in memoriam reducere studemus: for choir, soloists, and piano: revised edition

Research output: Non-textual formComposition


[Programme Note:] The sources for this piece, like so many others, reach back to Gregorian Chant, and especially to the "propers" for the Mass: that is, the parts of the liturgical text which vary to suit the occasion. By the ninth century, chants for the liturgy were complete and codified, and the creative impulse shifted to their elaboration. New texts (tropes) were inserted within existing chants, and wholly new compositions (sequences) were added to the propers. To one celebrated figure, Notker Balbulus (c840-912), can be attributed at least forty sequences; among them is one known as Natus ante saecula, which begins:

Natus ante saecula dei filius invisibilis, interminus,
Per quem fit machina coeli ac terrae . . .

Over the next few centuries, composers shifted gradually towards a more complex, polyphonic elaboration of chants. This trend culminated in the full-blown counterpoint employed by Renaissance composers; among these was Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), who is notable in part for having focussed extensively on the propers of the Mass. Three large volumes called the Choralis Constantinus contain Isaac's settings of the propers—including the sequences—of nearly a hundred masses. Like his contemporaries, Isaac used each of the appropriate chants as a cantus firmus: that is, a melodic basis for his own composition, sometimes presented unaltered in a single part and sometimes used more freely as the basis for intricate counterpoint. The very first proper in Choralis Constantinus, volume 2, includes Isaac's elaboration of the sequence Natus ante saecula which which Notker Balbulus had decorated the liturgy four centuries before.

Time passed; the Catholic Church became concerned about the constant expansion of liturgical texts and music. At the Council of Trent (1542-1563), the Church outlawed all but four sequences and imposed significant constraints on musical style. Notker's sequences, and Isaac's compositions using them, were consigned to limbo.

More time passed; in 1904 a young musicologist named Anton Webern was casting about for a thesis topic. His attention was drawn to Isaac's Choralis Constantinus, volume 2, and he produced a scholarly edition of the music in that volume. Though he subsequently abandoned musicology for composing, his affection for Renaissance music and its techniques continued throughout his life. Webern's music was intricately contrapuntal, employing such devices as canon, palindrome, and proportional meters; and it is not unreasonable to see in his influential extensions of twelve-tone technique a twentieth-century reconception of the notion of cantus firmus. Webern died in 1945, shot outside his house at dusk by an American soldier who thought the cigar Webern had lit was a weapon.

In 1995, I was asked to compose a new work for the West Chester University Concert Choir, marking the fiftieth anniversary of this event. By great good fortune I came across a poem called "Anton Webern's birthday"; I'm enormously grateful to the poet, Pierre Joris, for allowing me to use his work in an abridged form as the primary text for my composition. "in memoriam reducere studemus" is a translation of a key line in Joris' text: "we try to remember."

Webern's murder, framed by history, consigned him to history; and it seemed necessary to mark this occasion with a piece about history, memory, and the distortions, omissions, and elaborations of the former that the latter inevitably creates. in memoriam reducere studemus is meant to continue the tradition of reuse and elaboration that reaches back to Notker and beyond. The music for the soloists is akin to Webern's in that it employs twelve-tone techniques; these are, however, distorted by the music sung by the choir. That music is drawn from Isaac's setting of Natus ante saecula, as edited by Webern, but with Isaac's music significantly modified and rewritten, as Isaac himself had modified and rewritten the sequence composed by Notker Balbulus. Portions of Notker's sequence itself also appear, as does a modified version of the first few notes of the Introit from the Gregorian liturgy to which Notker's sequence had been added. in memoriam reducere studemus thus intends both to encompass and to extend the thread which memory traces through history: Gregorian—Notker—Isaac—Webern———. Itself now completed, in memoriam reducere studemus becomes just another length of that thread: a memory not only of these fragments but of the certainty of loss.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLebanon NH
PublisherFrog Peak Music
Media of outputScore
Size19 pages
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2015
EventOnly Memory of Forgetting - The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, United States
Duration: 14 Jun 2015 → …


  • Music
  • Composition
  • Anton Webern
  • Heinrich Isaac
  • Notker Balbulus
  • Musicology
  • Text-setting

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