Auditio Divina IV: Geraint Lewis’s “The Souls of the Righteous”

Auditio Divina and Listening With the Ear of the Heart.

Part IV: Geraint Lewis’s “The Souls of the Righteous”

November 2017

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

Composer: Geraint Lewis (b. 1958)

Stylistic period: Twentieth Century.

Work: “The Souls of the Righteous.”  Subtitle: “(Iustorum Animae) In Memoriam William Matthias.”  Anthem for choir (SSAATTB) and organ.

Text: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-2a, 3b.  “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them. To the eyes of the foolish they seemed to perish, but they are in peace.”

Liturgical Season or Feast: All Saints; Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls); Vigil Service (Wake); Funeral Liturgy; Rite of Committal (Burial or Interment); the Month of November.

Link to a performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3qOnTQJYsU

I dedicate this essay to Glenda Miller, the sad news of whose passing from this life  yesterday appeared on my computer screen as I was typing the last sentence of these thoughts.  May she know “no noise nor silence but one equal music … in the habitations of thy majesty and glory.”  (John Donne)

The month of November has come to be regarded as a time especially devoted to praying for the faithful departed.  I continue this series on auditio divina by turning, in these early days of November, to Geraint Lewis’s “The Souls of the Righteous,” an anthem that sets the Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-3, one of the texts for the Rite of Christian Burial.

Lewis began composing the anthem in 1991 but “held back … and put it to one side.”[i]  Soon thereafter, however, he learned that his friend, William Mathias, one of the twentieth century’s important contributors to the Anglican choral repertoire, had terminal cancer.  Lewis was inspired to complete the work as a memorial to Mathias.  In doing so, Lewis gives us not only a tribute to his “closest friend and colleague”[ii] but also to the Anglican choral heritage Mathias helped to develop during the twentieth century.

Indeed, Lewis’s anthem, though written in a twentieth-century idiom, has elements that evoke, whether consciously or not, the musical austerity preferred by radical elements in the sixteenth-century Church of England.  For example, of the anthem’s seventy-six measures, the choir never sings a melisma (assigning more than one note of music per syllable of text) until bar 60 (an observation to which I return below).  This would have pleased the sixteenth century’s puritanical elements and would have met Queen Elizabeth I’s 1558 injunction that church music be “modest [and] plainly understood, as if it were read without singing.”

But whether Lewis consciously echoed some of the Tudor era’s musical characteristics, his anthem also reflects support of the Anglican choral heritage’s ongoing development, which had been one of Mathias’s contributions as well.  For example, neither sixteenth-century puritanical currents nor much of the repertoire of the Anglican choral heritage supports the practice of frequent text repetitions.  But that is one of the characteristics of Lewis’s anthem.  These text repetitions are not gratuitous, however, and therefore suggest that, if handled properly, this could be a legitimate development of the heritage.

Lewis’s text repetitions support a theological message, which is that the passage from earthly life to life eternal is, for the souls of the righteousness, yes, a transformation (I Corinthians 15:52 “In the twinkling of an eye … we shall be changed”) but also a development.  The souls of the righteous seem to perish, but even while in this earthly existence, elements of God’s true peace and righteousness are already present and at work in and through their lives.  What follows is a reflection on the manner in which Lewis’s musical setting of the text brings out this theological message.

(The intended audience for the essays in this series is all non-musicians.  With that in mind, I recommend reading the following observations [and listening to the linked recording] as those with musical training would generally do, which is to say in sections rather than in one sitting.)

The anthem is constructed on two primary motives.  The first motive is played entirely by the organ in the first part of the anthem.  It is made up of two one-measure phrases, each of which repeats the same rhythmic idea and remains within the same restrained melodic range.  Following these phrases is a two-measure phrase (bar 3, at 0:10 in the recording referenced above) that ends on the dominant.  (This is what music theorists would call a musical sentence.)

Carolyn Pirtle interprets the first two measures as evocative “of the shortened inhalations and exhalations of a person in the final hours of life.”[iii]  Pirtle hears the last two measures of the musical sentence as a “breathing forth of one’s spirit in the soaring extended phrase.”[iv]  If she means the final breathing forth of one’s spirit, though, some listeners might hear the passage differently since this soaring phrase is brought back to earth again and again by repetitions of the opening measures with their restrained melodic scope.  But Pirtle’s perception of elements of hope in the last two measures of the first motive is surely in line with Lewis’s intention.  In spite of the first motive’s sense of labored breathing—or at least the idea of a calm but plodding, earthbound march through a final illness—there is a hint of something beyond our earthly home in the fact that the latter half of the anthem’s first motive, while maintaining the same slow movement, nonetheless breaks free in a few places in leaps and skips and with a higher melodic arch than in the previous measures.

As the anthem begins, the first motive is repeated three times and entirely by itself.  Each repetition, however, is a variation.  Musically, this is simply an effective theme-and-variations introduction.  But it happens to suggest a Trinitarian invocation.  And the third statement of the first motive introduces a pedal point that is sustained while the second motive sounds, thus suggesting the constant presence of the Holy Spirit.

The second motive, sung by the choir, enters on the anacrusis (or pickup) of bar 14 (recording: 1:12).  From its first moments, it conveys a sense of stasis rather than even the restrained movement of the first motive because “souls,” the second word of the text the motive sets, is always sustained for four beats.  Its structure also suggests a musical sentence (albeit of proportions four times as long as those that make up the first-motive musical sentence), but one that is never realized since the final phrase is truncated.  It is as though the effort to enunciate “and the pain of death shall not touch them” runs short of breath.  Pirtle’s identification in the first motive of a musical gesture indicating breath could thus apply to the second motive as well.

If this passage supports the interpretation of a physical shortness of breath, it also supports Pirtle’s perception of an object suspended “in mid-air [and] held up for our contemplation” so that we can be reassured that God “sustains … those who face their final trial and those who mourn them.”[v]  The choir’s “very slow and tranquil” (per the score indications) re-statements of the same text several times could indeed suggest the ruminative, contemplative prayer of lectio divina in solitude.

But perhaps the repeated words also suggest the concrete situation of a deathbed vigil, with repeated prayers and reassurances.  This is a situation Lewis likely knew when he frequently visited Mathias in his last days.

Repetitions of the same text in the second motive allow a subtle development to occur.  In each re-statement, Lewis points to the word “hand” in the words “… in the hand of God” by lengthening the word and by having the choir sing it at increased dynamic levels.  The word first appears (at bar 16, recording: 1:29) as a straightforward triad.  Each succeeding setting of “hand,” however, (bar 23, recording: 2:10; bar 39, recording: 3:43; and bar 46, recording: 4:20) is sung to a degree of dissonance, the final statement being the most dissonant, which we hear as a tone cluster.  The fuller sense of these dissonances is revealed at the end of the anthem and is discussed below.  But suffice it to say at this point that they are meant to elude tonal logic.  We can hear this as divine providence, God’s hand, not always making sense.  Faith and hope offer a way through this suffering, not logic.

The last of the two statements of the second motive (anacrusis to bar 36 et seq., recording: 3:27) occurs without the organ’s pedal point referred to above.  The musical score also calls for increased volume, which expresses fuller pathos.  We can hear the absence of the pedal point and the more intense musical statement as a continuation into the mystery of suffering, even with a sense of spiritual abandonment (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).  Yet the righteous soul continues to trust in God’s providence as “the pain of death shall not touch them” is now quietly and calmly repeated (bars 52 through 55, recording: 4:58).

The first indication that a development/transformation is taking place is in bars 56 through 57 (recording: 5:21).  All previous phrases, whether sung by the choir or played by the organ, have begun with the upper lines either repeating the same pitch or moving in stepwise motion from one pitch to the next.  The organ’s entrance in bar 56, however, begins with a descending leap of a fourth in the upper voice.  This new melodic incipit suggests a fanfare, but, because played quietly, a fanfare heard from afar, which in this case would be announcing the righteous soul’s entrance into the fullness of God’s peace.

The next indication of a development/transformation is in the fact that the choir now (bar 58 et seq., recording: 5:34) sings the first motive.  (The second motive does not return, for the deathbed vigil is over.  Tears are wiped away: Revelation 21:4.)  But the choir does not begin the first motive until it has held an attentive silence for a quarter-note rest lengthened by a fermata.  (In performance, the temptation to hurry through this silence should be avoided.)  The multivalence of silence allows levels of meaning in this held quarter-note rest: the physical silence of a body that no longer breathes, the silencing of the voice of a deceased musician, the failure of words to describe the ineffable beauty of that perfect peace we, by faith, hope to know on the other side of death, and so on.

In that bar-58 moment of silence, however, the organ’s pedal point quietly and reassuringly returns.  It does so, moreover, by returning to the home key of D flat, as if to say that what is now to be revealed will include fully appreciating what was already present.  Indeed, if the first motive in the first part of the anthem is about a dying person’s shortened breath, here it is the breath of the Spirit who reveals an entirely new meaning in the same motivic material.

Yet another indication of development/transformation brings us to the melismas mentioned above.  The first time we hear a melisma in the entire anthem is not until bar 60 (recording: 5:45).  Short melismas occur on the words “they seemed” of “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish.”  After the beautiful but plodding musical phrases that precede this moment, the words “they seemed” and the melismas that accompany them point to a different perception of reality, one that is free from earthbound constraints and from death.

That the revelation of what shall be is still unfolding in bar 60 is indicated by the fact that the fuller choral texture we have heard up to this point, sometimes dividing the choir into as many as six parts, is now basically two voices.  The sopranos and altos sing the same melodic line, and the tenors and basses do the same for the melodic line in the bass clef.  We can hear this as an aural representation of the “dazzling darkness” of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses, a vision of the true light that is so bright it appears as darkness.

Then the “but they are” of “but they are in peace” opens a series of ever-longer melismas as the two-voice texture blossoms into a four-voice texture.  “But,” in bar 62 (recording: 5:58), is a two-beat melisma, “they” a three-beat melisma, and in bar 63, “are” is a soaring five-beat melisma.

Further emphasizing the importance of the word “are” in bar 63 is the fact that this melisma includes the highest pitch the choir sings in the entire piece, a G5 reached by an E5-to-G5 skip in the soprano line.  This is the exact same melodic line the organ played repeatedly in the first part of the anthem.  But hearing it sung by the sopranos with the full choir and with the text—which now reveals what the motive had been suggesting all along—is to hear it with new ears (Mark 4:9 “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”).

Struck by the beauty of this passage’s treatment of the verb “to be,” earlier statements of the word “are” in “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God” take on a deeper meaning.  Indeed, in each repetition of that text in the first part of the anthem, the rise and fall of the sopranos’ melodic line reaches its highest point on the word “are.”  These earlier statements of “are” suggest the “hint half guessed, the gift half understood” (T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”).  Emphasizing the verb “to be” in both parts of the anthem has an important scriptural connotation since the Old Testament Tetragrammaton for God, YHWH, connotes as much a verb—the verb of all being—as a noun.  The souls of the righteous who have been taken from this life truly “are”—they truly exist—when they are in the unmediated presence of God Who Is.

The first motive begins again in bar 67 (recording: 6:30).  But this time, which is the last time it sounds, it is preceded by a full measure of silence, except for the pedal point which diminishes in volume.  And after the first two phrases of the motive, there is, unexpectedly, another full measure of silence (except for, again, the quietly constant pedal point).  This silence is all the more arresting since it is the moment at which, every time the first two phrases have sounded, the soaring melodic line sounds as well.  Not this final time.  This silence says that even the soaring beauty of the choir’s statement of the phrase in bars 62 through 65 cannot express what no eye has seen nor ear heard (I Corinthians 2:9).

What follows (bar 70, recording: 6:49) are again the words “but they are in peace,” now with chords of ever-lengthening durations.  Though the first part of the anthem is performed at a quiet dynamic level for the most part, it conveys a sense of constant activity and melodic motives.  Here, the melodic material is nothing more than an expansion in the outer voices, the sopranos rising, the basses descending, with the other voices quietly filling in the steady homophonic texture, all of the voices moving in steady, equal durations.  This is an expression of John Donne’s “no noise nor silence but one equal music.”

The choir’s sustained singing of the last word of the anthem, “peace,” is finally joined by a quiet tone cluster in the organ.  The tone cluster is a blossoming of the dissonances, referred to above, that gradually become more noticeable in repeated settings of the word “hand” for “hand of God.”  Now (bar 75, recording: 7:16), every note of the tone cluster in bar 46 is present as well as an added pitch (G).  What was seen dimly by faith is now seen face to face (I Corinthians 13:12).  Perhaps most listeners will hear this final chord as, yes, a dissonance but also one that somehow makes tonal sense.  If so, this is because the highest pitches build a straightforward D-flat-major triad.  It is a chord that expresses the paradoxes of grasping the ungraspable, of expressing the ineffable, of the kingdom of God present here and now and yet not until the eschaton.  It is what, as T. S. Eliot put it, “the dead had no speech for, when living” and now express in a language “tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

[i] William McVicker, Liner Notes for The English Anthem, vol. 7.  St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir, Jonathan Scott, Conductor. Hyperion CDA67087, 1999.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Carolyn Pirtle, “Musical Mystagogy: All Souls Day,” http://sites.nd.edu/oblation/tag/the-souls-of-the-righteous/ — accessed 2 November 2017.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

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