Last weekend I was awake at 5:30 am, to worship with 9 others in a tiny stone chapel in the Berkshires. There was no accompaniment to support our scratchy morning voices, but we sang nonetheless. As we all stood around the altar in the warmly lit chapel wrapped in that deep stillness that precedes the dawn, the presiding priest chanted the Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy - if you're not up on your Greek), and made the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads with water. The Kyrie echoed off the walls with our response. I felt as if we had somehow bumbled our way to T.S. Eliot's "still point of the turning world. " Now that I'm immersed in the normal chaos of my life (I just demanded that my 13-yr old come down from the roof), I long for that still point. I found it again in these two beautiful a capella Kyries.
The first of the two is from the Missa Pange Lingua of Josquin Des Prez, a major composer of liturgical music from the 15th/16th century. This mass is a cantus firmus - which means its magnificent polyphony sits on top of a base melody (the fixed song or cantus firmus). Originally such compositions were based on ecclesial chants, but later drew from popular secular music. This mass is set, perhaps a bit ironically for this Remembrance Day weekend, on a French Renaissance song "L'homme armé" (the armed man). (My kids read this and wondered what it might be like if you wrote a mass setting to "Row, row, row your boat" or Britney Spears' latest. Food for thought?)
If you long for more stillness in motion, read Burnt Norton or listen to Eliot read it. You can find the rest of Missa Pange Lingua at Amazon as a CD or downloadable MP3.