Are composers who use early music techniques writing new music? Robert Sirico
“Classical music” is all around us. Familiar motifs permeate every aspect of our lives from commercials about how we dress to what we eat. Children’s cartoons like Bugs Bunny exposed us to some of the most dramatic and complex music ever composed. Who hasn’t at least once broken out into a verse of Elmer Fudd’s ‘Kill da Wabbit!” or sung the ‘Lone Ranger‘ while riding on a horse? Despite what “popular” forces are trying to communicate, and the “modern” direction in which they are trying to propel us, many still resort to what has been engrained into us for so long to get their point across. People “just know” that classical music is: “beautiful, moving, powerful, inspiring, relaxing.” There’s a piece written for nearly every mood and feeling and many find a solace within its framework. “Classical Music” conducts our senses to a higher plane.
From my personal experiences I have learned to associate great joy and exhilaration with Handel‘s “Alleluia Chorus” and tremendous feelings of piety with Schubert‘s famed “Ave Maria” (just hearing the opening arpeggios bring a tear to my eye as I get all choked up) to name just two of the many masterpieces that have touched my life. I have come to understand that I want to capture the same feelings of awe and reverence in my music as those that were evoked by the early masters.
I consider myself to be a “Liturgical Composer” because most of my output is based on religious texts and themes. I believe that I am participating in a “Sacred Art” and that the religious setting is where I feel I can make the most impact. Since religious practices mandate different services for different occasions, the repertoire has an abundance of examples such as Masses, Requiems, and Oratorios, to name just a few. Each ceremony evolved into an ecclesiastically prescribed rubric, and the accompanying music had to evolve with the specific rite being administered. For example, in the middle 1700s it became customary for the last lines of the Gloria and Credo sections to be closed in fugues for High Masses but not for Low Masses.
So far, I have not composed anything “new.” I am not a “modern composer,” rather a “plain old tonal” composer. My compositions are choral-orchestral adaptations of ancient Latin texts used for various holy days during the liturgical year. No listener will be presented with something that isn’t within his ability to understand. Many modern compositions are so esoteric with rhythms that are so bizarre that one may feel “assaulted” by the sounds. On the contrary I am looking to the “familiar” to soothe, to comfort, and to inspire. I was once derided by a “professional composer” who charged that I was wasting my time writing “tonally” because everything of great value was already composed and there was no need to “simply copy the Old Masters.” I insisted, as I still do, that there is great compositional freedom within old forms.
So why do I continue to compose “crusty old church music” in a language that is “dead” and in a style that is all but obsolete, for a church that has mostly adopted the “Contemporary Christian” genre and now no longer welcomes any semblance of its musical past? Because I feel that as a composer I have to passionately communicate what I believe in, in the way I believe in it, to touch souls and elevate them to thoughts of the ethereal. My liturgical compositions are not merely service music rather they are a living connection to our ancient past and an extension to our future. “Old forms” remind us of our roots. Understanding their function allows us to participate in history and to feel a pride associated with our ancestry. They transport us back to a time long ago and they preserve the “timelessness” of the very acts of worship they were created to accompany.