MacMillan St. John’s Passion memorized, including that nasty tone cluster part for the movement-concluding reflection.  It was in that reflection that I gained yet new appreciation for the composer’s ingenuity as I uncovered more hidden gems.

The Latin text of this first movement (or at least its translation) is familiar to any Catholic.

Accipite, comedite:
Hoc est enim Corpus meum quod pro vobis tradetur.
Accipite et bibite ex eo omnes:
Hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.
Hoc facite in meam commemorationem

Which translates to what even the least faithful Catholic will recognize from going to Mass: “Take this, and eat it — this is my Body.  Take this, and drink, this is my Blood, of the new and everlasting Covenant, shed for you and all sinners.  Do this in memory of me.”

For the non-Catholics, some background.  The transubstantiation mystery, a.k.a. the celebration of the Eucharist, is pretty much the whole point of the Mass, and one of the central tenets of Catholicism.  How can one treat this epic event musically?

Ta da — we have the tone cluster.  Each individual part in the diviso, starting with the low basses and up to Soprano 1, sings each successive syllable of the “take this and eat it” or “take this and drink it” text, and sings it one half-step higher.  In the end it’s the equivalent of mashing your face on the piano keyboard.  The effect is mysterious and spooky, like when John Williams asks the chorus to do it at the beginning of his Close Encounters of the Third Kind score.  Then we all sing the same melody, if you could call it that, except we’re each singing it from our base starting note.  This is like rolling your face around on a keyboard… or perhaps picking it up and mashing it down in a very set pattern.

And you know what?  It works.  It certainly conveys that something funky is going on, that this is unlike anything else you’ve experienced, that you should pay attention because something magical and mysterious just happened right in front of you.  It’s like the altar bells, only much more in your face.

Now for the rest of it… all the stuff about the new and everlasting Covenant, and so forth.  It’s all chanted pretty regularly by the whole chorus in a solid chord.  But whenever the text mentions the people being saved, it drops to an out of place, discordant chord that is at odds with the rest of the chant.  This happens for “vobis et pro multis”, meaning “for you and for many.”  It also happens for the word “peccatorum”, or “sinners.”  This is quite consistent with the general Catholic approach, which is to say we’re all sinners and aren’t worthy to even glance at the big toe of God or Jesus, but if we pray hard enough and seek forgiveness and healing through the Sacraments then maybe, just maybe, we might be deemed worthy of God’s grace.

All that conveyed in the 60 seconds or so of this passage.  Brilliant.  I love it.

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