On Paweł Łukaszewski’s ‘Nunc Dimittis’…
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about musical traditions recently and how one of the most pertinent issues composers in the 21st Century have to deal with is how to respond to existing musical traditions. That is a much bigger and thornier question than I’m prepared to go into here, but it got me thinking about current ‘traditions’ in contemporary music, particularly contemporary choral music and how one deals with these whilst trying to write original music. Undeniably the strongest contemporary choral tradition is that of the ‘mystic-minimalists’ and the slow, lamenting modality that characterises their work. This style of music espoused by the likes of Henryk Górecki (1933 – 2010), Arvo Pärt (1935 – ) and John Tavener (1944 – ) has become a sort of lingua franca for new choral music, so strong is it that every subsequent composer who is interested in writing choral music (specifically sacred choral music) has to deal with the ramifications of their music (and I summarise this in black and white terms): to follow in their footsteps, to go against everything they stand for or to try and find some sort of middle ground between the two.
There are a group of composers who have definitely chosen to follow in the footsteps of Górecki et al, who you might even class as second generation mystic minimalists (without there being any sort of negative undertone) whose music has the possibility of being more popular and more synonymous with a contemporary choral sound than their predecessors. This group is spearheaded by the American choral titans of Morten Lauridsen (1943 – ) and Eric Whitacre (1970 – ) and by their British counterparts Gabriel Jackson (1962 – ), Paul Mealor (1976 – ) and Tarik O-Regan (1978 – ). One of the most interesting and unswerving in his post-mystic minimalist aesthetic is the Polish composer Paweł Łukaszewski (1968 – ) who’s deeply devotional and powerful sacred music is performed across the world.
Łukaszewski’s music is rooted in a deep and wide ranging understanding of Catholicism, his output is nearly entirely sacred and like Górecki or Messiaen even his works in instrumental and orchestral genres are directly related to his faith. His most performed works are his unaccompanied sacred choral pieces and there are many recordings of his work, including much heralded recordings by Trinity College Cambridge and Merton College Oxford. Like his predecessors, Łukaszewski’s music is largely tonal (or modal) with diatonic dissonances (clashes between notes in a key, rather than out of a key), homophonic (mainly chords rather than lots of individual melodies) and plays on the transcendent qualities of slow, spiritual music in long, lofty acoustics. Although he has written many works, including several oratorios, it is perhaps the short choral pieces that best encapsulate his style: of these I chose his setting of the Nunc Dimittis (2007).
It may be true, or it may be apocryphal, but the story goes that the Nunc Dimittis was written on the plane journey from Poland to England for the recording session with Trinity College because there was space left on the disc; this shouldn’t necessarily suggest anything other than two things: here we have Łukaszewski at his most instant, his initial response to a text, and secondly that he has an excellent inner ear and isn’t put off by in-flight movies and safety announcements. The work is slow (adagio placido), serene and makes the most of the sonorous qualities of a group of soloists removed from the main choir. A recent review of the Merton disc referred to this work as having ‘great integrity’ (though I’m not sure what a work without integrity sounds like?) and it is certainly a serious, heartfelt work full of gravitas and devotion.
Although the work begins in a solid G♯ minor, it isn’t the G♯ minor of Bach or Mozart; Łukaszewski quickly cadences the first section in G minor before beginning the next in A minor – not necessarily a traditional progression. This semi-tonal shift is then emphasised by the third and final section beginning in B♭ minor, this then quietening and fading to almost nothing. It is this final section that finds the work at its most radiant and transcendent – the repeating of the line ‘Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel’ (To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel – Book of Common Prayer, 1662) is replete with gently resolving chords and multi-part choral texture, the soft dissonance created by the solo alto and soprano against this leading to one of those moments when your hairs stand on end.
Of course, not all contemporary choral music sounds like this and not all of Paweł Łukaszewski’s music sounds like this, but this is a sound of modern sacred choral music; go from a cathedral in America to a college choir in England to a basilica in continental Europe and you will hear sounds very similar to the Nunc Dimittis, maybe for the first time since the Reformation. That’s tradition.
To buy this recording (Trinity College Cambridge, Stephen Layton) click here.