That the heart you have broken may rejoice: Music from Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday – February 22

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Please click on the links below to hear music from this service.  View the text of the Ash Wednesday liturgy here.

Psalm 51 (Plainsong Tone 2)

Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God,” (in Latin, Miserere mei, Deus) is the classic psalm of penitence, an eloquent heartfelt plea for mercy.  It is sung an Ash Wednesday as a part of the very elaborate and extended confession and absolution that begins the season of Lent.

We sang Psalm 51 back and forth between cantor and congregation to a very simple plainsong chant without any accompaniment.  This may not have been as aesthetically pleasing as singing one of the many “composed” settings we could have used (the famous Allegri Miserere, for example) but there was something very direct and beautiful in the simplicity of it.

Copland: Help us, O Lord (from Four Motets)

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

‘Help us, O Lord’ is the first of four motets (short sacred pieces for unaccompanied chorus) that Copland wrote in 1921 while he was a student of the renowned composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.  Copland wrote them to fulfill an assignment, and did not seem to be very interested in them beyond that.  In fact they remained unpublished for over fifty years because Copland hadn’t especially wanted to write them in the first place and certainly wasn’t interested in hearing them.  In 1979 his publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, persuaded him to allow their publication after he had become very famous for other things.

The indication in the score that the text of these pieces is “from Biblical sources” is not strictly the case.  The texts are cobbled together from various prayers and Scripture passages in a way that evoke the “style” of Old Testament language.  The text of this piece is as follows:

Help us, O lord: for with thee is the fount of life. In thy light shall we see light. Let us march and try our ways: turn to God. It is good that man should wait, it is good that man should hope for the salvation of the Lord.

Despite its spurious lyrics, both the words and music of the piece are appropriate to the mood and message of Ash Wednesday.  It begins with a descending sob-like pattern, hummed by the altos, the repeats throughout the piece.  On top of this the sopranos have a mournful melody that is accompanied by static and austere harmonies in the men’s voices.  My favorite passage is in the middle section where the phrase “turn to God” is repeated with increasing intensity and dissonance to dramatic effect.