2012-12-23 Notes from the Bench

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

“Missa in simplicitate” by Jean Langlais (1907-1991)

On the fourth Sunday of each month, we celebrate a formal Eucharist during our 11:00 am service that incorporates more ritual elements and includes a Choral Mass setting sung by our Chamber Choir.  The “Ordinary Mass,” the unchanging texts that are repeated each Sunday, have been set to music throughout the history of the Christian tradition, with settings ranging in scope from simple plainsong melodies to massive and complex choral works accompanied with orchestra.  The Ordinary includes the “Kyrie, eleison” (Lord, have mercy),  “Gloria” (Glory to God), “Credo” (The Creed), “Sanctus et Benedictus” (Holy, Holy and Blessed is He) and “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God).

This Sunday, the Chamber Choir will sing Missa in simplicitate by Jean Langlais (1907-1991) as our Mass setting. Langlais composed this Mass setting for solo voice or unison choir accompanied by organ or harmonium, a single manual reed organ usually constructed without pedals.  This work is only “simple” in regard to the musical resources required for its performance.  It is a gentle work with an appealing vocal line, sections of which are reminiscent of plainsong, that is accompanied by colorful harmonies and rich sonorities. 

Jean Langlais was a prolific composer, writing through most of the twentieth century.  His oeuvre includes sacred choral works, orchestral and instrumental chamber works, and secular song settings.  However, Langlais was best known as an organist and improviser; he performed concerts throughout Europe and the United States, and wrote numerous compositions for his instrument.  The music of Langlais represents a continuation of the French symphonic style into the twentieth century.  His works are characterized by his free tonal style, poetic melodies, rich and complex harmonies, irregular rhythms with meter changes and overlapping modes.  Langlais was a religious man who incorporated plainsong melodies into a great number of his works. 

Langlais lost his eyesight as a young child due to glaucoma. He was educated at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for the Young Blind), studied organ with the blind organist, André Marchal, and where he would later return to teach.  Langlais was under the tutelage of Marcel Dupré, Charles Tournemire and Paul Dukas at the Paris Conservertoire.  He won prestigious prizes in organ and improvisation.  Langlais succeeded Tournemire as Organiste titulaire for the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris and taught the Paris Schola Cantorum from 1961 to 1976.  Langlais taught numerous organ students, both French and foreign-born, many of whom became influential musicians, including our very own Scott Youngs. 

The Association “Les Amis de Jean Langlais” (the Friends of Jean Langlais) was organized in 2005 and based in Fontenelle, Ile-et-Viliane, the birthplace of Langlais, to promote the memory and music of the composer and to develop the music culture of the area.  Each year the association organizes international music festivals, inviting musicians from around the world to participate. 

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