Catholic liturgy has inspired composers for centuries.
Classical luminaries such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Berlioz have all composed sung Masses. Vespers services (that is, evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours) are among the works of Mozart, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff. Many of these composers were not Catholic. Others, although baptized as infants, were professed agnostics. Yet all had enough respect for, and understanding of Catholic liturgy, that they could produce beautiful works of art that have our sacred rites as a foundation.
Although some of these compositions have been used as the setting for actual Masses or vespers services, others were meant solely as performance pieces, because their length or their musical intricacy made them unsuitable for use in worship. Even so, these works of “concert liturgy” can be experienced as prayer by those who attend to the sacred lyrics and open themselves to the emotion produced by the music.
J.J. Wright, a young contemporary composer, continues the tradition of liturgically-inspired concert music. And he brings an active Catholic faith to his work, as well. Several years ago, Wright’s Advent cantata O Emmanuel ranked high on the Billboard charts. This was a setting of the seven “O Antiphons” that appear in both the Mass and in vespers Dec. 17–23. His new release is Vespers for the Immaculate Conception, based on evening prayer for Dec. 8. It debuted in October as the No. 2 classical album on Billboard, and continued to rank high for weeks afterward.
J.J. Wright, a young contemporary composer, continues the tradition of liturgically-inspired concert music.
Wright says that the Liturgy of the Hours (of which vespers is one element) has been part of his prayer life for many years. While living in New York he participated in vespers conducted by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. He was the keyboard accompanist for the “praise and worship” style of music the friars used at these events. Later, as a student at the University of Notre Dame, a class on Gregorian chant inspired him and several friends to gather daily to chant Matins according to its ancient musical forms.
“Both of these experiences shaped me in important, albeit very different ways, but really helped me grow in my faith and feel more connected to the Church both now and in its older manifestations of prayer,” he said.
Wright’s Vespers for the Immaculate Conception seamlessly fuses chant, classical, contemporary pop sounds, as well as jazz, into a unified whole.
But it was more than a love for liturgy that made Wright choose this particular set of psalms and prayers — that of Dec. 8 — for his newest composition. This time the choice was very personal. The composer’s wife had experienced a miscarriage at 12 weeks into pregnancy.
“I had no idea how to cope with the grief and disappointment that we were going through, but this confusion led me to pray with the text of the vespers in a different way than I had before,” Wright said. “Through the liturgical prayer itself, I was given the gift of meeting Mary and Jesus directly in my work, and the music that resulted was a direct expression of a very real sense of knowing that Mary’s parents and Mary herself must have known well the struggles that we were going through as a family.”
Two particular texts that particularly spoke to Wright were:
- “From the dust he lifts up the lowly, from the ash heap he raises the poor, to set them in the company of princes” (Psalm 113:7-8).
- “All generations shall call me blessed, the Almighty has done great things for me” (from the Magnificat in Luke 1:48-49).
“These texts were the light in the darkness during this time and through seeing them spoken across time from the Book of Psalms to the Gospels offered a far-reaching sense of consolation in the midst of the difficulty of what we were going through,” Wright said.
Since most of us have pretty fixed tastes in sacred music, listening to Wright’s Vespers might help us appreciate a greater variety of musical forms applied to sung prayer.
When asked how we can (intellectually or spiritually) accommodate both traditional and contemporary sacred music, Wright put it well: “We are called to pray unceasingly. I don’t think everyone is going to find their primary expression of sung prayer in one or the other of these styles, but I do think that an authentic encounter with an open heart can lead to a real experience of communal prayer in all types of sacred music.”
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