The “Canon for Maundy Thursday” is the final fourteen minutes of a piece of music begun five months earlier. That statement requires some explanation. In 2001, the church where my wife and I were serving as church musicians in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, began construction of a new sanctuary. In tandem with that construction, I began the composition of a series of liturgical cycles, specifically written for that parish’s members and the properties of the new building. Although the project was abandoned and left incomplete, two cantatas, four ceremonial processionals, a kyrie, gloria, sanctus and agnus dei (the “Sinai Mass”), as well as a number of anthems and hymns, were finished and performed in the services.
The cycle began with a cantata for the first Sunday of Advent, scored for tenor, trombone, and piano (the parish had several virtuoso musicians in membership and the cantatas were written specifically for them). A setting of the Old Testament scripture, the cantata took the place in the liturgy typically reserved for the scripture’s reading. It was followed immediately by a psalm, sung by the congregation to this traditional modified Anglican psalm tone.
This same tone was used by the congregation for singing the psalms through the rest of Advent. On Christmas Eve it was replaced by another psalm tone that was used through Christmas (the psalm was read during Epiphany). But on Ash Wednesday, this tone returned and was used for all the psalms sung by the congregation through Lent.
The Maundy Thursday liturgy included the ceremony of the “washing of the feet”, a ritual in which the clergy and some members of the congregation reenacted Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet, recounted in John 13:17, a part of the service that can be somewhat lengthy and has minimal congregational involvement. The “Canon for Maundy Thursday” was written for this part of the liturgy. The piece assumes the presence of a congregation that is familiar not only with the psalm tone that is the canon’s foundation, but also a congregation that carries with it the memories of all the psalms they have sung to that tone since the first Sunday of Advent five months earlier, and not only the texts of those earlier psalms but also the services of which those psalms were a part. It is in this way that the “Canon” is the final minutes of a
piece begun in late November: it is the musical and theological conclusion of the liturgies that have preceded it. And it is the last choral and concerted music heard by the congregation until the “Resurrexi” introit and following processional hymn that begin the service on Easter Sunday.
The text, John 15: 1-17, dictates the shape of the piece. The section of scripture culminates in its final sentence, verse 17, where Jesus reiterates his new “commandment,” or in Latin, “law” (“Hæc mando vobis: ut diligatis invicem”). In counterpoint, “canon” is a kind of musical law where one voice follows another in strict imitation. Using the harmony of the psalm tone as a foundation, the three violins enter in canon with each other, the “dux”, or leading voice of the canon, lasting over ninety measures. In the first verse, Jesus refers to himself metaphorically as a “vine” and the voices of the canon “grow” out of the literal musical “ground” of the psalm tone, twisting around each other like the tendrils of a vine as the piece progresses, the dux moving from the greatest possible simplicity at its beginning (it only has two pitches) to cascading sixteenth notes at its close.
In verse twelve, Jesus first pronounces his commandment, “That ye love one another.” But the command is ironic. Love, any kind of love — between lovers, between friends, between God and His creatures — cannot be commanded, it cannot be forced. To be love, it must be spontaneous and given freely. Anything else is not true love. To exegete the spontaneity required by love, at this point the violins cease their mechanistic canon, breaking into free, melodic counterpoint while the chorus breaks from the strict confines of the psalm tone, erupting into ecstatic utterance. The piece is constructed according to spiraling Golden Mean principles and the end of the canon and the beginning of the free counterpoint marks the Golden Mean of the full work.
Each of the repetitions of the psalm tone is eight measures long, except one.
In verse thirteen, Jesus points to the laying down of one’s life for another as evidence of the greatest possible love. To lay down one’s life is to voluntarily cut it short and that repetition is one measure shorter than the rest. It is also the only place in the canon with a chromatic accidental, a lowered-leading tone in the bass.
In the final verse, the violins reveal — in three octaves — the melody that has always been nascent in the psalm tone harmonization but never clearly presented while the chorus, for the first times, sings the verse in unison. But in the second half of the verse the choir breaks into a new harmony and the measure that was deleted from the setting of verse thirteen is added back, lengthening the standard eight measure variation by one measure. With love nothing is truly lost. The music ends as it began, with the simple two note incipit of the dux and the psalm tone, but ornamented by simple descending D Major scales.
A native of Houston, Texas, conductor Raphael Bundage received his training at Texan Christian University and The Eastman School of Music. Before entering Eastman, Dr. Bundage was supervisor of choral music in the Texas Public School System and while at Eastman he directed of the Eastman Chamber Chorus and served as the assistant director of the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Chorus. Currently Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities and Opera at Middle Tennessee State University, Dr. Bundage also serves as the Director of Music at Nashville’s First Presbyterian Church and is the State Director of the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts.
Nicholas Bergin is the Organist at First Presbyterian Church, Nashville. He graduated in May of 2012 with a Master’s degree in organ performance from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he studied with Janette Fishell and was awarded the prestigious Barbara and David Jacobs Fellowship. In 2011, he served as the Interim Assistant Organist at Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, and during the fall of 2010, he worked as the Organ Scholar at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. Nicholas is a graduate of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, where he studied organ with Donald Sutherland and piano with Seth Knopp. While growing up in Houston, he studied piano with Timothy Hester and attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Recording Engineer John Hill’s recording of the Metropolis Symphony (by Michael Daugherty) performed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra garnered five Grammy® nominations in 2010. At the 53rd Annual Awards Ceremony in Feb. 2011, Mr. Hill won two awards in the categories of Best Engineered Album, Classical and Best Orchestral Performance. He was also nominated the previous year for his recording of Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortileges (again with the NSO) for Best Classical Album. Professor of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State University, Mr. Hill earned his B. Mus. from Wilfrid Laurier University and his M. Mus. (Sound Recording) from McGill University in Montreal. Before coming to MTSU, Hill was an Associate Professor of Music at California State University Dominguez Hills, a professional audio associate at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada and the Co-Director of the Edgar Stanton Audio Recording Institute at the Aspen Music Festival.
The MTSU Schola Cantorum is the university’s select choral ensemble, made up primarily of undergraduate and graduate students in voice. Conducted by Raphael Bundage, the ensemble regularly performs the most important works of the choral repertory and tours in the American Southeast as well as Europe. Here the ensemble is seen before a performance at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Composer Mike Linton lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and teaches freshman and sophomore level music theory at Middle Tennessee State University. He is one of the founding members of REFINERSFIRE.