Close Your Eyes and Hold on Tight, Here Comes the Music of the Ascension
The great music of this feast is triumphant and inspires us to put into practice all that Jesus taught
by Zoe Romanowsky, May 5, 2016
At Baltimore’s only downtown Ordinariate parish, Mount Calvary, a pastoral associate named Noah Jacob Tyler will join the choir at the high Mass for today’s feast of the Ascension. Although these days he’s often needed in the pew to help with his young children, Tyler says he’s always happy to be pressed into service as a tenor, and the sung Mass for the feast of the Ascension is a particularly special one to sing.
This year, Palestrina, Victoria, and Finzi are the selections made by parish choirmaster, Dr. Allen Buskirk, and Tyler spoke to Aleteia about what it’s like to sing classical sacred music like this for the feast of the Ascension:
In your view as a singer, what is special about these musical selections for the Ascension?
The Gregorian chant propers and English hymns can be heard at all of our high masses, so I’ll focus on the Palestrina Mass and the two motets: The best way to participate in this polyphonic Mass — the Missa Aeterna Christi Munera — is with your eyes closed. The text is familiar to everyone, and the rhythms of this setting inspire a restful spirit. May I say that it’s incredibly beautiful? After learning recently that Thomas Aquinas defined beauty in terms of integrity, proportionality and splendor, I think I can.
The motets, on the other hand, are very focused on this particular feast. Finzi’s “God Is Gone Up” utilizes full organ and full voice to shout the triumph of Christ’s ascent. Rather than locking into a set scale and meter, Finzi pushes and pulls the listener with mixed meters, key changes, and loud and soft passages into the shocking awareness of what Christ is accomplishing.
The Victoria we will sing is a challenging five-voice arrangement of a beautiful text, a singing of the poetry:
Christ ascending on high, alleluia.
Hath led captivity captive, alleluia.
He made this gift to men, alleluia.
God ascends amid jubilation,
and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet, alleluia.
He made this gift to men, alleluia.
While we’re more used to the style of this era, Victoria is about as challenging as it gets. Every voice is an island, weaving in and out of duets and trios, trusting the choirmaster and the notes on the page like Peter on the water trusted Christ. When you trust your own ear and stop counting for a moment you sink quickly! This music drives its intensity through much narrower musical constraints than the Finzi, and a little more attention is required to take in the subtle textures.
I love the challenge of singing this music and the work of catching its intricacies when listening from the pew can be just as rewarding.
What is significant about celebrating the Ascension? Why should it matter to us?
The typical Ascension homily begins with an attempt to dispel the melancholy of losing Jesus, the God-with-us, who we just barely got back. Perhaps these homilies have worked, because several triumphant themes now fill my spirit whenever this feast approaches.
The arch over our chancel at Mount Calvary reads “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). While the cross may be the most significant lifting, the Ascension puts Christ in position to do that great drawing. Those left staring at the clouds are admonished in a message for all of us: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Melancholy (and more) is appropriate at the cross; this feast completes the victory and urges us to put into practice all that the Lord taught while on earth.
The imagery I associate with the Ascension has also changed in the last year. While helping to care for an artist and church sacristan who passed away this December, I found numerous clippings from the sports page lying around, such as slam dunks and touchdown catches. It turned out that this man hated sports but loved the Ascension — the human body lifted off the ground with a strong purpose — and was using these clips as a model for a painting he was working on. What a contrast to feet drooping out of the bottom of a cloud! Now when I see the power of an athlete I have a fresh image of our Lord in that glorious moment.
I should add that celebrating this Mass on Thursday rather than moving it to Sunday not only gives this dramatic event its own spotlight, it makes some mathematical sense of the structure of the church calendar — 40 days after Easter and nine days before Pentecost, the origin of the duration of the novena.
You’ve sung different types of music for Masses. How does sacred music change the way we experience a liturgy? How does it change the way we pray?
The Body of Christ is the central focus of every church and liturgy, but the path the Spirit takes to incorporate us into the mystical Body surpasses reason. Music has a central role here, and it’s one I continue to explore. Great silence and great music are on the kind of spectrum that meets at both ends, and once you’ve experienced either it’s hard to be satisfied with anything in the middle.
Many mystical experiences involve letting go, getting lost or losing control of various “faculties,” as Teresa of Avila called them. Great music, especially in its truest liturgical context, releases the soul up to the feast of the Lamb at the Sanctus, and down to the “worm and no man” during Lent. Prayer is not contained in any words, but in this movement of the soul.
Sacred music is also full of “handles” and missing some of them is often the point. Sometimes the text of the music catches me and evokes a prayer. Other times, I’m oblivious to the text and catch only a rhythm or short cadence that has such perfect balance or splendor, it draws me back to the God of beauty.
While all of this can be very exciting, it’s very hit-or-miss with two little children beside me in the pew. Often I’m just thankful to have the Mass parts punctuated enough to make me aware that they’re happening.
For a taste of Victoria’s “Ascendens Christus in album,” Tyler recommends this rendition by Gradualia:
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video curator for Aleteia.