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On Eric Whitacre’s ‘Lux Aurumque’…

The music of Eric Whitacre polarises people – not in the way that say the music of John Rutter or Karl Jenkins does – but in a way that has many people scratching their heads and others bathing in the reflected glory of the new saviour of choral music. In either fashion, he is hugely popular and his works are performed around the world from leading choirs, choral societies and glee clubs to cathedral choirs and parish churches – for many, he is the voice of a style of contemporary choral music that is quickly becoming a lingua franca. Maybe it is his popularity that causes this polarisation (he is also, you’ll be glad to know; now a model as well – a problem Karl Jenkins will never have) or maybe it is his embracing of modern culture and new media (the ‘Virtual Choir’ etc) but for all his success, some will never fully believe all the hype and the lavish praise.

Maybe the problem is that many of his pieces just sound the same? He wouldn’t be the first composer in the world to suffer that problem, but it is very pronounced in Whitacre’s work. The defining characteristic of his pieces is the ‘mood’ creation – that luxurious, slightly spine-tingling sound-world that is the hallmark of his work. Many composers go to great lengths to create the right mood (Howells especially), but this ethereal sustained melancholy is present in the vast majority of Whitacre’s works – and it is what people expect to hear in a Whitacre piece. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but whereas in Howells ‘mood’ creation is a complex set of traits including reaction to text, acoustic of building, association with pre-existing material and the socio-historic place of the text within the liturgy – in Whitacre it appears to be changing chords very slowly and adding a few notes here and there. I’m obviously being facetious, but I think the nub of the problem is that Whitacre’s works feel like they were written on the choir voice setting of an old Casio keyboard – a collection of very nice sounding chords, covered in lashings of reverb. People will disagree with me, and perhaps rightly so, but it doesn’t get away from the fact that it’s just chords. Nice chords.

His work Lux Aurumque (Light and Gold) is perhaps Whitacre’s most well-known work and the most succinct example of his compositional style. The opening setting of the word ‘Lux’ is Whitacre in a nutshell, with C# minor chords moving to either G# minor (with C# and E) or to a different position of C# minor (with B and D#) – whichever way you look at it these soft, slowly moving added chords are pure Whitacre. The warm bath of modal C# minor is interrupted for a chromatic descent on the word ‘gravisque’ (heavy) before resolving back to more added chord fun. There follows some antiphony between men and women before a resounding F# major chord for those celestial angels. Whitacre then modulates to the relative major for the final sonorous utterances leaving us all warm inside and in doubt that this was a journey to the ‘Lux’ of the title.

It isn’t bad music by any means, it’s just not very interesting and I’m not convinced it rewards repeated listening and performance. It strikes me as music for teenagers, heavy with the pathos and melancholy that people of that age often have. There are perhaps better works by Whitacre (Sleep for example is both affecting and interesting) and certainly better works by composers of a similar ilk (Lauridsen, Łukaszewski etc), but above all I hope that this music is what gets people into contemporary choral music, and once there they go on to find more interesting avenues of discovery. They probably won’t though.

PAC

(To buy this recording, Elora Festival Singers, Naxos, click here)

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