I love this picture in the hallway of St. Peter’s Parish Centre, where I am Musical Director and organist. Hallways are often used for rushing from one place to another, usually to the loos which are at the end of our hallway. This picture always slows me down. The reflection of the sky in the water grabs your attention. There’s a beautiful balance and calmness to it.
It’s in those moments when we pause to reflect that ideas, thoughts and plans can fall into place. Suggestions can evolve into concrete ideas and worlds don’t so much collide as meld and crystallize. Confluence is such a beautiful word and reminds of the water in the picture.
The music program for Lent 2020 (1-29 March),‘Instruments of Reflection’ is just that, a confluence of ideas, music and expression.
The idea for the program started with the suggestion of St. Peter’s Choir’s conductress, Janette Murray. After helping with an extensive program of music for the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Janette was already thinking ahead to what might work during Lent. That’s how I was introduced to the compositions of Margaret Rizza (b. 1929) pictured below with a chorister.
Margaret is a United Kingdom based composer now in her early 90’s. Well known in church music circles in the UK, I am told that her work is sung at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral here in Melbourne sometimes at Evensong.
What struck me most about her sacred compositions was the gentle and lyrical musicality. They are beautifully paced with sensitivity to the lyric and spiritual aspects of the music. There is a moderate degree of technicality, making her music an accessible challenge for community choirs with singers of mixed abilities.
To bring focus and energy to the work, Margaret employs instruments and obbligato accompaniment. It means you’re not stuck listening to a repetitive chant or chord progression. The instrumental line breaks through the vocal wall of sound like a piercing ray of light through dark clouds. It brings you back to the music, words and purpose of the work.
I emailed Margaret straight away about our plans. She replied almost instantly and told me she was thrilled that we were going to be using her compositions. A relatively late starter to the world of composition, she began to write sacred music in 1997 following a successful career as an opera singer. Her music is focused on prayer and meditation. In interviews, Margaret extolls the power of sacred music. It’s a shared language of music with a unique purpose.
In an interview for the Royal School of Church Music in 2019, Margaret said that “… the
language of music can touch us in ways words can’t touch us. It connects us in a very different way.”
I was really drawn to the musical device of using instruments as a reflective practice within the composition – reflecting the melodic, harmonic patterns but bringing new focus and energy to the music – it therefore was a great opportunity to open up the choir to local talent. Instrumentalists who could bring their unique sounds and musical abilities to the choir.
Using instruments like this isn’t a new musical device by any means. The contrasting timbres or unique sounds of instruments against the smooth vocal or choral lines has been used for hundreds of years sometimes with masses of vocalists and instrumentalists. Think of the double choir and brass bands masses of the Gabrielli brothers at St. Mark’s in Venice.
Over the centuries, the Catholic church has an interesting relationship with the role of instruments at Mass. Usually as a result of the musicians or composers becoming the focal point of attendance. In Venice, a special license was required for the use of instrumental music at church in the 16th century, which was reserved for special occasions.
On the Protestant side, the Reformation was even harsher on instrumentalists with a general ban on polyphony of any kind, including within choral works.
During the early 17th century the cornetto (pictured above), a distant relative of the trumpet but made of wood, was so popular people were swooning or fainting at church during virtuosic displays of technique and sound production. They were banned for a period of time. After this high point, the instrument went out of fashion after that and disappeared from use.
Much more recently, the use of guitars at Mass has had mixed reception with some traditionalists up in arms. As always the social context of the sound and the individuals reasons for attending play an important role in the acceptability of music in a church setting.
Other choir members enthusiastic about our inclusive policy and always open to music outside of the church setting set me about thinking of how we might engage the broader music community. Reaching out to active musicians – Luke Severn (pictured left) ‘cellist and conductor and Greg Pharo, oboist- and receiving their enthusiastic and supportive response reminded me of this broader context, of the role of music and community.
And so, the program is taking shape. With the support and help of everyone, including our Parish Priest Fr Brendan, Parish Secretary Madeline (and her husband Peter) who painstakingly transcribed the lyrics and hunted down the music and our Pastoral Associate, Delisa. Thanks also go to those for unwavering support of the music program, Tony, Phillip, Kristian and Janette as well as the choristers of St. Peter’s Choir.
It’s going to be so wonderful this Lent, the traditional period of reflection – penance, thinking about others, abstinence – to offer music as another dimension for personal wellness, connection to Christ, healing and growth as part of Mass. Be it on our side – the musicians, community singers, instrumentalists – or on the side of the listeners. Be moved, sit quietly, let the music touch you as you reflect and we say in the Confiteor at the start Mass, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.