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CD124 Julian Wachner: Sacred Music


Julian Wachner: Sacred Music

The Boston Bach Ensemble

Julian Wachner, Conductor

  • Complete texts and translations
  • 69’23” total playing time

CD124      $15.95

Purchase from Canticle Distributing


Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances (Track 1) Arise, My Love (Track 8)
Three Songs of Isaiah
2. Surely it is God
3. Seek the Lord
4. Surge, Illuminare
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis St. Thomas Fifth Avenue
9. Magnificat
10. Nunc dimittis
All Creatures of Our God and King
  (Track 11)
At the Lighting of the Lamps
5. Inventor rutile...
6. Ne nesciret homo...
7. Vivax flamma viger...

Listen Listen:

Ne nesciret homo... from At the Lighting of the Lamps



Julian Wachner is a highly gifted composer with a rapidly growing body of work, both sacred and secular. Boston audiences who have heard his music in the concert hall and particularly in Boston University's Marsh Chapel have recognized something unusual and profound: Wachner is as much theologian as composer.

Wachner's uncommon sensitivity to the theological nuances of sacred texts is evident throughout this recording. There is nothing formulaic about Wachner's theo¬logical self-expression; he defies traditional patterns of sacred choral music as often as he conforms to them. Nor are Wachner's theological insights merely random musings with no unified character. On the contrary, a distinctive theological point of view is discernible and it has far-reaching implications. It is this theological creativity as much as his musical style that has allowed Wachner to cultivate his unique compositional voice.

The theological perspective manifest in this recording is intensely practical, stress¬ing the importance of the serious religious act. Wachner takes advantage of the dual character of sacred music, which is not only commentary and performance but also a practical vehicle for religious engagement and personal transformation. One senses that Wachner is attempting in his sacred works to respond to a felt obligation to create moments of spiritual inspiration in which the act of listening can also become a means of spiritual engagement. Yet he eschews superficial forms of inspiration in order to preserve the integrity of the serious religious act. As a result, Wachner's sacred music is always in some way an invitation to spiritual discovery, promising not the bright comfort of happy feelings but the hard-won spiritual comforts that demand a realistic appraisal of the perplexities and limitations of the human condition.

Wachner is sometimes quite experimental in the way he offers his listeners the challenge of heightened spiritual awareness. Consider, for example, the third of the "Three Songs of Isaiah." Set to the text of Isaiah 60, "Arise, shine, for your light has come," this song is a rapturous celebration of the divine presence, symbolized as light. Such moments, when truly significant, are not created easily. Rather, they require the preparation of a compositional foundation sturdy enough to bear the emotional weight of the invitation, which is issued only when the time is ripe. The climax of the first of the three sections of this song occurs in the sunrise imagery of verse 2, "But over you the Lord will rise, and his glory will appear upon you." No sooner is this moment of glory achieved than it is immediately swamped in the second part by the rhythmically disruptive and dissonant setting of Isaiah's promises about the resolution of earthly conflicts. There is no end to earthly troubles and promises of victorious resolution serve merely to unsettle the soul searching for the everlasting light of the divine pres¬ence. Then the focus returns to divine light in the final section with the setting of verse 19, "The sun will no more be your light by day, by night you will not need the brightness of the moon. The Lord will be your everlasting light and your God will be your glory." Dwarfing the earlier sunrise climax of the first section and scattering the distracting promises of the second, this section is a surging wave of magnificent sound. Preparations having been made with scrupulous care, the invitation to be swept away in a moment of bliss has spiritual credibility. Only when the religious act is viewed as profoundly important does a composer go to such lengths to frame an invitation to spiritual communion with God; this is the very antithesis of musical cheap grace.

Wachner is also fascinated with the psychological complexity of religious life, which he uses to convey a theological vision of the divine-human relation. Consider the first of the "Three Songs of Isaiah". This setting of the text of Isaiah 12 includes the beloved line, "Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid." Wachner instinctively grasps the tentativity of this line and astutely sets its fearful striving for confidence in a musical context that conveys distress, with overtones of grief. The plaintive theme struck by male voices at the beginning is repeated at the end of the first section of the song by a solo soprano voice. This conveys the sense that trusting in God is always also a steeling of our souls against fear in the context of a perilous world in which we so often feel alone. The theological point being made here concerns the conflicted, ambiguous relationship between the divine and the human. The longing for the comfort of divine protection is at least partly a flame of wistful hope, flickering in the darkness of pain and abandonment, thrust out against the night to repel unseen dangers. And all the while we sense the divine on both sides - both with us to comfort and protect yet also hovering in the darkness beyond the reach of our control, untamable. The realism of this theological insight can seem severe but it is surely more palatable than the strident or simply joyful settings of this text that one often hears. It is also more truly comforting in the long run, precisely through being realistic.

At times Wachner will break with unspoken traditions of sacred music in order to express his theological interpretation of the divine-human relationship. In the first part of "Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis," he accepts one of the great challenges for the composer within this repertoire: setting the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55). Though some ancient texts attribute the Magnificat to Mary's older relative, Elizabeth, traditionally it is held to be Mary's proclamation of praise. Mary is a virgin and a young girl, yet she is pregnant with Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Unsurprisingly, the traditional handling of this passage highlights Mary's attitude of awed faithfulness, expressed in her even¬tual acceptance of the angelic message: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1 :38). Wachner's setting varies dramatically from this established pattern. He focuses on the emotional and psychological contra¬dictions of Mary's situation. Nowhere is this clearer than in the middle section of the "Magnificat" where Wachner sets two independent themes bluntly against one an¬other. In one theme the bulk of the choir drives out a fugue-like "For behold all genera¬tions shall call me blessed," suggesting fearful resistance and perhaps even the youth¬ful temptation to pride beneath the words. Meanwhile, a descant theme conveys Mary's serene acceptance of her role: "For He that is mighty has magnified me." Together, the juxtaposed themes capture the exhilaration of Mary's conflicted state of mind and invite the listeners to experience (and perhaps to understand) that our own struggles for righteousness and faithful obedience are not alien to her. Conjoined with a number of other compositional moves, including downward glissandos and the pe¬riodic fracturing of harmonic solidity, this musical expression of psychological conflict conveys Wachner's refreshingly realistic appraisal of the relation between human be¬ings and the divine power in which we live and move and have their being.

In and through his unique theological-musical portrayal of the divine-human relationship, Wachner conveys his vision of the divine. This is a matter of great delicacy. As the mystical instincts toward silence and indirection indicate, attempts to speak of God inevitably collapse under the weight of their pretensions. Sacred music is well positioned to avoid the dangers of theological speech to some extent, both because music itself is conceptually indirect and because sacred texts have a symbolic status within religious communities that prohibits their being interpreted in flatly literal ways, the more so when given a choral setting. Wachner makes use of these virtues of sacred music but, apparently finding the safeguards insufficient, he is scrupulously careful in his handling of theological content concerning the divine. For instance, there 1s no trace of edifying or instructional "preaching" in these choral works. On the contrary, Wachner typically tries to conjure his theological image of the divine in the periphery while the listener's focus of attention is drawn to the ambiguous and con¬flicted character of the divine-human relationship. This is an intriguing intensification of the theological indirectness of sacred music. It enables Wachner to portray a vision of the divine yet bespeaks a caution that underlines the holy peril that human beings face when they attempt to characterize God.

If we were to speak in words what Wachner intimates about the divine in these choral works, what would we be driven to say? For Wachner, God is utterly untamed yet infinitely gracious. God is at once intensely immanent to the point of being barely manageable for frail humanity, supremely transcendent to the point of being morally indigestible for constrained human imaginations, truly comforting only through un¬masking human pretensions, and the source of bliss for human beings on the unwavering condition of trusting surrender. Wachner's vision of the divine-human relationship is both comforting and disturbing because the divine light is endlessly beautiful yet searing in its intensity. This is also why serious religious acts of engagement are so vital: a God of such untamed love can never be encountered in the abstract, nor can unpredictable divine wildness be introduced politely and safely to the self-protective soul. This vision of the divine is kaleidoscopically present throughout Wachner's sa¬cred music. The invitation he issues to his listeners is always to encounter this God rather than any pale, safe imitation.
-Wesley J. Wildman, Prof. of Theology, Boston University


Since his debut with the Boston Bach Ensemble in 1995, conductor-composer Julian Wachner has become one of New England's leading musical personalities. Wachner is currently music director of The Back Bay Chorale, artistic director of The Providence Singers, and founding music director of the Boston Bach Ensemble a period-instrument baroque orchestra and professional vocal ensemble. He has appeared as guest conductor with The San Diego Symphony Orchestra, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, the Handel and Haydn Society, the Brown University and Boston University Symphony Orchestras, the Young Artists' Orchestra of the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Academy of Music and ALEA Ill. He is alsomusic director of Boston University's Marsh Chapel, a post he was awarded at the age of twenty.

His original compositions have been praised for their “unabashed emotionalism and showy orchestration" by the Boston Globe. As a composer whose idiom clearly lies within the post modern school, Wachner's music manages to be accessible; and despite the kaleidoscopic quality of its tonality, the listener is always engaged by the narrative drive of the music and the rhetorical devices that sustain it. He has been commissioned and performed by numerous organizations throughout the United States and Europe and is the recipient of many awards and honors including grants from ASCAP and Meet the Composer Inc.

Wachner began his musical studies with Gerre Hancock at the Choir School of St. Thomas Church in New York City. He attended Boston University's School for the Arts where he earned the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition and orchestral conducting. His teachers included Theodore Antoniou, David Hoose, Marjorie Merryman, and Lukas Foss. Mr. Foss described him as a "champion of new music... an enormously talented composer ... whose vision and talent will invigorate the musical world." He is also a concert organist, award-winning improvisateur, and Fellow of the American Guild of Organists. Mr. Wachner is assistant professor on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology and lecturer in composition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.