Paul Mealor is one hot composer right now. It was just two years ago that his new music was featured in the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. He is thus a “royal” composer. A recording of only his music was recently released by the world renowned choral group Tenebrae. He is hailed as one of Europe’s most beloved composers, and it is this man that is making a huge impact in sacred choral music.
On Saturday April 21st, the Westminster Choir College’s select ensemble Williamson Voices helped premier his brand new work: Crucifixus at Princeton Meadow Church. The piece, in the words of the composer, is meant to depict the crucifixion of Christ as it were frozen in time, and from different perspectives. A small orchestra (the Westminster Community Orchestra), a choir, and a baritone soloist made up the ensemble that was to sing at times a very broad and heavy piece of music. It was in this piece that I as a listener was able to further trace the trajectory of modern sacred choral music.
The first key to understanding this trajectory is realizing that the most sophisticated sacred choral music today is moving out of the weekly service slot with the adult choir, and into the concert hall with advanced choirs. Isn’t this just concert music? It is hard to say that it is not sacred, due to how spiritually charged it is and how blatantly religious its texts are. It is the general exposed soundscape, the extended ranges (especially in the lines of baritone soloist Sean McCarther, a member of the Westminster voice faculty), the ethereal floating sections, the taxing lengthy full sections, that all point to this new music as being somewhat indulgent on the part of the composer.
Am I saying that being indulgent in this way is necessarily a bad thing? No. I was particularly affected by getting to shortly speak with the composer before the premier. Mealor is without a doubt the most soft-spoken of all “big name” composers I have ever been privileged to meet during my time at Westminster. A truly kind, humble, and gentle person, I could sense that Mealor still truly loved what he did, and was not doing it for attention or show (unlike American’s big name in choral music who is not to be named, whom I encountered at the ACDA conference this March. Mealor made him look like a teeny bopper.) It is only insincere and egotistical music that I find hard to stomach, even if Mealor’s new piece was very technically challenging at times.
Returning to the subject of soundscape, the piece was very cinematic. Each section felt as if it was suspended in time, and was not at all obvious or simple to understand emotionally. This music is a far cry from what I like to call 19th century “carousel” hymns that came out of the Protestant church. This music contains a subtlety that capitalizes upon contrast and suspense, drawing the listener in and often leaving them breathless. The choir would at times be asked to float, or in contrast to practically drive a battering ram of sound through the back church doors. The pianist was sometimes playing twinkling soft high notes, and Rachmaninoff-esque driving sections that made you feel as if your own hands were falling off. The roles of the orchestra and the baritone soloist followed suit.
There were moments in the piece that harkened to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, or to the emotional scene on Law and Order, the beginning of a somber foreign/indie film, or to one of today’s many big apocalyptic, robot-alien, technological meltdown, virus that is going to destroy all of mankind…movie soundtracks (perhaps minus the booming dubstep-like intros.) Again, is this supposed to be a bad thing or a laughable thing? No. In fact, for such a dramatic story, this music seemed anything but distasteful. Cinematic music strikes a sense of wonder in us, and a sense of there being something bigger than ourselves. The depth of emotion inspired by the text calls for profound music. This brand of profundity, so to speak, is very popular today, and is helping sacred music to maintain its power and relevance.
The texts Mealor used were not from one source. They proclaimed things in a personal manner, such as one’s sins and their contribution to the crucifixion of Christ, or very personal cries for help and mercy. Other texts were a mix of declamatory and personal, such as the classic poem, “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears,” which contrasts a general observation of the crucifixion with personal pleas. One section was devoted to the character of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and her song of grief.
Hearing the premier of this piece was overall a very profound and positive experience. The acoustics of the church were at times to the advantage of the performers or to their disadvantage. Things often sounded muddy and overly reverberant, and at times the baritone soloist was inaudible up against the choir and orchestra. However, the general arc of the piece and its purpose was clear, and based on the audience’s cathartic reaction, the purpose was achieved.