The Credo-Compositions by Michael Denhoff
In unum Deum, Credo op. 93
In the year 2000 the „Gesprächskreis zu Fragen von Musik und Kirche” (Forum on music and the church) was looking for a composer who was willing to create a composition based on the Nicene Creed. The composition was to be for an ensemble of moderate size, should not be of too great difficulty and should preferably include the participation of the congregation. The choice fell on Michael Denhoff who, after some understandable deliberation, agreed.
Why this version of the Creed? Why Michael Denhoff?
The Nicene Creed of the byzantine Emperor Constantine is surrounded by diverse theories about its origin. Whatever the truth, it has been a fundamental text of the christian church in east and west since the fifth century A.D. Like the so-called Apostolic Creed it is structured as a trinity, having three parts. Two aspects made the text particularly interesting for a commissioned composition: apart from minor differences in the text it is used in all christian circles, and it is less an instructional text propounding a doctrine but rather a hymn, a poetical text, praising the holy trinity.
The text is not easy to understand today, partly due to its great age but also due to the situation of religion and church in our modern society and the relation to the individual. Hence the „forum” was searching for a composer who could express todays difficulties and reservations in relation to the ancient concepts in musical language. They believed to have found this composer in Michael Denhoff. The members of the discussion group were already acquainted with a number of compositions and operatic projects of Michael Denhoff in which he sensitively employs eminent literary sources, not simply setting them to music but rather using them as ingredients, as counterpoint, as a starting-point, to extend the audible continuum.
Michael Denhoff did not take the task lightly.
Given the commission to set an official ecclesiastical creed to music, Denhoff clearly felt a personal commitment: how do these antique ideas and texts relate to our current lives and experiences? Is there any common ground at all? Do they stand up to serious investigation? And then the subjective aspect: what personal problems do I have with these texts? How do I read them, how do I absorb them, do I understand them at all? For even the modern Christ is embedded in a dialectic of belief and doubt, dispute and faith. One is tempted to say: I doubt, because I believe, I believe because I doubt.
Michael Denhoff has treated these questions of the general definition of christian belief and personal relationship to the Creed by setting significant texts of (mostly) german language literary personalities (Rose Ausländer, Paul Celan, Eva Zeller, Hilde Domin, Kurt Marti, Fernando Pessoa and Thomas Bernhard) against the text of the Creed, thus commenting on it, elucidating it, investigating it profoundly: the ancient Creed and precarious modern human existence meet and surprisingly develop into a new unity.
The congregation speaks
The Creed is not a text reserved for religious specialists; it has its place in religious service and must at least in principle be generally accessible. The public hearing of Michael Denhoffs composition is in itself a communal activity, but in three ways he has further involved the community both directly and indirectly in his Credo.
The work lasts for a total of about 35 minutes. It opens with a musically important introduction lasting for some 5 minutes, a sort of overture or perhaps better, an „approach” consisting of soft music with high-playing strings and wind instruments, building one large and almost unisono phrase. At predefined points within or above this phrase the public or the singers of the choir are asked to incant subjective, perhaps spontaneous confessions of faith. The score presents suggested texts which have been taken from the published Creed-.project of the PUBLIK-forum. However, Denhoff has explicitly specified that private expressions of faith may be spoken.
It is intended that as far as the space permits the singers of the choir should at first be distributed around the church, forming initially a part of the congregation; during the repeated singing of the Creed-motive in part II which follows the introduction, the choir singers gradually move to their proper places.
In the case of a performance during a spoken service the congregation can, at a sign from the conductor, sing with the choir the „we believe in one God” in part II and the „Amen” in part XII (see page VII of the score).
The commitment to the church is lacking. Is that true?
Michael Denhoff has not composed the text „Et unam sanctam catholicam et apsotolicam ecclesiam. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum”, that is, the commitment to one holy, catholic, apostolic church and to a baptism providing absolution. In this he conforms to a group of various composers of the preceding 200 years, who had various very differing reasons for this omission. The most famous of these composers of religious works is doubtless Franz Schubert. Denhoff feels himself associated to these „colleagues” and also sympathises with their „grounds” - despite his understanding that some of these colleagues were the victims of theological misinterpretations. In addition, being a lover of round numbers, he did not want to extend the work from the planned 12 movements to 13.
This does not mean that Denhoffs composition ignores relationships to the established church. The basic congregational and ecclesiastical intention of the composition is evident from the way with which he sets the texts to music, giving voice to modern objections as well as assent, and not least the direct inclusion of the congregation - with a confession of belief at the start and and an expression of praise in the concluding Amen.
Diversity and uniformity intermingle: unity in disparity.
Unlike in the concert hall, in the church the listening public will be seated „between” the music of the Credo. Usually the organ will sound from behind, whereas the soloists, choir and instrumentalists (of which there are 15) will be heard from the front. In order to optically underline the meaning of central parts of the texts, the whole should form a cross, possibly including the organ (see page VII of the score).
This arrangement of singers and instrumentalists is intended to create an optical concentration on the content of the Credo. The composition with its many varied elements embodies a uniformity derived from a common omnipresent formula, which as such plays a determinating role in the work, but being at the same time the source from which all parts of the work were developed. This formula is musically and organisatorically highly important.
It consists of 7 notes which represent the 7 syllables of the start of the latin text of the Creed (Cre-do in u-num De-um) at the same time expressing the perfect symbolism of the number.
The notes of the formula are 7 successive fifths, almost within the range of one octave. Two very similar groups of three notes „circle” about the lowest note of F sharp. At their central point, where the last note of the first group of three and the first note of the second group of three, connected by the F sharp, „shake hands”, they form a third group of three. Three groups of three as a musical „picture” of the one God - invariably the Holy Trinity and the triple nature of the Creed are conjured up.
The concept of the absolute (but triple) unity of God is interconfessionally and ecumenically uncontested Michael Denhoff has extended and enhanced the concept and its musical representation towards an inter-religious unanimity covering at least the abrahamite religions, which after all worship the one and only God, if using different names and images, be they judaic, christian or muslim. Perhaps music is the only adequate „language” to express the ineffable and unportrayable with wonder, respect and joy.
With the formula which Denhoff has developed for this work „In unum Deum” the composer achieves two things: Due to the formula permeating the complete work in various forms he has managed to give the work a strong musical unity and compactness which does not become wearisome, since concurrently much inner differentiation and complexity is possible. On the other hand the nature of the formula and his treatment of it allows him to underline the inherent scope which he wanted the work to bear: the deep unity of the idea of God with the underlying differentiation of all godly images, names and traditions which is possibly an answer to the yearning question of Man as to the meaning of his existence and his worldly experience.
The composition achieves its effect through silence.
It is noticeable how well the latin text of the Credo is understandable over long passages of this composition. This is because the choral sections - which sing the Credo - are for long stretches diatonically tonal. The sections for the soloists which are much more subjective and expressive, and the texts which are incorporated therein, are more contemporary and harmonically richer.
Doubtless, the work achieves its effect on the listener by its captivating music, but also by the high demands placed by the added texts per se and their „collision” with the (objective) Credo text. The listener experiences a strengthening of his doubting belief and his believing doubt - as with light, of which the illuminatory power is made to shine by shade and darkness.
We gradually become aware of a particular aspect of the work during the process of listening: all movements which are joined without a pause - and those are the minority - have postludes. After the „official” end of that which has been brought to expression in the movement a sound remains as if forgotten, reopening the completed statement, questioning, refusing to accept the affirmation, trusting the textless music more than the final word or chord. Even at the end, after the end, this happens, something still sounds, leading to silence, to the ineffable. In the end this may be the root of the hidden force of the composition.
Credo op. 93a
This a-capella composition of the latin text of the Nicene Creed lasts for some 15 minutes; this was not part of the commission issued by the „Gesprächskreis zu Fragen von Musik und Kirche”. It originated more-or-less spontaneously during the work on „In unum Deum”. It is true, it deals with the same choral movements as the composition „In unum Deum” op. 93 with minor modifications; in comparison to the greater work are missing the instruments, the soloists with their added texts, the participation of the congregation and the subjective Credo utterances, that is the complete aura of the larger work. Nevertheless it would be wrong to suppose that this is merely a stripped-down version for more modest musical (and financial) conditions.
The composer has rather given this work an individual flavour. Possibly even it gains intensity from the less complex resources, possibly the originality and attraction of Denhoffs style appear more lucidly in the more „conservative” environment. The composition closely follows the syllables of the text (à la Stravinsky Mass) while remaining sonorous and musically beautiful.
The strong emphasis of the unity of the contemplation of God is missing due to the constellation; the three-formed structure of the Creed is rather presented in a more traditional way; for this reason there is no imposing title as with the greater work and also no dedication, simply the name „Credo”.
The seventh movement „Et unam sanctam catholicam” sets the text which was omitted in op. 93 to music. It is largely homophonic but includes certain harshness: it is no longer possible to reach an agreement on the nature of the church - is it is today - without critical voices and unpleasant distortion.
The eighth movement is the finale which in this version is quieter and more concentrated on the essentials than is the large-scale finale of op. 93. It closes with a ten-voiced „Amen”, without public participation.
© 2004 Joachim Herten (Translation: Martin Packham)