ISM Colloquium Presentation Abstracts
Callista Brown Isabelle
Shape Note Singing: Music of the New Frontier
Shape note singing, developed in singing schools in the 1720s, was a vibrant musical form in colonial America. In my presentation we explored its history and sang the shape note version of Wondrous Love, and I argued that this music may enrich our liturgies even today. Ways of incorporating shape note singing into the musical life of your congregation include organ/piano improvisations on the shape note tunes, holding shape note singings in your church or community, performing choir anthems, etc. This music can deepen congregants’ understanding of early American Christianity, build bridges in our struggles over traditional vs. contemporary, aid in music literacy and congregational singing, and offer a message of radical “welcome” through shared leadership and full congregational participation.
- How might shape note singing supplement the liturgical practices of your congregation?
- What are the limitations of shape note singing for use in worship today?
- What are the “new frontiers” of sacred music and/or liturgy today?
The Plainsong Restoration in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century French Organ Music
The nineteenth century French organist Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) summarized his view of liturgical organ music late in his career as the following: “The German organists have composed some pieces based on the melody of chorales, forming a literature for the organ which is particularly rich; why should we not do the same with our Catholic melodies?” Plainsong restoration in France influenced organ music in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries toward the development of a truly contemporary style of liturgical organ music based on an intimate knowledge and appreciation of plainsong, and the technique of the modern French symphonic style of organ music. Organist-composers like Widor, Guilmant, and Tournemire expanded the idea of sacred idealism by displaying liturgical melodies and texts in a new type of liturgical organ music.
- How important is knowledge of the plainsong texts in modern liturgical organ music based on plainsong?
- How might plainsong-based liturgical music (organ versets) be used in the Protestant church?
- Do you gain an idea of sacred idealism just by hearing repetitive chant tunes in the symphonic genre?
Francis Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noir: A Spiritual Awakening
Francis Poulenc’s work for women’s choir and organ, Litanies à la Vierge Noire, Notre-Dame de Roc-Amadour, is more than a sublime piece of music. As the first of an important series of sacred choral pieces, it occupies a significant place within Poulenc’s compositional output. The true value of this work can only be understood through an in-depth analysis of the historical, thematic, biographical, religious, and musical factors influencing its birth.
The circumstances surrounding Poulenc’s return to Catholicism are widely noted in biographical sources, and the death of a close friend in a car accident is considered the turning point in Poulenc’s spiritual life. His subsequent pilgrimage to the cathedral at Roc-Amadour, home of the Vierge Noire or “Throne of Wisdom,” solidified his commitment to the Catholic faith, and resulted in the creation of the Litanies. An acquaintance with the history of the cathedral and the legends of the Virgin transforms the text of this piecea series of petitions to the benevolent and miraculous Virginfrom a series of requests into fervent pleas alternating between spiritual meditation and ecstasy.
By recognizing the spiritual intensity of this juncture in Poulenc’s life, one can interpret and perform the musical elements of this piece more effectively. Musical analysis, contextualized by non-musical analysis, also has greater meaning. The sectional form and cyclical structure of the piece serve the text, while the dissonant “shock” chords evoke emotional turmoil. Melodic devices such as additive phrasing create a meditative atmosphere, while faux bourdon provokes a strong sense of movement. These musical devices all shape the emotional ambiance of the composition, and indeed are understood more deeply when placed within the space and circumstance for which they were written. While we do not have to believe in the religious and emotional foundations of the Litanies, it is important that we be aware of all musical and non-musical elements in order to fully experience the composition.
- Do you feel that it is important as a director, performer, or listener to be aware of the non-musical history and context of the piece? How would this information shape (or not shape) your interpretation, presentation, and perception of the music?
- How do musical devices such as additive phrasing, ecclesiastical modes, and faux bourdon evoke a mood and shape the emotional/spiritual orientation of the composition?
- How might this piece be used in worship? Does the text lend itself to an inclusive and communal expression of faith?
“Do You Hear What I Hear?”Performer’s Intention and Listener’s Interpretation
While examining a piece of contemporary music, and what Karl Barth said of Mozart, I asked what the relationship between a composer’s (or performer’s) intention and a listener’s interpretation is. Music is first aesthetic and then communicative. Music is powerfulbut power is not a substitute for clarity. We cannot know a composer’s communicative intention by simply examining his or her music. Because the intention does not lead to a necessary interpretation, the composer is, in a sense, dead; it is the music that speaks, not the composer.
- In the case of a contemporary piece, can we know the composer’s intention?
- What does it mean to say that music is first aesthetic and then communicative? Does this mean, for example, that beauty does not tell us anything?
- What does it mean to say that music is powerful?
- If an intention does not lead to a necessary interpretation, then what are the implications for biblical hermeneutics?
- The abstract says that music is not first communicative and yet music speaks. Is this not a contradiction?
The Secret of the Rosary
I attempted to unveil the mystery of the Rosary for those with little or no knowledge of it, first outlining its history, and then discussing the natural development of the use of beads as prayer counters, citing examples of this from all major religions. I also discussed how the Rosary prayers changed from Our Fathers to Hail Marys owing to an increased devotion to Mary in the Middle Ages and the development of “Mary Psalters.” Second, I explained the purpose of the Rosary, both in its original and its contemporary form, describing how it developed from being a shortcut for the Divine Office to becoming a way to meditate on the life and work of Christ. Third, I described how the Rosary is prayed both individually and communally by giving a detailed description of the mechanics of praying the Rosary. Finally, I discussed how the Rosary can be used in modern times by all people and churches. J. Neville Ward, a Methodist, and Pope John Paul II both considered the Rosary an aid to ecumenism. I ended my presentation with an exhortation to the audience to use the Rosary prayer, a traditional Christan way of meditation, for spiritual sustenance, rather than seeking spirituality in other religions and other ways.
- How might people who are prejudiced against anything Marian feel comfortable praying the Rosary? Prejudices often come from a lack of information or from misinformation. One should become educated about Mary, and also about the scriptural and theological basis of the “Hail Mary” prayer, and realize that Mary plays an essential role in salvation history and therefore it is very Christian to honor her (even Luther recognized this!).
- How might a non-Catholic use the Rosary prayer in a congregation? The same way a Catholic would! Catholics often get together in groups to pray it before or after a church service. Anyone can start it at any time, and then everyone joins in. Catholics also pray the Rosary by themselves, whenever they wish to. It can be prayed anywherein a church, a car, the showerso that one can think of the Scriptures all the time. It’s so easy! Even children can learn their Scripture through the Rosary.
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