NOTEworthy: Ubi Caritas

Ubi Caritas

Maurice Durufle

Since, by this selection, I’ve rudely brought you all back to your high school Latin days, let’s start this week with a translation:

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Where charity and love are, God is there.

The love of Christ has gathered us into one.
Let us exalt Him, and in Him be joyful.
Let us fear and love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love each other.
Where charity and love are, God is there.

This piece is one of the classics in the choral world. Written by Maurice Durufle in 1960, Ubi Caritas is one of only fourteen compositions published in his lifetime. Durufle was a notoriously self-critical composer, often writing and rewriting a piece multiple times before publishing. His limited compositional output is likely due to this.

It’s always a strange revelation to find out that a now-famous composer didn’t believe in himself. Given the perspective of time, it’s easy to assume that, “Of course Maurice knew he was onto something,” because we so clearly see that now. But he didn’t. He wandered through the muck of self-doubt and confusion like the rest of us, and his music still lives on today.

Musically, this piece is a spectacular mix of simple and complex. The idea behind the piece is about as simple as it gets – he takes the Gregorian Chant “Ubi Caritas,” and he harmonizes it. It’s on the same level as a hymn in that way. The melody is in the top voice, and the other voices create harmony beneath it, moving at the same time – this is called a homophonic texture. Most all hymns are homophonic, so you understand what this means whether or not the word is new.

The complexity of this piece is most evident in the constantly changed meters. In its original form, Gregorian Chant has no meters. It’s like high church canting or opera recitative, meant to be sung on specific pitches, but in a natural, speech-like rhythm. The tricky thing about “natural speech-like rhythms” though, is that every person has a slightly different interpretation (especially when singing in an unfamiliar language). By constantly changing meters, Durufle creates a natural and universal codified rhythm to this Gregorian chant.

Thus, even though the harmony and meter Durufle added to this chant is lovely, the magic of this work is how he chose to stay true to the original.

It’s so easy to take the beautiful message of Christ and add to it. The Pharisees are the classic example of this, with their stringent regulations and To-Do Lists of faithfulness, but unyielding legislations are as much a temptation now as they were then. For some reason, we are weary of simplicity and overtness, and so we look for ways to complicate the nature and teachings of God. We want God to be complicated, but in a way we can fully understand and control: a mathematical If-Then function of righteousness.

We are given just that in this text – “Where Charity and Love are, God is there.”
Ironically, when given instructions in the formula we so clearly want, the teaching seems too simple, and is easy to dismiss as a platitude. But I think it serves us better as a mantra.

If you’re feeling down in the dumps about yourself like Durufle did, remember – “Where Charity and Love are, God is there.” Be gracious to yourself, and God is there.

If people at work are driving you crazy – “Where Charity and Love are, God is there.” Be gracious to others, and God is there.

For this is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another
1 John 3:11

Andy Eaton
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church