Conceived by the RSCM and based on Common Worship, Margaret Rizza’s music transcends its usefulness.
There is a term in German, gebrauchsmusik, which translates roughly as useful or needful music, that is music written for a particular purpose. There is no quite parallel term in English where the term carries a sort of sense of put-down which doesn’t really occur in German. Much church music is gebrauchsmusik, well written, suitable for its function, providing musical interest but never overshadowing the primary liturgical purpose. This disc of music by Margaret Rizza on Convivium Records is gebrauchsmusik; it was written for use, designed for a particular liturgical purpose. But that does not mean that we cannot derive pleasure from it as casual listeners, in fact there is certainly much to enjoy and in extremely fine performances too.
The disc from Convivium contains Rizza’s Officium Divinum, sixteen pieces gathered into four groups Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer with the texts based on the Anglican Church’s Common Worship, Daily Prayer. They are performed by the Convivium Singers, conducted by Eamonn Dougan with David Price on organ.
The idea was originally that of Tim Ruffer, Head of Publishing at the Royal School of Church Music. The resulting music works in a number of ways. The pieces from each group might form the basis for a single service or can be mined for individual items for liturgical or concert use. Rizza’s choice of texts is wide, she uses Common Worship but also Lancelot Andrews (1555 – 1626), Anne Harrison, David Adam, George Herbert (1593 – 1633), William Blake (1757 – 1827), and Mary Holtby, which I think gives the works a strength and depth. I particularly liked Mary Holtby’s Benedictus which uses the Latin as a refrain to the English verses, and thought the William Blake poem a particularly appealing choice.
Morning Prayer consists of The Night Has Passed (Common Worship), Open Thou Mine Eyes (Lancelot Andrewes), Dedication (David Adam from The Edge of Glory), The Song of Zechariah (Benetictus) (Gospel of Luke adapted by Anne Harrison). Midday Prayer consists of Blessed Bread (Margaret Rizza), The Real Presence (David Adam from The Edge of Glory), The Twenty-third Psalm (George Herbert), Gloria in Excelsis (Common Worship). Evening Prayer consists of Let my prayer rise before you (Common Worship), Sweet Dreams, Form a Shade (William Blake), Song of Mary (Gospel of Luke adapted by Mary Holtby), Kindle our hearts (Common worship). Night Prayer consists of Before the ending of the day (Common Worship), Keep me as the apple of your eye (Common Worship), Song of Simeon (Gospel of Luke adapted by Mary Holtby), Night Prayers (David Adam from The Edge of Glory).
Margaret Rizza came late to composition, she started as a singer and became a teacher. In her introductory article she talks about the struggle of writing music. But there is no sense of struggle here, instead there is a glorious melodic felicity. Because Rizza has a wonderful knack, that of writing melodies which seem both natural and apposite, whilst being memorable. And they sound wonderfully singable too. The organ pieces often use the technique of having the choir in unison with occasional polyphonic developments. But Rizza is a fine craftsman and you sense that the music is well put-together and very fit for purpose. By and large she avoids the two traps which composers can fall into when writing this style of approachable music, the hymn and the worship-song. Rizza avoids both and creates many pieces which you could imagine wanting to hear again.
In terms of style, Rizza talks about the influence of Gregorian and Taize chants (both of which she has arranged), but there are many other names in the mix too. Whilst Britten-esque moments occur the composer who came to mind most was John Rutter (no bad model). Rizza has that same combination of melodic felicity and imagination, along with a very very English feel to the music.
The performances from Eamonn Dougan and the Convivium Singers are glorious, and listening to the CD was a great pleasure for the finely shaped, flexible and beautifully focussed performance. They give the music the care which it deserves. They are, I think, a young choir and this shows in the freshness and appealing beauty of tone. Dougan draws fine performances from his singers and they are well supported by organist David Price and the other instrumentalists.
If your taste runs to John Rutter and English music, and you are looking for something which is musical, melodic and finely sung then look no further. This is probably a disc to dip into rather than listening to from end to end. But it also serves other purposes, and there are those who will find inspiration from the underlying spiritual sense that Rizza’s music gives.