The Memorial Church at Harvard University has held a daily service of
Morning Prayers since nearly the university’s founding. The 15-minute
service includes the reading of a psalm, a brief address by a member of
the university community, the singing of a hymn, prayers, and a choral
anthem, which are selected and directed by members of the church’s
musical staff. Due to students’ busy schedules, a few services each week
feature music for just eight men’s voices or eight women’s voices (rather
than the larger mixed choir). This necessitates a search for
unaccompanied repertoire for these small ensembles.
Though there is obviously much two-part Renaissance choral music for
non-mixed voices, there has been almost no such unaccompanied repertoire
composed in recent centuries. Nearly all two-part contemporary music
requires a keyboard accompaniment. To attempt to rectify this large gap
in the repertoire, in the past few years I have invited a number of
distinguished contemporary composers to write new motets for this genre.
It is a medium that is challenging to the composer (who has only two
voices at his disposal with which to create harmony), but also rewarding
in its distillation of musical essentials and consequent focus on
counterpoint, voice-leading, and harmonic implication.
No composer has responded to my request more enthusiastically and
abundantly than Rick Sowash, who has brought to the genre both tremendous
skill and great imagination. When it became clear to me that Rick was not
going to stop at just one or two motets—he’s written 31 so far, sketching
most of them while on duty at the C.A.M., during the museum’s quieter
hours—we discussed the notion that some of these short works should
stretch the traditional “anthem” boundaries a bit.
With my encouragement, Rick decided to publish these new motets in a
series of volumes, each featuring ten motets. Thus, Volumes I, II and III
of the newly published Harvard Motets offer works in a surprisingly wide
range of styles, even as they all still sound like Rick Sowash. All have
texts that are suitable for use in sacred services, and all are learnable
quickly and are natural and graceful to sing.
I hope these collections will be useful to other ensembles, not only our
choirs at Harvard. All the motets may be performed either by non-mixed
ensembles of women’s voices or men’s voices. (The men obviously sound an
octave lower than is written.) They are also useful as vocal duets.
Composer in Residence
The Memorial Church at Harvard University
"Open as the Sky," comes from the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese book wisdom by Lao-Tzu and thus, this motet is
appropriately written in a quasi-Chinese style.
"For the Blessings," comes from a traditional Protestant hymn by Anna Barbauld.
"Where Your Treasure Is," is taken from the famous words of Jesus quoted in Matthew 6:19: "Store not for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume."