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Music and Spirituality

Sheppard, Tallis, and the like

(a reflection on the more ethereal side of our worship music at Holy Trinity Geneva)

Reactions of bemusement on hearing Sheppard’s ‘Libera nos’ at our Patronal Festival of the Holy Trinity (and at Epiphany, his ‘Reges Tharsis’) have prompted me into a state of reflection, and thence to put virtual pen to virtual paper.

Here are some musings:

This kind of worship music is mystical, not expressive (as with most early Renaissance and Tudor music, excluding late Byrd and Gesualdo – but then they are 'late')

No descriptive passages – just one over-all effect (or if you like, rather anachronistically, one 'Affekt')

No emotion expressed or intended, except if one regards adoration as an emotion, as adoration is, in a significant way, a state of mind that at the same time involves the heart, the spirit and the will

Relies on constant beauty of tone, building a sonorous, at the same time rapturous and ethereal, effect

In early rehearsals, it can seem baffling and illusive, (I wouldn’t use it as an example of Baroque or even Renaissance harmony), so it requires a step of faith that the final effect will be glorious and uplifting to both listener and performer

The over-all effect is an experience that doesn’t rely on any one person’s understanding of what is portrayed, since the approach to worship embodied by this kind of music could be defined as ‘mystical adoration’. The subject is, after all, the Trinity! It just anticipates an unquestioning commitment and self-giving to our Lord God in his most mysterious aspect, just as when we use the words ‘almighty’, ‘ineffable’, ‘Ancient of Days’, the great ‘I Am’, ‘unfathomable’, ‘consubstantial, co-eternal’. This may seem quite a contrast to how we address God at Christmas and Passiontide, identifying with a brought-down-to-earth refugee mother and baby, the God-with-us aspect of the Trinity, the Suffering Servant identifying with us, the Spirit abiding with us forever. It’s more like a foretaste of how we will behold God in eternity: in a state of rapturous awe.

Anyway, don’t listen to me getting carried away! Have a listen to what some other choirs make of this work, for example The Erebus Ensemble, Stile Antico and The Sixteen.

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