Five great motets

The Church’s liturgy has inspired great choral music for centuries. Unfortunately, that part of Catholicism’s cultural memory has been somewhat misplaced in recent years. One reason why is the widespread misapprehension among liturgists that 21st-century congregations can only “hear” music of the Andrew Lloyd Weber genre. (One memorial acclamation I heard recently was straight out of the “Les Mis” playbook, the only difference being that the Lord, not Cosette, was the ditty’s alleged subject.) Experience, however, proves that congregations respond gratefully to great music, and there are few classical forms that are better suited to the Roman rite than the motet.

Herewith, then, five wonderful motets, each within the capabilities of a parish serious about its choir and its music, with which to begin the Great Choral Revival:

“Sicut cervus” (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina). Palestrina, the great master of Renaissance polyphony, also hit the trifecta of Renaissance choirmaster appointments, serving in Rome as maestro de capella at St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major. This limpid setting of the Vulgate’s Psalm 41, verse 1, displays Palestrina’s genius at its most accessible and radiant. “Sicut cervus” is especially appropriate for Masses in which the texts stress the divine gift of the Eucharist, the Church’s longing for which is so often symbolized by the yearning deer of the psalm.

“If Ye Love Me” (Thomas Tallis). Tallis had the difficult task of keeping his musical head on his shoulders during the Elizabethan persecution of the Church in Tudor England. But Elizabeth I was so taken with his music, and that of William Byrd, that she not only spared these two publicly professed Catholics martyrdom; she gave them a lucrative patent on printing and publishing music. “If Ye Love Me” is, technically, an anthem, not a motet, as the text—the communion antiphon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year A (John 14:15-17)—is in English rather than Latin. Irrespective of the musicological definitions, however, Tallis’s composition is an example of English choral music at its most expressive, and “fits” well throughout liturgical year.

“Ave Verum” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Written in 1791 while Mozart was completing “The Magic Flute,” his most “Masonic” opera, this setting of a 14th-century eucharistic hymn (perhaps written by Pope Innocent VI) is widely and rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. Whatever Mozart’s relations with Enlightenment Freemasonry, it strains credulity to think that a non-believer could have written the “Ave Verum.”

Ubi Caritas (Maurice Duruflé). Duruflé, who was born in 1902 and died during the second Reagan administration, was a highly self-critical composer, a musical perfectionist. And in “Ubi Caritas, he got it exactly right. Taking an ancient Latin text (which scholars believe dates to the first Christian centuries), he preserved the essentials of the hymn’s origins in Gregorian chant and complemented them with a manifestly modern composition, yet one in complete harmony with the Roman Church’s musical tradition. I can’t say that I like his well-known  “Requiem” as well as Gabriel Fauré’s, but the Duruflé“Ubi Caritas, which is especially fitting for Holy Thursday but is appropriate in a variety of liturgical seasons, ought to be a staple of parish music programs.

“O Magnum Mysterium (Morten Lauridsen). Before I discovered the music of Morten Lauridsen, you would have had a hard time convincing me that great music could be produced out of the University of Southern California: great running backs, obviously; but great chorale music? Well, there it is: U.S.C. professor Lauridsen, whose Danish background suggests a Lutheran heritage, has mined the hymn texts of both the Roman Missal and the old Roman Breviary for some splendid works, of which my Desert Island Discs choice would be this setting of one of the responsories for the pre-conciliar Matins of Christmas. If your son or daughter has been in a high school choir in recent decades, you probably know Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux, the frequently performed third part of his cycle “Lux Aeterna. Both “work” liturgically, but to my mind, “O Magnum Mysterium” is the nobler composition.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”