by Eric Whitacre
We’ve made it. The long drought of Lent has ended, and with its closure we again get to welcome that most simple anthem of praise back into our vocabulary – “Alleluia.”
This week’s featured music is written by perhaps the most famous living choral composer, choral icon and teenage choir girl heartthrob, Eric Whitacre (he has insultingly great hair). Alleluia has a slightly irregular history for Whitacre, in that it was originally conceived and performed as a piece for wind ensemble entitled October (it is also worth a listen here) which was later rearranged for choir. In a way, he is part of a great tradition in doing this – Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings was later rearranged into Agnus Dei, Elgar’s celebrated “Nimrod” movement from his Enigma Variations was turned into Lux Aeterna. Although, in another way….this “great tradition” is kinda just slapping some generic religious text on a successful instrumental piece so choirs will sing it, too.
If it wasn’t clear from the subtle shade I am throwing, I have always had mixed feelings about this practice, but Eric Whitacre won me over with this particular piece. He tells a story in an interview about how he, being an agnostic himself, had always intentionally avoided setting liturgical texts in his career. The possibility of writing a piece that might be performed in a church service espousing dogmas he didn’t fully agree with just wasn’t worth it to him. He spent a significant portion of his career in this vein, writing secular choral music – perhaps a piece alluding to God here, even one from the bible there – but never a piece appropriate for a liturgy.
And then he went to church.
He was invited to be composer in residence at Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge, and while there he sang bass in the Chapel Choir. His mind was changed. He calls the experience “transformative” even. Like so many before him, Eric’s experience in the liturgy was different from what he imagined the liturgy would be like. He found that after experiencing the service in person, he could listen without worry of dogma, but could see the wisdom and the poetry of the liturgy for what it was. He was inspired, and he wanted to set something liturgical to music.
He looked back at his piece, “October,” written 10 years prior, and thought it was the music to set.
I find it a bit funny that after his long journey towards liturgy, the liturgical text he lands on is “Alleluia.” Certainly not the most florid language or intimate imagery there. Just a single Hebrew word.
Maybe it’s the most universal text his agnostic beliefs felt comfortable with. Or maybe he realized that this one word contained it all. “Alleluia” – “Praise to God.”
What more is there to say?
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the godly!
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church