December 5: Advent Vespers at Monastery of the Holy Cross

A chamber choir from Chorale, together with the brothers of the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Cross, will present Vespers for the season of Advent, Sunday evening, December 5, at 5 p.m. Unlike many of the high-octane, celebratory Advent events which occur throughout the Chicago area during the pre-Christmas season (often in conjunction with an afternoon of shopping on Michigan Avenue), the liturgy celebrated by Chorale and the monks is quiet, contemplative, unrushed–- a series of readings interspersed with chanted psalms and choral polyphony appropriate to the readings. This season’s repertoire focuses on a particular historical period and location-- composers include Orlando di Lasso, Francisco Guerrero, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Tomas Luis de Victoria, all of whom were active in Western Europe during the second half of the 16th century. Orlando di Lasso, born in what is now Belgium, is the only Franco-Flemish composer of the group, though the influence of this school of composition is clear in the work of the other composers. After formative years spent as a singer in Italy, he eventually settled in Munich, where he remained until his death. He was a practitioner of the style known as Musica Reservata—roughly, music that involves intensely expressive setting of text, and chromaticism. The motet Chorale will sing, Sibylla Persica, is one of a series of twelve motets in a cycle called Prophetiae Sibyllarum— musical setting of poems based on prophecies of specific sibylline prophetesses which attempt to connect antiquity with the birth, life, and death of Jesus—supposedly, foretelling details of Jesus’ existence.

Guerrero lived and worked in Seville. One of Spain’s greatest composers, he was in every respect a native son-- he studied composition with fellow Spaniards, and left Spain only twice, once to visit Rome for a year, once to visit the Holy Land. He is thought to have focused exclusively on vocal music, both sacred and secular. The Advent motet Chorale will sing, Veni, Domine, et noli tardare (1555) is strongly Spanish in character—a hard quality to define or describe, but definitely different from Palestrina or Lasso; think larger intervals, unexpected melodic leaps, a subtly Arabic sound, and with a vivid and serene spirituality.

Palestrina spent most of his life in or near Rome, but was strongly influenced by the Franco-Flemish style of polyphony—Dufay and Josquin were his models. To modern ears, he sounds somewhat more classically balanced, less emotionally expressive, than the other composers represented in this program; but he has been acknowledged since his own time as the master of Renaissance polyphony. Chorale and the monks will sing alternating verses of the Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum—the monks chanting plainsong, Chorale singing Palestrina’s polyphonic setting.

Victoria, like Guerrero, was a Spaniard, but unlike his contemporary he spent many years away from home, in Rome. He is thought to have studied composition with Palestrina—he was at any rate acquainted with him, and attended the latter’s funeral in 1594. Interestingly, his compositional style is quite different from Palestrina’s—like Guerrero, he retains his Spanish character, and composes with a mystical intensity and direct emotional appeal, qualities considered by some to be lacking in Palestrina’s music. Chorale and the monks will sing alternating verses of his Magnificat Octavi toni; then at the conclusion of the service the choir will sing the motet Versa est in luctum , which is a movement from his most famous work, and masterpiece, the Requiem Mass for the Empress Maria.

For me, in my personal acknowledgment and observance of the season– this is what Advent is all about. The icons reflecting the candlelight, the darkness obscuring the vaulted ceiling, the shadows behind the arches, and the rich, complex, never-ending acoustics, all pull me from my everyday life and situation, into another existence, another time frame, another way of understanding. Each year, when we sing this service at the Monastery, I wish it could go on and on. I am always sad when people finally stand up and start moving toward the doors. I expect any lover of sacred choral music, and any seeker after truth and understanding, would feel the same way. I hope you’ll join us!