Lux Beata Trinitas – Ko Matsushita
O Trinity, blessed light
And principal Unity,
Now that the fiery sun recedes,
Pour thy light into our hearts.
Ambrose of Milan, trans. Mahrt
Let me start by saying the obvious: this piece is incredible. To tell you the truth, I am always skeptical of a living composer who writes complex music, because too often their music can feel gratuitously complicated. Without the time-tested patina of history to back it up, current modern music often seems to have a focus on “Look how smart I am,” rather than “I have a story to tell.” But this…this is a piece of music that is almost overwhelmingly difficult, but every layer of complexity within it has a purpose.
For example, Ko opens the piece with just the Soprano I’s singing a single note. A glint of light. He then adds the soprano II’s on the same pitch in an almost antagonistic rhythm, creating a shimmer within the language of music. On the page, it just looks like more counting than any singer ever wants to do, but these complicated rhythms serve to reflect the idea of a shimmering, “blessed light” throughout the piece. The complexity on a small scale has a purpose.
On a grander scale, Matsushita uses complexity for a purpose by playing around with the musical symbology of the trinity. The piece begins in 4/4 and ends in 9/8. To understand the what that means and why it matters, here is a brief little music theory lesson:
Historically, musical groupings of 3 have represented the trinity since the time of Bach. For example, Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major” features a three-part prelude with independent melodies for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as well as a triple fugue to drive the point home.
As it pertains to “Lux Beata Trinitas,” the 9/8 time signature at the end of the piece is significant because it is arguably the most concentrated imagery of the trinity in music. A 9/8 bar of music is made up of 3 beats per bar, each beat having 3 divisions within them. To get a sense of what that sounds like, say “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9” in a steady pulse, emphasizing the “1,” “4,” and “7.” In this example, the bolded numbers are the beat. It will feel kinda waltzy. When beats are divided into threes like this, it’s called Compound Meter.
The other common type of beat grouping is groups of two: “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.” This is called Simple Meter. 4/4 time (the meter at the start of the piece) is a simple meter, and has no groupings of three in it at all.
Throughout this piece, Matsushita plays with these groupings of two and three to create musical struggle. Even as the lyrics speak words of faith, inviting in this trinitarian light, the music tells a story of the struggle to accept it. The simple meter (man) and the compound meter (God) duke it out, each wanting the other to conform to the patterns of their own way, until finally, the trinity wins (9/8 meter), and goodness prevails. It is a beautiful example of musical imagery and a beautiful example of complexity with a purpose.
Or maybe Matsushita just thought it sounded cool…
Our lives are filled with such complexity right now. And though I don’t know that it is always helpful or healthy to try to see tragedy or suffering or pain as “God’s will,” I do believe there is something to be said for analyzing the complexities in our lives.
We may find that some of them are self-imposed – a roadblock put in our own path so that we could say “Look how hard my life is!” Some may have a very real purpose and enhance your story of sanctification.
The answers may be muddy, but we will never know if we don’t look.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church