2012-09-23 Notes from the Bench

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

“Beatitudes” by Arvo Pärt

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) composes in a style that is characterized by simple austere harmonies that move slowly and repetitively over long pedal notes from the organ.  Each short phrase is followed by silence from the singers, sometimes with and sometimes without the pedal note.  This placid and regular rhythm becomes hypnotic, and is emphasized by the small amount of dynamic change throughout the piece.  This constant level is, in itself, a theological reference of the unchanging validity of the scripture.  The amen suddenly takes on a new and greater volume for its six chords with the organ, and then the organ takes off on its own for the remainder of the work, finally disappearing softly.

“Christus factus est” by Aaron Bruckner

Christ was made obedient for us even unto death, even the death of the cross.  Therefore God also has exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.

The text of this motet is usually associated with the liturgies of Holy Week and reminds us of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In today’s Gospel reading (Mark 9:30-37), Jesus tells his disciples that he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  At that time, Jesus’ disciples did not understand the meaning of what he was teaching them, but now, following the events of his passion and resurrection, the message is among the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

The motet setting being sung by the choir was composed by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), an Austrian composer well-known for his symphonies, as well as his sacred motets.  He is one of a number of composers writing in the Austro-German Romantic style, works characterized by their rich harmonic language, use of polyphony, and considerable length.  By comparison to his orchestral works, Bruckner’s choral works are more restrained and conservative in style.  He wrote forty motets, including three settings of the text, “Christus factus est.”

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