Margaret Rizza (b. 1929) is a British opera singer turned composer. She also has been a cultural activist who has taken classical musicians into hospitals, prisons, special schools, and inner-city settings, bringing great music to people who haven’t had access to it. Rizza also has become a known figure in contemplative Christian circles, composing the sort of spiritually-charged fare we hear on this program.
‘Ave Generosa’, a Hildegard poem of devotion to Mary set for choir and small orchestra, was commissioned by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen and premiered at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2008. You don’t have to go to church to hear Margaret Rizza’s music.
Her style owes something to the repeated chant lines of the Taize idiom and to the gentle, radiant harmonies that have become de rigueur in our Rutter-Lauridsen choral era. The words of Hildegard, the psalmists, St John of the Cross, the Celts, Thomas Merton, and Latin liturgy are given musical life by a lovely choir and a small ensemble of strings, organ, oboe, and clarinet. If you choose to listen passively, the music will be pleasant, though you might not need all 58 minutes of it every time. But this is music that benefits from what you’re willing to bring to it. If you accept it as it was meant—as an invitation to prayerful contemplation—the rewards may be greater. There is a story about a rabbi whose disciples couldn’t understand why he was spending so much time praying before Shacharit, the formal morning service. “I pray”, he told them, “that I might be ready to pray”. That’s the spirit I found in this music. And amid the political, economic, and medical chaos that was gripping us as I listened in late December, I embraced it gratefully.