Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Cantique de Jean Racine, Opus 11

"The highest goal of music is to connect their soul to their Divine Nature, not entertainment." 

I often find that pieces of music can impact us greatly.  They resurface at various places in your life, where you can remember the places where they were played, how they affect you, and move you in places you may not have recognized before.

Pieces like the Cantique de Jean Racine, Opus 11 by Gabriel Faure.

The piece is a mixed choir composition, usually intended for accompaniment on an organ, which captures the French paraphrase of a Latin hymn from the breviary of the matins, liturgical books for the darkness of early morning.   Composed in 1865, it became one of Faure's early signature pieces.  He was 19 at its composition.

I first encountered the piece at a show choir summer camp at Duke University in 1994, the summer before my freshman year of high school.  The Brightleaf Music Workshop always aimed to expose its students to a wide variety of choral music, from show choir, to vocal jazz, to gospel, and high holy classical music.  The Cantique was one such classical piece for that year, to be performed in the final shows and additionally to be performed at Sunday services in the Duke Chapel.  

This was one portion of the camp that I always looked forward to. 

Duke remains an interesting college campus.  One side is all straight edges and modern architecture, as if completely designed by engineers.  The other is closer to Oxford and Cambridge, assembled by stone masons and craftsmen.  As if completely designed by artisans.  The Duke Chapel exists on this side of the campus, completely mirroring classical cathedral architecture.  Accordingly, the cross shaped building has amazing acoustics that ring music and sound throughout the structure.  

Plus, it has the most beautiful sounding organs that I've heard.  While the Chapel now has three, at the time, it housed two large pipe organs, one with 6,900 pipes, and the other with 5,033 pipes.  You can feel the bass from those pipes in your soul.

For the 1994 Brightleaf song selection for the Duke Chapel services, the conductors of Brightleaf chose the Cantique de Jean Racine to be accompanied by the chapel's organs, and a men's acapella performance of the Amen section of an Ave Maria variation to close.  

To sing those pieces there, with expert accompaniment, and to feel the music in your body and soul because of the construction of the Chapel was a divine experience.  We can often talk about feeling the Spirit in Christian circles and this often comes with more charismatic music.  Something more modern, something where the darkness and the volume allows you to let go and feel the emotion of the song and the praise being lifted.  

This was different.  This was connecting with something older, something greater. A piece that had been performed for hundreds of years, raising praise to God.  A building designed to honor the Lord in every piece that was chosen for it by masters in their field.  The unity of voices singing in harmony.  And the echo of the music in the air.

I count it as one of the clearest experiences where I felt the Spirit of the Lord's presence. 

The piece would continue to pop up in my life, being a competition piece for All-Region Choir in my high school years.  And now, I'm having the pleasure of singing it with the Cummins Diversity Choir, with others who have likewise encountered it in ages past.

And each time we sing, I still feel the echo of that Sunday morning years ago.

"Verbe égal au Très-Haut, notre unique espérance,
Jour éternel de la terre et des cieux,
De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence:
Divin Sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux.

Répands sur nous le feu de Ta grâce puissante;
Que tout l'enfer fuie au son de Ta voix;
Dissipe le sommeil d'une âme languissante
Qui la conduit à l'oubli de Tes lois!

Ô Christ! sois favorable à ce peuple fidèle,
Pour Te bénir maintenant rassemblé;
Reçois les chants qu'il offre à Ta gloire immortelle,
Et de Tes dons qu'il retourne comblé."

"Word of the Highest, our only hope,
Eternal day of earth and the heavens,
We break the silence of the peaceful night;
Saviour Divine, cast your eyes upon us!

Pour on us the fire of your powerful grace,
That all hell may flee at the sound of your voice;
Banish the slumber of a weary soul,
That brings forgetfulness of your laws!

O Christ, look with favour upon your faithful people
Now gathered here to praise you;
Receive their hymns offered to your immortal glory;
May they go forth filled with your gifts."

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