Music of the Counter-Reformation

Last Saturday, Kantorei KC offered a fascinating program of music reflecting the religious and philosophical conflicts of the French Counter-Reformation, demonstrating the way in which the conflict between Catholics and Protestants was also echoed in worship music.

The central piece of the Kantorei’s program was Missa Pro Defunctis, a mass by Eustache du Caurroy, first performed at the funeral of Henry IV of France in 1610.  It is an interesting piece that combines polyphonic composition with chant, as each section is introduced with the “priest’s” chant and the final “In Paradisum” and “credo quod redemptor meus” are solo chant pieces sung by soprano and tenor respectively.

This is a long composition, held together by those chant sections that were very effective in refocusing the complex tapestry of sound that builds through each movement of the mass.  Kantorei KC’s signature sound was very present here.  They have an interesting tonal quality that seems quite suitable for this music and their ability to blend harmonically through the complexity of Du Caurroy’s composition was very effective. There were a few places where the higher voices seemed to overpower with a little too muscular a tone; however, the overall effect of the piece was stunning.

To reflect the more austere vision of the Calvinist movement, the program used several selections from the Genevan Psalter of Louis Bourgeois, including the musical setting “All People that on Earth do Dwell” that we know as the Doxology.  These monophonic compositions including “Bread of the World in Mercy Broken” and “O Darkening Night” are an interesting aural contrast to the density of the Missa Pro Defunctis.  They were on the program to demonstrate the manner in which the philosophical debate over the religious service played out in the music of the time.  However, despite the fact that they have distinctly familiar hymn qualities, their effectiveness and their beauty are not diminished by the relative simplicity of their composition.

The program ended with a contemporary setting by Yves Castagnet of Psalms 26, 18 and 115. Trois Psaumes provided a very interesting conclusion to this concert that had been framing this musical debate.  Here we had settings of Psalms, not the mass, but with an equally dense musical framework.  Psalm 26 (“The Lord is my light and my salvation”) was set for men’s voices; Psalm 18 (“The heavens sing the glory of God”) for women, and Psalm 115 (“I keep the faith, I who was greatly afflicted”) for full chorus, giving a chance to hear and appreciate the depth of the vocal ranges in Kantorei KC’s complement.

Kantorei KC has made their mission the presentation of interesting, under-heard and intellectual musical compositions.  This concert was no exception.  The musical and philosophical ideas it offered for its audience to consider are the rare but important moments of reflection that we should seek out more often.

Kantorei KC
The Music of the French Counter-Reformation
Reviewed on Saturday, June 2, 2018
Walnut Gardens Community of Christ
19201 E RD Mize, Independence, MO
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