Agnus Dei reviews

AgnusDeip3Still floating from the exquisite first performance of Agnus Dei by Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and Symphony in C, conducted by MC’s new director, Paul Rardin. Turns out, on a day of many concerts in Philadelphia, many with new music, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns reviewed ours.

(My notes on Agnus Dei are here.)

Stearns writes that the Agnus Dei is “so personal” and correctly notes that my “tendency toward saturated harmonies was scaled back in favor of something leaner and more visceral.” He thinks it might be a bit long, and finishes by saying that “it’s an important addition to Smith’s output.”

One phrase in his review especially interested me, because it points up something other people have walked around, in conversations about Agnus Dei and other works of mine, that “the piece’s harmonic ambiguity suggested uncertain faith.”

I say that it does no such thing. But I may be in the minority, so let me explain.

One benefit of reading the lives of the saints, and indeed, the biblical books of the prophets, let alone many of the Psalms, is that those who are the most spiritually attuned are often wracked by doubt, pain, anger, and the many other emotions or states those of us who are not so spiritually attuned consider unspiritual or faithless or as those which draw us away from God. But if we are serious about taking those generally accepted as spiritual models to be, in fact, models, the conclusion can only be that we do not lose our faith when under these emotions or in these states. The spiritual person uses these times to dig deeper, to draw even closer to God.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

In this Agnus Dei I took the cry for mercy to be a real cry, I took the repetition of the lines to really mean something. I took this to be a process that would be long, long enough to be slightly uncomfortable, even (though any performance can be a couple of ticks slower or faster), long enough so that when we arrive, finally, at dona nobis pacem it would be an arrival made the more real for the reality of the journey.

But don’t take this as special pleading on my part. That can all be true and the piece still too long! Although I think it’s just right. I have some regrets about my own pieces, but not about the length of this one, which comes in at around 13 minutes, give or take.

There was another good review in an independent and seemingly unedited blog here.

A couple of conductors told me they thought this Agnus Dei would do quite well performed right in its proper place in the incomplete Mozart Mass. Wouldn’t that be something?



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