I was helping
break in, audition a potential choir director recently. He’d brought his own music to inflict audition with, including a movement from the Faure Requiem, the “Agnus Dei.” It is a good choice, because it includes foreign language, tempo changes, mood changes, and is just hard enough that the choir should pay attention. Once you get past the “Lamb of G-d who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy” text, it shifts to the “Lux Aeterna.” Which sent my mind wandering down musical rabbit tracks about light and music.
The image of the divine as light, be it a sun-god, a metaphor, an eternal radiance into which all beings seek to dissolve and reunite with, or as evil fire, are very common. You don’t even have to go into religion directly – think of the films of Lord of the Rings, and the Balrog (black fire from darkness) and Gandalf the White (blinding light that banishes the darkness). It would make sense that light and the texts related to it would appear in many belief systems, even those ostensibly opposed to religion (like the “Brights” and their quest to free people from the darkness of superstitious adherence to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other traditional faith practices). And given the role music plays in Christianity, light appears in texts and songs ancient and modern.
“Holy Radiant Light” falls into the Russian Orthodox tradition, modernized. To my ears this is performed too fast. It is not chant-like, as it was when I performed this composition. Granted, Gretchaninoff is a later composer (d. 1956) and he’s taking liberties. The following, also based on light, this time of evening, is closer to classical Russian choral style, at least to me.
It needs more basses, deep Russian basses, but I’m spoiled by having a lot of good Russian recordings in my collection.
Back on topic, here is, in some ways, an anti-Gretchaninoff, Eric Whitaker’s “Lux Arumque,” Light and Gold. It is a challenge to sing, but it has a shimmer that reminds me of light on water.
Back in the more classical vein, this is one of the pieces the conductor candidate directed. I’ve sung the Faure Requiem several times, always as a performance requiem and not as part of the liturgy. It is not a liturgical requiem, and is missing several of the darker elements of a “true” requiem. That does not make it any less evocative. For the “light” text, skip forward to 1:59.
The last example is one of my favorites, the core movement, “O Nata Lux” from Morten Lauridsen’s O Nata Lux. I’ve gotten to sing this twice and it brings tears every time I sing or hear it. It comes after a dissonant, fast movement, and then there is silence, and the words come out of the stillness and shadows, “Oh birth of light.” The first time I did the, we actually had our concert delayed because of an ice storm that knocked power out for several days, and singing about the appearance of light out of chaos and darkness seemed even more important.
It is easy, even in summer as the sun is beaming down, to get lost in shadows, especially with the turmoil and seeming chaos filling the news. But the light, be it divine or of human courage and dignity, shines through.