Welcome to Feature Fridays! Each week, AU Music Library staff highlight an item from our collection. While the library is closed, we will feature items that are available for streaming. This week guest reviewer Samuel Horsch, Bender Library operations staff, reviews Most Sacred Body by Dr. James Kallembach, as performed by the Marsh Chapel Choir of Boston University.
This week, I decided to listen to the album Most Sacred Body by Dr. James Kallembach. This album was recorded in the Spring of 2017 and features Boston University’s Marsh Chapel Choir. Reeling from yet another earth-shattering school shooting in 2015, Dr. Kallembach found himself rereading Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Words such as, “O miserable mankind, to what fall Degraded, to what wretched state reserved” seemed fitting for these tragedies. In Paradise Lost, Milton lamented humanity’s proclivity towards pain and violence when we could just as easily choose empathy and peace. He yearned for a day when free choice was used for the betterment of humankind.
As Dr. Kallembach ruminated on Milton’s words, he was commissioned by Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett of Boston University to create a cantata to be performed on Good Friday. This cantata was meant to take the place of Membra Jesu Nostri composed by Buxtehude; a piece that the Marsh Chapel Choir typically sang on Good Friday. Dr. Kallembach drew words and themes from Membra Jesu Nostri, Latin verses from the Bible, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in order to create the Most Sacred Body. In it, he asserts, “Compassion exists as a free choice to all of us as a species, and we are solely to blame for the shortcomings we see in the world.” Dr. Kallembach hoped that his music would help people consider how their choices could lead to positive change.
I find his message to be especially resonant today as protests echo throughout America. The music is both haunting and moving. This is true from the earliest movements, where Adam is shown what free choice will cost humanity, to the last movement, where he and Eve are ushered out of Eden forever. Through this work, we have a chance to reflect on our choices and enact more positive ones.
Most Sacred Body stands out to me not just for the powerful words and rich music, but also because I had the honor to perform in it. There are certain performances that will always stick with the musician throughout life. This is one of those performances. Under the guidance of Dr. Jarrett and in coordination with my fellow basses, it was powerfully affecting learning the pieces presented here.
I’d like to reflect on a couple of the pieces that stand out to me. The first is "No. 5 God Sees the Newly Created Earth." In this movement, the beauty of the Earth is reflected in rich choruses and word painting. The peace and tranquility of this new Earth are evident as the tenor soloist rises out of the choir like a warm breeze through the trees. But this beauty is mixed with foreboding. Not all will remain good, and the choir, in a sudden crescendo, allows tension to grow. In this crescendo, a motif is introduced that will be revisited only in the final song as Adam and Eve are escorted from paradise.
Moving forward, we arrive at "No. 8 Adam Beholds Human Warfare." It was from this movement that I pulled the quote at the beginning of this piece. It begins with soloists telling the story of an Angel showing Adam what free choice will cost. The once beautiful, newly created Earth is ruled by the sword. The choir enters softly with words of pain. Make sure to listen to the depth of the basses here. They then erupt, casting aspersions on man and claiming that they have become “Death’s ministers” instead of the image of God! I encourage sitting and reflecting upon the words and musical setting.
Finally, in "No. 22 The Angel Leads Adam and Eve Out of the Garden," we have the expulsion from Eden. This movement begins with the soloists narrating softly and somberly, echoing the sadness of the couple as they realize what awaits them. Free choice and the dangers of leaving Eden. The choir rejoins the soloists in a crescendo right as they stumble out of the Garden never to return. The soloists end and the choir softly chants “Ecce super montes” hearkening to the time when a savior shall right the wrongs. In this tension between pain and hope, the cantata ends.
I would recommend listening to this production when you have some time. Use either headphones or powerful speakers. Let both the music and words wash over and through you. Listen carefully. You may find the inspiration to act with compassion at a time when our country is crying out for it.