New “Vespers” composition flows from “the gift of meeting Mary and Jesus”

“I felt,” says composer and pianist J.J. Wright, “that I had received an invitation from God to express my gifts alongside the text in order to invite myself and others into the prayer in a new way.”

J.J. Wright performing in November 2017. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

J.J. Wright was trained in jazz at the New School for Jazz in NYC, but he’s long had a love for sacred music. As a member with the U.S. Naval Academy Band, Wright performed for the President of the United States; he also performed with the Caribbean Jazz Project: Afro Bop Alliance on an album was nominated for a Grammy for ‘Best Latin Jazz Album’ and won the Latin Grammy in the same category. As a young jazz artist, Wright performed with noted jazz musicians including Billy Hart, Ike Sturm, Nate Wood, Chris Cheek, Zach Harmon, Mark Ferber, Matt Ulery, and Delfeayo Marsalis. As a solo artist, he made his debut in 2014 with the trio album Inward Looking Outward

In November 2016, his composition O Emmanuel debuted at the top of the Billboard Classical Charts where it remained for eight weeks. His Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration incorporated improvisation and popular music with congregational singing.

Wright has studied sacred music in Rome, where he researched and wrote his dissertation on early Baroque oratorio. He also studied at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and interned with the Sistine Chapel Choir. He is currently Director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir. When he’s not conducting, composing, or recording, he’s a husband and father to three beautiful children.

Wright’s newest album is Vespers for the Immaculate Conception, which features choir, soloists, a string quartet, and a jazz piano trio, and debuted at #2 on the Classical Billboard Charts. It is distributed by Ignatius Press.  Wright recently corresponded about the album with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, who wrote the liner notes for the CD.

CWR: What inspired this composition? What connection is there to your previous composition Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration?

Wright:  The original idea for this composition came out of a project I was doing during my doctoral studies called “Performing the Scholarship”. For this project, the goal was to fuse musicological research with performance by exploring the contexts around sacred music from the 14th-19th centuries.
One of my research and creative interests since I began studying sacred music is to try to better understand how church musicians today can be informed by and implement the musical techniques and spiritual aims of the great music of the canon of sacred music. In the same way that we read the Gospel or writings of Saints from the past in search of spiritual wisdom for our lives today, I hoped to uncover the wisdom that is embedded in the Catholic tradition of sacred music.

I was very interested in the Liturgy of the Hours as a means for strengthening my own prayer life and the community that I was a part of. In my Gregorian chant class, my classmates and I met every morning to chant morning prayer from the Liber Usualis in order to master the long held practice of chanting the psalms and antiphons in Latin, which led to me wanting to compose the concertized version of vespers heard on this recording. My hope was to create a service that was true to the original form (with some obvious modifications in the order of things), and encouraged the congregation to hear the texts and music in a new way. I created new performing editions of the Carissimi and Charpentier motets from the original manuscripts since no modern editions existed at the time. I wanted to ground the work directly in Gregorian chant and Baroque motets both to pay tribute to the music I was studying and to invite people into the work with musical forms that they had most likely heard before.

So alongside the narrative that is present in the Vespers service itself of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, is also this progression through time with Gregorian chant Invitatory informing the hearing of the Carissimi Salve Regina, which leads to my new music, and is crowned at the end with Charpentier’s Magnificat and the Gregorian chant Final Blessing. In fact, Charpentier, a Frenchman, studied with Carissimi in Rome and most likely wrote this Magnificat while in Rome as his student. In the same way, when writing the work I placed myself in the position as a student of both composers, Gregorian chant, and the Vespers office itself, which was created by Pope Sixtus IV in 1477.

Vespers for the Immaculate Conception differs in approach from my Transfiguration Vespers in that I composed Transfiguration with the specific intent of encouraging the congregation to sing the entire service. Vespers for the Immaculate Conception is meant to be actively engaged with in respect to listening to and meditating on the text, whereas Transfiguration encourages a different form of active participation.

CWR: So you view this work as a concert piece rather than a liturgical setting?

Wright: This work was originally conceived as a concert piece for performance on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. In much of my work as a composer of sacred music, I have sought to find ways for the concert experience to be an encounter with God, and for me, there is no better place to start than with prayer forms like Vespers, that have been practiced and honed in the Catholic tradition for hundreds of years.

I think this idea can be confusing because we know that people pray the formalized Liturgy of the Hours every day. But alongside our prayer tradition, we also have a sacred music tradition where music, contemplation, and prayer have been in dialogue for hundreds of years. Sometimes I’ve seen conversations about sacred music fall prey to binary ideologies where the art form itself gets reduced on one side to mere functionalism or on the other to pure abstraction. Our tradition of sacred music is neither one nor the other, and I think through the example of Christ’s Incarnation, we can find consolation in knowing that all things have been transformed through Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection.

CWR: How did your personal experiences shape or inform your writing?

Wright: When I was writing this work, I was in the first semester of my doctorate and trying for the first to combine traditional sacred music with my background in jazz and popular music. I had no idea how this experiment would turn out and was very anxious about the potential pitfalls of synthesizing all these ideas.

In addition, my family and I were going through a very difficult time. My wife and I had three young children at home, and my wife had a miscarriage after 12 weeks of pregnancy. Anyone who has experienced miscarriage knows what a crushing blow it is to lose a child after all of the excitement and preparation that goes into expecting a child. I had no idea how to cope with the grief and disappointment that we were going through, but this confusion led me to pray with the text of the Vespers in a different way than I had before.

Through the liturgical prayer itself, I was given the gift of meeting Mary and Jesus directly in my work, and the music that resulted was a direct expression of a very real sense of knowing that Mary’s parents and Mary herself must have known well the struggles that we were going through as a family. The music became an expression of our grief and sorrow, all while receiving the gift of mercy from the newfound relationship with Mary and Jesus in the text of Vespers for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I felt that I had received an invitation from God to express my gifts alongside the text in order to invite myself and others into the prayer in a new way.

CWR: This work begins with Gregorian chant and has a very traditional sound throughout. How did you approach the relationship or interplay between more traditional sacred music and more modern forms of music in this composition?

Wright: The interplay between the old and new music was a direct result of looking for means of musical expression that could hold the broad range of affects contained in the texts. As I alluded to above, I was really interested in fusing the two parts of my musical identity, so once I established the framework for the whole piece I was able to experiment with different musical flavors depending on the feeling that I was exploring with each text. Some of the texts such as in Movement IV (Covered Me) from Isaiah 61 (“The Lord has clothed me with garments of salvation; he has covered me with a robe of justice…”) lent themselves to a more lush and melismatic quality with the strings and baritone soloist that speaks to the grandeur of God’s gift to us of salvation, while in Movement 3, I was really trying to trying to evoke Psalm 150 (“Praise God with cymbals”) and really creating a celebration around this psalm of praise to God after the darkness of the temptation of Adam and Eve.

CWR: You’ve sought to create a real sense, or movement, of dramatic arc and motion that transports the listener. How would you describe that musical journey, as it were?

Wright: Part of my goal for this piece was to employ our shared memory of ritual in order to facilitate an intense look at the more narrative parts of the work. The work begins with two instances of established sacred music tradition with in Gregorian chant and the Carissimi motet “Salve Regina”. These two movements have an established tonality and familiarity as traditional representations of sacred music. In this, my hope was to settle the listener into the “expected” context when being presented with sacred music. These elements are also the ordinary ritual components of most vespers services: the invitatory “O God come to my assistance”, and a hymn, in this case “Salve Regina”. The parts of Vespers that change week to week and feast to feast are the antiphons and psalmody. The antiphons help paint the picture of the theological and devotional context that is present when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

After the “Salve Regina”, the work quickly changes into a context where the tonality is not settled, creating uncertainty and confusion as the temptation scene begins. This scene opens with a question from Satan: “Did God really say you should not eat from any of the trees in the garden?” In this way, the temptor doesn’t ask a simple question like “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from the tree of knowledge”, but instead engages Eve in a dialogue. In Catholic theology, Eve is the prefiguration of Mary, and this scene is a prefiguration of Mary’s eventual dialogue with the angel Gabriel when he asks her to be the Mother of Jesus.

CWR:  What are some of the more contemporary elements in the composition?

Wright: A couple of the compositional techniques that I used immediately come to mind, though I should preface my answer by saying that in my opinion, the majority of music contained in Vespers was conceived in the context of techniques are mined from the sacred music tradition. In other words, I feel like I am operating predominantly in the context of the sacred music tradition and there isn’t that much that is new about the way that I compose sacred music.

As far as some of the contemporary techniques, there is frequent use of string harmonics; these sounds are very high in the register played by the strings that happen when they lightly hold the string with their left hand and move the bow across the string with the other. These harmonics create an ethereal texture that is hard to define, but to me creates a space for curiosity and wonder. The most obvious example of these comes during the “Collect” between each phrase of the chorale melody. In addition, I used a technique called serialism to develop the concept for “He”. There is a rhythmic pattern that is established by the singers that slowly unveils the harmonies for each successive phrase of the psalm. Ultimately, this harmonic structure that plays out over the course of the movement is truncated into the form for the jazz piano trio to improvise on at the end of the track.

One general theme, though not necessarily a contemporary element, that makes its way through the whole work is the four-note melody that is taken from the Solemn “Salve Regina” chant. You’ll hear this on the very first track sung by the baritones when the choir responds during the “Invitatory”. As you listen through the whole you’ll hear this small melody pop up all over the place, from the beginning of Carissimi’s “Salve Regina” motet to the very end of Antiphon I/Psalm 113, to the very end during the collect, played in a very high registered by the strings. As this work is an exposition on Mary’s Immaculate Conception, I wanted this calling out to hear with “Salve” or “Hail” to pervade the work in its entirety and to constantly remind us of the intercession we’re seeking.

CWR: How does your background jazz inform your approach to composition of sacred music?

Wright: As a jazz musician, a major part of learning to play the music has to do with conceptualizing large musical forms and being willing to hear and play melodies in conversation with those you’re playing with. Many musicians have said that composition is like improvising in slow motion and, to a degree, I think this is a good analogy. The difference, though, with composing sacred music, at least in my own process, is the notion of bringing prayers and sacred texts to life through the music in a very direct way. For composing sacred music, I try to bring all of the aspects of my musical, spiritual, and emotional life into dialogue with each other so that the music can be an integrated expression of the gifts that God has given to me.


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About Carl E. Olson 1122 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

4 Comments

  1. Far away in the mists of time my friend Joe and I frequented progressive jazz hangouts in Manhattan. Dave Brubeck then peaked with Take Five, his alto sax Paul Desmond’s composition ending with Joe Morello’s [not a relative] drum solo in Quintuple (5/4) time instead of the usual 4/4 time of jazz. As I listened to JJ Wright’s New Vespers I recalled Brubeck’s sound, an adaptation of ancient Hellenic, Arabic 5/4 meter that had a spiritual tonality. I can’t say why perhaps it’s the 5/4 meter. Brubeck much later in his life 1983 composed an interpretation of St Thomas Aquinas’ Pange Lingua Variations for chorus jazz ensemble and orchestra. It had its premiere at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, California. In Brubeck’s setting, each stanza is sung first in original Gregorian chant style, followed by a variation. Brubeck said, “I searched for the meaning of each stanza, and tried to convey that thought musically, so that each variation is a miniature meditation” (Wikipedia). If interested it’s on YouTube Dave Brubeck Pange Lingua Variations Brubeck QuartetLondon Voices London Symphony Russell Gloyd, cond Telarc 80621. There is a piano solo variation [Brubeck’s specialty] that follows chant that is sublime. The remainder incorporates in Brubeck’s unique idiom what JJ Wright is accomplishing. There is a concordance in two vastly different modes of music Progressive Jazz and Gregorian Chant a kind of cultural overlapping. Music according to Schopenhauer is Man’s purist spiritual expression. Apparently so if in the words of Christ today’s breviary reading he inspires us to sing a new song.

  2. I listened to this CD and I found it simply awful.

    When I pray the Liturgy of the Hours I don’t want to feel as if I am in a lounge bar.
    Totally inappropriate.

    I know you will spin it every which way, but Jazz is not sacred music.

  3. I come from two musician parents, and I agree with Peter 1,000%. Have Mercy on our latest ‘Catholic’ music Dear God…….make that Justice.

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