Frederick Frahm writes:
In early 2017, I was commissioned to write a concert aria on the Agnus Dei text from the Mass. The project came from the Festa della Cultura-San Giovanni Battista in Florence, Italy, which annually commemorates the feast of John the Baptist (the patron saint of Florence). Through a series of encounters with art, music, sculpture, and lectures, festival participants engage with Italian and Anglo-Florentine artists to gain a deeper understanding of the synchronicity between creativity and spirituality.
The choice of text for the commission is significant for several reasons. First, Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi… (Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world) comes from the Gospel of John at the point where the Baptist encounters the Christ who has come to be baptized (John 1:29). So, obviously a pivotal point in the gospel, and one where ‘the Great Forerunner’ is most prominently featured.
An additional criteria for the text selection comes from the complete text of the ‘agnus’. The canticle forms a litany which begins with the aforementioned line and is concluded with the text miserere nobis (have mercy upon us). This is true for the first two repetitions of the line, on the third repetition however, the conclusion is changed to dona nobis pacem (grant us peace). In a world with much uncertainty, especially in the early months of 2017, ‘grant us peace’ is a most appropriate prayer to offer daily among one’s intercessions.
With very specific scoring parameters from the festival, I set out to compose what would become a concert aria on the text. I knew the work would be performed either in concert or in the context of mass and that indicated to me an approach where art and liturgy would need to be in conversation with one another. To reassure myself, I looked to J. S. Bach as I often do. The master’s ‘agnus‘ setting in the B Minor Mass had much to teach me about affekt and balance and art and faith. I knew I’d take a different path artistically, but to honor JSB’s brilliant setting I chose to begin my piece in the same key of G minor.
My agnus dei, essentially a trio (not unlike the Bach), offers a deep symbolism: the keyboard part, a series of florid ostinati, establishes a framework to comprise the constant prayer of the church for all time; the expansive and mournful vocal lines, not defined by the rigor of the prayers below, soars over creation as though sung by an angel on our behalf. The final petition breaks through the initial expressive chromaticism to radiate hope for a newly wrought peace for all of creation. A coda, not a resounding final chord, but a simple and gentle resolution in C major offers assurance that the prayer will be answered.
One additional request from John Hoenig, the commissioner, was that an obbligato choral part be offered as a performance option. I concurred and composed music for a unison choir where they could join the soloist in ‘dona nobis pacem’. I mentioned ostinati previously as the bedrock structure of this work. My choice, for the choir’s entrance, was either to join them with the angel’s voice, or instead to incorporate them into the church’s prayer as symbolized by the accompanying ostinati. I chose the latter for we, in Chronos (clock time) make our daily prayers, and they, in Kairos (God’s time) have eternity to praise.
“Seraphim sing in no time zone…
they have eternity to tell it all,
and to rejoice.”
The festival has programmed the new work to be performed several times during the course of their cultural events, both in concert and in the context of mass. I am grateful and honored to know that the premieres will be performed both in concert, by Elisa Malatesti and the Orpheus Ensemble (Associazione l’Anima di Orfeo), and for mass by soprano Aliz Csanyi & organist Natallia Van along with the parish choir. All three events will take place in an ancient church in the heart of Florence, Santi Apostoli, in the Piazza Limbo.
Firehead Editions will make a performance edition available in print to coincide with the feast day of John the Baptist, which is June 24th.