Today, I listened to a mesmerising piece by Eric Whitacre which had me in a completely different dimension for 4 minutes of pure listening pleasure. After hearing this piece I wanted to try and work out what chords he used to produce such an enchanting listening experience. The following post is my analytical memoir of this beautiful music.
When Eric Whitacre was interviewed about this piece of music he so eloquently spoke of this piece as a “breathing exercise” and that is instantaneously relatable from bar one as the music crescendos and diminuendos or “expands and contracts” like ones breath in a state of meditation. You can feel the phrase begin down in the tenor and bass and the low register of the alto, to start with, as the breath comes up through the body, starting from the diaphragm before it is joined by the nose and throat opening up to inhale the oxygen that allows us all to breath. This most relatable composition mechanism occurs throughout the whole piece.
The harmony is so rich and beautiful. We open the piece we start with a C# minor chord that gently transitions in to a beautiful C#sus4 for the first 4 bars. I likened this to a breath of the most delicate tranquillity. It is because of so much tranquillity and tenderness that I had to create a new term “tranquilicious.” Lux just means “light”, the opening four bars can also be associated with delicate beams of light trickling through a forest canopy.
In bar 5 the Soprano Solo begins as if from no-where. Whitacre pulls the first two notes of the soprano melody, from the chords we heard in the intro. The top G# appears from the dark but somehow it doesn’t take us by surprise. A gentle introduction to the minimalistic melody. The phrase then sinks back in to the breaths. It’s the breath expanding even more before we sink in to the lower voices of bar 9 onwards. My meditation deepens. I have now sunk in to an enormous sense of personal well being. “Calida” means warm “light” and “warm” the sun is musically glowing on the listeners faces.
The chord remains the same but it has been voiced much deeper the Basses are voiced in thirds with the Tenors. They re-affirm the delicate higher tones from the soprano and alto C# becomes B7sus9/F#, and what a chord that is! The shivers gently caress my spine in pure majesty of the chord echoing and reverberating through the hall (or church).
we find this lovely contrast in bar 13 “Gravisque” which, in this particular instance, simply translates to “and” it’s the most gorgeous, possibly the longest “and” you will ever hear! Whitacre patiently descends out of the previous section as the poetic verse that inspired this piece changes its stanza. As we change, the choir starts with an inverted A minor chord, we travel through E major chord after a suspended 4th when the tenor and soprano sings thier G# on the fourth beat of bar 13. In bar 14 we eventually land on a G minor on the second beat before we descend again through an F#m /G#in bar 15 then an inverted C#minor in beats 3 and 4 of bar 15. Then in order to add contrast on the last “Gravisque” in bar 16 we ascend through from an A major through to a B major before the next section “pura”
When we get to the new section in bar 17 we have a similar effect – as the very beginning with the expansion and contraction of the chords as they suspend and resolve and suspend again. In bar 18, we experience an inverted F# minor travel in to either an F#m sus4, sus 6 or a D sus6, sus9 We then settle back in to an F# minor for bar 20 before another suspension in bar 21. Until bar 23 we are at a pleasant and quite bold Mezzo-Forte in bar 23. One of the mechanisms I adore is the crunching D# and E suspension in the soprano line. However odd a semitone chord should sound, in this instance, it is as beautiful as Eric introduces the start of the next chord in the fourth beat of the bar. Whitacre then treats us to another very gradual resolution through the chords as the orchestra sing “canunt” which means “they sing” This is the angels singing about the birth of Jesus the descending tones as the angels fly down to deliver thier message to us on earth. The message is the word of God and it starts in the heavens before it descends and trickles down to earth and those on earth start to deliver the word. This is only one possible interpretation of this particular section.
In bar 29 we hear one of only a few solid resolutions. This is a simple F# major Whitacre settles this divine major chord when he finishes the word “Angels” a tiers de piccady. The angles are the stars of the song. We start to wind back down in bar 30. The breathing returns, we are gently brought back in to the room. We still hear echos of those suspensions so we can meditate upon the message of this beautiful music. The soprano holds a beautiful suspension even in to the change of key in to C# major to uplift us. Or maybe it is a reference to the new-born baby as a new era begun on that night,
Eric Whitacre based this meditation on this beautiful verse
calida gravisque pura velut aurum
et canunt angeli molliter
warm and heavy as pure gold
and the angels sing softly
to the new-born baby.Edward Esch
In writing this piece Eric kept true to the message of this verse and added his own genuine beauty to it. I hope this music becomes as immortal as the message it carries and I thank Eric Whitacre for sharing this beautiful meditation with us. I don’t just listen to this piece, I experience it.