Five Great Motets

Published August 17, 2012

The Catholic Difference

The Church’s liturgy has inspired great choral music for centuries. Unfortunately, that part of Catholicism’s cultural memory has been somewhat misplaced in recent years. One reason why is the widespread misapprehension among liturgists that 21st-century congregations can only “hear” music of the Andrew Lloyd Weber genre. (One memorial acclamation I heard recently was straight out of the “Les Mis” playbook, the only difference being that the Lord, not Cosette, was the ditty’s alleged subject.) Experience, however, proves that congregations respond gratefully to great music, and there are few classical forms that are better suited to the Roman rite than the motet.

Herewith, then, five wonderful motets, each within the capabilities of a parish serious about its choir and its music, with which to begin the Great Choral Revival:

“Sicut cervus” (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina). Palestrina, the great master of Renaissance polyphony, also hit the trifecta of Renaissance choirmaster appointments, serving in Rome as maestro de capella at St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major. This limpid setting of the Vulgate’s Psalm 41, verse 1, displays Palestrina’s genius at its most accessible and radiant. “Sicut cervus” is especially appropriate for Masses in which the texts stress the divine gift of the Eucharist, the Church’s longing for which is so often symbolized by the yearning deer of the psalm.

“If Ye Love Me” (Thomas Tallis). Tallis had the difficult task of keeping his musical head on his shoulders during the Elizabethan persecution of the Church in Tudor England. But Elizabeth I was so taken with his music, and that of William Byrd, that she not only spared these two publicly professed Catholics martyrdom; she gave them a lucrative patent on printing and publishing music. “If Ye Love Me” is, technically, an anthem, not a motet, as the text–the communion antiphon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year A (John 14:15-17)–is in English rather than Latin. Irrespective of the musicological definitions, however, Tallis’s composition is an example of English choral music at its most expressive, and “fits” well throughout liturgical year.

Ave Verum” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Written in 1791 while Mozart was completing “The Magic Flute,” his most “Masonic” opera, this setting of a 14th-century eucharistic hymn (perhaps written by Pope Innocent VI) is widely and rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. Whatever Mozart’s relations with Enlightenment Freemasonry, it strains credulity to think that a non-believer could have written the “Ave Verum.”

Ubi Caritas” (Maurice Duruflé). Duruflé, who was born in 1902 and died during the second Reagan administration, was a highly self-critical composer, a musical perfectionist. And in “Ubi Caritas,” he got it exactly right. Taking an ancient Latin text (which scholars believe dates to the first Christian centuries), he preserved the essentials of the hymn’s origins in Gregorian chant and complemented them with a manifestly modern composition, yet one in complete harmony with the Roman Church’s musical tradition. I can’t say that I like his well-known “Requiem” as well as Gabriel Fauré’s, but the Duruflé “Ubi Caritas,” which is especially fitting for Holy Thursday but is appropriate in a variety of liturgical seasons, ought to be a staple of parish music programs.

O Magnum Mysterium ” (Morten Lauridsen). Before I discovered the music of Morten Lauridsen, you would have had a hard time convincing me that great music could be produced out of the University of Southern California: great running backs, obviously; but great chorale music? Well, there it is: U.S.C. professor Lauridsen, whose Danish background suggests a Lutheran heritage, has mined the hymn texts of both the Roman Missal and the old Roman Breviary for some splendid works, of which my Desert Island Discs choice would be this setting of one of the responsories for the pre-conciliar Matins of Christmas. If your son or daughter has been in a high school choir in recent decades, you probably know Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux,” the frequently performed third part of his cycle “Lux Aeterna.” Both “work” liturgically, but to my mind, “O Magnum Mysterium” is the nobler composition.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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