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  • Writer's pictureMarkdavin Obenza

In the Midst of Life


THE MOST HAUNTING THING ABOUT LIFE IS DEATH. It is hard to think of one without the other—they are opposite, but interconnected, hallmarks of the human condition. In the midst of life we are burdened with death, and we have the musical repertoire to prove it. With no shortage of requiems, motets, marches, and songs about the end, the musical expressions of our mortality ought to be a genre on their own—and for good reason. We turn to them when words fail to express our feelings of grief and despair or our darkest sorrows.



SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2023, at 7:30 p.m.

Holy Rosary Church

4139 42nd Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98116


Arvo Pärt - Magnificat​

​Arvo Pärt - I Am the True Vine​

​Eric Whitacre - When David Heard

John Sheppard - Media vita​

​Cristóbal de Morales - Circumdederunt me

​John Tavener - Song for Athene


The program invites you to explore the sorrow and meaning behind a selection of motets, the depth of which cannot be appreciated without context in mind. Consider Eric Whitacre's 17-minute monument, When David Heard, a tribute to one of his friends who recently lost a teenage son in a car accident, or John Sheppard’s 20-minute meditation Media vita, written in the face of an influenza epidemic which claimed countless lives and possibly Sheppard himself, and Arvo Pärt, who was blacklisted by the Soviet musical establishment for the spiritual content of his music and who famously said “You can kill people with sound. And if you can kill, then maybe there is also the sound that is opposite of killing.” With context in mind, we can almost taste the tears of despair from the loss of a child, the wailing of thousands who perished during an epidemic, and even the life-giving sounds of Arvo Pärt, echoing through time, resonating through the very notes on the page.


But the program is not intended to lure you into a state of depression, rather to offer the perspective that we are not, and have not been, alone in our despair. The music is a testament to our remarkable ability to persevere in the face of death and adversity, to continue on even when all hope is lost. This is our greatest human achievement—a miracle

unto itself.


Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is possibly the world’s most-performed living composer. After some time spent experimenting with neoclassical styles, Pärt decided to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and serialism in his compositions, displeasing the Soviet establishment enough to cause them to ban his early works. Pärt, not pleased with his output, went into several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th through 16th centuries. Out of this period of musical soul-searching emerged a unique compositional style that informed his music beginning in the 1970s: tintinnabuli. Tintinnabuli, meaning “a small bell,” is a compositional technique consisting of a pairing of two voices, a scaler melodic voice against an arpeggiated tintinnabuli voice.



Calling back to the ancient styles of plainchant, Pärt uses drones. The solo soprano part in the Magnificat (1989) holds the pitch C as the tonal center for the piece. Through varying note lengths, repetition, and obscuring the meter, Pärt establishes a sense of timelessness. The half-step dissonances and rich harmony pull us into a state of contemplation.


I am the true vine (1996) was composed for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral in England. The work offers a twist on Pärt's tintinnabuli technique. Syllables of text are dispersed among the parts in such a way that each part is often completing another part’s sentence or word. Also, the distribution of the melody among the parts—bass to soprano, back down to bass—resembles the vine depicted in the text.


Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), one of America’s most popular composers, set When David Heard (1999) to a single sentence from David’s lament. A tribute to a friend and commissioner of the work who lost a teenage son in a car accident, Whitacre set out to write a 17-minute masterpiece that held silence as the principal musical motive. A display of majestic cluster chords unfolding and constantly evolving, this piece stands as the most deeply personal piece

Whitacre has written.



John Sheppard (1515-1558), often overshadowed by the more renowned Byrd and Tallis, served under three monarchs—Edward VI and his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth—and was a key figure in Mary Tudor’s program to compose elaborate polyphony for the Sarum Rite, which was restored in 1553. A member of the Chapel Royal, Sheppard was buried in

Westminster on December 21, 1558. A new strain of pandemic influenza swept England in 1557, killing one in ten Londoners, and possibly Sheppard himself. Media vita is thought to have been written near the end of Sheppard’s life. As he wrote during one of the darkest periods in history, one wonders if Sheppard wrote his most profound meditation on our mortality as a final plea for salvation.


Cristóbal Morales (1500-1553), considered to be the most influential Spanish composers before Victoria, spent the beginning and end of his career in Spain, and for ten years in the middle he sang with the Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome. Morales was a prolific composer and wrote many difficult masses for the expert papal choir. His Circumdederunt me, however,

is not one of his demanding works. An antiphon for the Office of the Dead, the short motet is set to an excerpt from Psalm 17. Set for lower voices, we have chosen to perform this piece one to a part in order to capture a more personal sound for the somber text:


"The groanings of death have encircled me: the sorrows of hell have enclosed me."

John Tavener (1944-2013)—not to be confused with Tudor composer John Taverner—like Pärt has undergone a remarkable musical and spiritual reformation. After accepting the Orthodox Christian faith, he developed a new musical style, one that favored a slow, minimalist unfolding of melodic material. The inspiration for Tavener’s best known work, Song for Athene (1993), came to mind while at the funeral of a family friend, Athene Hariades. Tavener had heard her reading Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey and after her funeral developed

the idea of writing a song which combined words from the Orthodox funeral service and Shakespeare's Hamlet. The most notable performance of Song for Athene was at the Westminster Abbey funeral service for Princess Diana of Wales in 1997, sung as her coffin was carried from the nave.


- Markdavin Obenza



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