Saturday, December 22, 2007

Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais

Jean Langlais lost his sight at 3, was a devote Catholic and experienced the trauma of occupation in Paris during World War II. These elements had a profound influence on shaping him into one of the foremost composers of sacred music in the 20th century. Now the choral group Gloriae Dei Cantores has honored the centennial of his birth with a newly released two-disk CD, “Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais.”

“There’s a high level of truth in his music,” said James Jordan, an assistant director of the choir and one of the organists on the recording. “What Langlais was about, we try to go after music like that.”

The choir sings three of Langlais’ masses spanning 32 years: the well-known “Messe Solennelle” of 1949, evoking the terrors of occupation and yearning for peace; “Messe en style ancien” from 1952, demonstrating his love for Gregorian chant; and “Grant Us Thy Peace,” set in English and commissioned from the famous Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, England in 1981.

“The voice of someone like Langlais is something we feel very strongly about keeping alive,” Dr. Jordan said. “His grasp of the elements of church is so important. It was a big statement of faith on his part. He was a strong Catholic and devoted to the Blessed Mother.”

He also was devoted to Gregorian chant and improvisation. His music reflects this, as well as the events in his life. He chose to stay in Paris during the war and because of his blindness, his musical gift “was keened up even more.” Dr. Jordan says this is heard in “Messe Solennelle” -- “the noise, the marching, the breaking of glass, then the silence when it was there. It’s a musical response to the world. You can hear the tension, the clashes in harmonies, the chords, the absolute outcry. Because he could not see, the music became a reflection of what he heard. It was what he saw while he couldn’t see, what he was able to express because he had to get it out through sound.”

The choir chose the title “Eclipse” as a way to capture this emotional range.

“He had an aural sense of great contrast, lightness and darkness,” Dr. Jordan said. “What he tried to capture in his music is light and dark. It demands that you grapple with him and what he’s saying.”

The organ works of Langlais, who continued to compose until his death in 1991, constitute the largest body of music for that instrument other than the works of J.S. Bach. Dr. Jordan says it’s important on two levels. “It speaks to people’s spirits as they listen, but it also teaches. He believed music had a role to teach in the church. This isn’t a CD for highfaluting people with music education backgrounds, but a musical statement to everybody that liturgy and worship must be in all ways beautiful and truthful. Langlais was heartbroken by what he called the revolution in Catholic music in the 50s. He felt so strongly about the gems the Catholic church had.”

This recording, featuring 40 choir members, three organists, two directors and several brass players, has been well received. Steven Ritter, writing for “Audiophile Audition,” said: "These two CDs are about as good an introduction to [Langlais’] art as I know of, and the fabulous GloriƦ Dei Cantores sing with the enthusiasm and devotion that their fans have come to expect. . . . Great singing and one of the few ways to come to know this man’s work. The sound, taken down at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, is first rate." 

Maybe even more significant is the response of Langlais’ widow,  Marie Louise Langlais: "I have been amazed by the very high level of the performances, the choir, the brilliant brass, and the organists,” she wrote in an e-mail to Paraclete Press, which released the CD this fall. “The accompaniment, for example, of the ‘Messe Solennelle’ is absolutely magnificent, as are the very good tempi: not too slow, not too fast, the perfect tempi in a beautiful acoustic. And the Grand Orgue interventions are striking. I should say, one of the very best performances of this mass I ever heard. In my opinion, GloriƦ Dei Cantores are a top choir, certainly one of the best in the USA, and Elizabeth Patterson’s direction of my husband’s music is absolutely wonderful. She understood everything, in the big vocal works as in the more intimate motets."

Langlais’ music is well known in this country because he performed here often, prompting many Americans to go to France to study with him. They are his greatest legacy, Dr. Jordan says.

“All his students passing along everything he believed, passing on a spiritual life he was so dedicated to that is in his music. He was such an incredible man.”

Related web sites:

Gloriae Dei Cantores
Paraclete Press

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