Sunday, June 19, 2005

The incomprendible bits

Today I was listening to a small section of the Christ Church Cathedral’s Men and Boys Choir performing a motet by Giovanni Croce, O sacrum convivium. I had little idea what the words meant, and figured that most of the church-goers both today and back when it was composed were in the same situation. I then began to reflect on what the purpose of the motet was back in Croce’s day, and what its purpose was today. It can’t really be considered another form of spiritual education, given the lack of understanding for the Latin text by Thomas Aquinas:
O sacrum convivium,
in quo Christus sumitur recolitur
memoria pasionis ejus.
Mens impletur gratia
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.

[O sacred banquet
at which Christ is received
the memory of his passion is renewed,
our souls are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future is given to us.]

Looking at the text, I can see the appropriateness for singing this during Communion. However, the lack of translation in the church program left me unaware of the link between the motet and the actions of the priests and laity. So what made this work more desirable than an instrumental work or a secular work sung in a foreign language? It isn’t the sensibilities of the audience that is the concern here, it is the sensibilities of the composer and the Director of Music Ministries. These people know what the words mean, and it satisfies them.

This is seen in various compositional techniques that could never be perceived by the general audience: Wagner’s associations of keys with characters, Bartok’s Golden Sections, Webern’s magic square, these are all tools used by the composer to give inspiration or organization to the specific work. They don’t need to be understood by the audience, as long as the other aspects of the music (or drama in Wagner’s case) make sense. And in most cases the use of these hidden tools do enable the composer to create a comprehensible piece.

Unlike AC Douglas, I do not claim that understanding these techniques will not alter the perception and interpretation of these pieces. Just as the composer’s biography can help a listener to make connections to the music, knowledge of how the composers constructed their works can make it easier for the listener to appreciate the works. Technical knowledge also makes it easier for the performers to decide how to segment the work into digestible morsels. Likewise, appropriate text makes it easier for sacred music programmers to decide what pieces to include in a service.

Update: broken link fixed. Thanks, ACD.

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