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Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

Celebrating the sacred music of Jean Langlais


Jean Langlais lost his sight at age 3 and experienced the trauma of the occupation of Paris during World War II. These elements had a profound influence on him. They shaped Mr. Langlais, a devout Catholic, into one of the foremost composers of sacred music in the 20th century.

Now the choral group Gloriae Dei Cantores has honored the centennial of Mr. Langlais’ birth with a newly released two-disk CD, “Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais.”

“The voice of someone like Langlais is something we feel very strongly about keeping alive,” said James Jordan, an assistant director of the choir and one of the organists on the recording. “There’s a high level of truth in his music.”

Gloriae Dei Cantores sings three of Mr. Langlais’ Masses spanning 32 years: the well-known “Messe Solennelle” of 1949, evoking the terrors of the occupation and yearning for peace; “Messe en style ancien” from 1952, demonstrating his love for Gregorian chant; and “Grant Us Thy Peace,” set in English and commissioned by the famous Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, England, in 1981.

Mr. Langlais was devoted both to Gregorian chant and improvisation. His music reflects this as well as the events in his life. He chose to stay in Paris during the war, and because of his blindness, his musical gift “was keened up even more.” Dr. Jordan said this intensification is heard in “Messe Solennelle” -- “the noise, the marching, the breaking of glass, then the silence when it was there. It’s a musical response to the world. You can hear the tension, the clashes in harmonies, in the chords, in the absolute outcry. Because he could not see, the music became a reflection of what he heard. It was what he saw while he couldn’t see, what he was able to express because he had to get it out through sound.”

The choir chose the title “Eclipse” as a way to capture this emotional range.

“He had an aural sense of the great contrast between light and dark,” Dr. Jordan said.

The organ works of Mr. Langlais, who continued to compose until his death in 1991, constitute the largest body of music for that instrument other than the works of J.S. Bach. Dr. Jordan said it’s important on two levels. “It speaks to people’s spirits as they listen, but it also teaches. He believed music had a role to teach in the church. This isn’t a compact disc for highfalutin people with music education backgrounds, but a musical statement to everybody that liturgy and worship must be in all ways beautiful and truthful. Langlais was heartbroken by what he called the revolution in Catholic music in the 1950s. He felt so strongly about the gems the Catholic church had.”

This recording, featuring 40 choir members, three organists, two directors and several brass players, has been well received. Steven Ritter, writing for Audiophile Audition, said: “These two CDs are about as good an introduction to [Langlais’] art as I know of, and the fabulous Gloriae Dei Cantores sing with the enthusiasm and devotion that their fans have come to expect. ... Great singing and one of the few ways to come to know this man’s work. The sound, taken down at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Mass., is first-rate.”

Retta Blaney’s blog, Life Upon the Sacred Stage, features news, reviews and insights into the worlds of faith and the performing arts. The address is

Related Web sites
Gloriae Dei Cantores

Paraclete Press

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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