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The Lord Gave Us This Music for a Reason

An Introduction to Tomás Luis de Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories


The Crucifixion by Fra Angelico, detail

Father José proposed that we focus our attention this Lent on three pieces of music: Mozart’s Requiem, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, and Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories. The Newsletter spoke to Sebastian Modarelli, Director of Music and Liturgy for the Co-Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in Rochester, Minnesota, about Father José’s recommendation and the importance of Victoria’s music for us today.

CL Newsletter: Many Americans don’t listen to classical music on a regular basis, so when we have a proposal like this from Father José, it seems to be a challenge. A “jump” has to be made. What would you say to a person who has to make this jump from listening to popular music to one of these pieces of music?

Sebastian Modarelli: What I have witnessed looking at people in the Movement is that there is not such a “jump” to take. They experience beauty in their own lives, and they discover that this music expresses that beauty better than any other music that they were trying to use to distract themselves before. It is an education, but not understood as a jump, but as discovering something already inside you that made you enter reality.

Many people get it right away. In Mass we sing certain songs, but not others that maybe are Christian too, but are too sentimental. We don’t need to explain to them that “in our tradition we don’t sing sentimental songs." The encounter made them experience that sentimentality has a limit. Also, the “distraction” of certain music, as fun as it can be sometimes, becomes less and less interesting.


Encountering something that has started to reveal the mystery of Being, being in front of Reality beyond its appearances, makes you perceive classical music as a friend, a way to perceive the Mystery more than other kinds of music.

CLN: The music corresponds to something that is happening in us?

SM: Imagine a guy who is always poorly dressed or never showers. But then he falls in love. For him it would not be a jump to pull himself together. It would be the consequence of his meeting someone who makes him look at himself and say I cannot be this way anymore.

CLN: Considering Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories, I wonder if you could help us understand why this piece is of value for us today?


SM: When I was praying Vespers the other day, there was a phrase that leapt out at me: “He. . . did not spare his own son but handed him over for us all” (Romans 8:32). The father did not spare his own son. Because of our salvation, he put him to death, something no father would be able to do. And his mother said “yes” to that. This is a fact that happened in the Middle East in a certain time in history. This is not imagination. No murder in history has given birth to such beautiful music for centuries as this fact did. We listen to this music because it is a fact that happened.


Music allows you to enter into this fact. It is the difference between studying theology and reading Dante. You can understand things with reasons, but they do not penetrate you. When you read Dante, you understand things like virginity, love, beauty, destiny, career--worldly things. You understand all that in three verses in Dante in a way that you could not get from a whole encyclical. Not that the encyclical is not important, but we are made in a certain way: the text is not fully understood without music. The facts that we are going through in Holy Week cannot be understood without this music. As Father Carron says, even if you have a PhD in love, you cannot understand what love is until it happens to you.


At one point I read that Father Giussani said that our people understand more with our songs than with our texts. I was surprised, because Giussani did not sing, he talked. We have amazing texts from Giussani. Once when I was at lunch with him in 1995 in Italy, I asked him why he had said this--because it seems crazy. We have an experience of correspondence when we read what he has written.


He said, “Reason, which we use to understand the words we read, is like the pillars of a highway, but music is the highway on top.” My understanding of this is that without reason, music is pure sentimentality, but without music, you do not go anywhere with your reason. Listening to Victoria’s music is not an optional addition to our knowledge of Christ.


CLN: A highway is an interesting image. A highway will take you somewhere. When we approach something using our reason, we have a sense of control, a sense of distance on the thing. But music will take you directly to an experience of a reality.


SM: If someone came to me with all the proofs that Christ did not exist, the one thing I would need to hold on would be that otherwise this music would not exist. This music is born of a certain intuition of the mystery that is not the product of man. This is a fact that you cannot deny.

CLN: Can you share anything else we ought to know as we listen to the Tenebrae Responsories?

SM: The Tenebrae Responsories arose in 1585, shortly after an important moment in history. Polyphony had become an end in itself. The text was no longer intelligible, and the music distracted from the liturgy. This is what moved the Church and the pope at the Council of Trent (1562-1563) close to the decision of removing music from the liturgy--because it distracted from the liturgy. It is said that Palestrina (who may have been Victoria’s teacher) composed a Mass for the pope (Missa Papae Marcelli) that convinced him to keep polyphony in the Mass.


Palestrina, and Victoria after him, chose to privilege the intelligibility of the text. The text is no longer a sound pretext to do what you want to do. The music is at the service of the text. The fact that you need to obey the text, to be subject to what the text is expressing, made the text more clear and the music more beautiful. This kind of polyphony, as Father Giussani points out, announces the word. It is miracle music.


For this reason, we should not dismiss Father José’s proposal as a whim or preference. This music makes you enter into Holy Week. It is very difficult for us to understand Holy Week without this music. The Lord gave us this music for a reason.

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