Linton: Canon for Maundy Thursday

Linton: Canon for Maundy Thursday


“Canon for Maundy Thursday” is the final fourteen minutes of a piece of music begun five months earlier. That statement requires some explanation. In 2001, the church where my wife and I were serving as church musicians in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, began construction of a new sanctuary. In tandem with that construction, I began the composition of a series of liturgical cycles, specifically written for that parish’s members and the properties of the new building. Although the project was abandoned and left incomplete, two cantatas, four ceremonial processionals, a kyrie, gloria, sanctus and agnus dei (the “Sinai Mass”), as well as a number of anthems and hymns, were finished and performed in the services.

The cycle began with a cantata for the first Sunday of Advent, scored for tenor, trombone, and piano (the parish had several virtuoso musicians in membership and the cantatas were written specifically for them). A setting of the Old Testament scripture, the cantata took the place in the liturgy typically reserved for the scripture’s reading. It was followed immediately by a psalm, sung by the congregation to this traditional modified Anglican psalm tone.
This same tone was used by the congregation for singing the psalms through the rest of Advent. On Christmas Eve it was replaced by another psalm tone that was used through Christmas (the psalm was read during Epiphany). But on Ash Wednesday, this tone returned and was used for all the psalms sung by the congregation through Lent.

The Maundy Thursday liturgy included the ceremony of the “washing of the feet”, a ritual in which the clergy and some members of the congregation reenacted Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet, recounted in John 13:17, a part of the service that can be somewhat lengthy and has minimal congregational involvement. The “Canon for Maundy Thursday” was written for this part of the liturgy. The piece assumes the presence of a congregation that is familiar not only with the psalm tone that is the canon’s foundation, but also a congregation that carries with it the memories of all the psalms they have sung to that tone since the first Sunday of Advent five months earlier, and not only the texts of those earlier psalms but also the services of which those psalms were a part. It is in this way that the “Canon” is the final minutes of a
piece begun in late November: it is the musical and theological conclusion of the liturgies that have preceded it. And it is the last choral and concerted music heard by the congregation until the “Resurrexi” introit and following processional hymn that begin the service on Easter Sunday.


Recorded at First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

The text, John 15: 1-17, dictates the shape of the piece. The section of scripture culminates in its final sentence, verse 17, where Jesus reiterates his new “commandment,” or in Latin, “law” (“Hæc mando vobis: ut diligatis invicem”). In counterpoint, “canon” is a kind of musical law where one voice follows another in strict imitation. Using the harmony of the psalm tone as a foundation, the three violins enter in canon with each other, the “dux”, or leading voice of the canon, lasting over ninety measures. In the first verse, Jesus refers to himself metaphorically as a “vine” and the voices of the canon “grow” out of the literal musical “ground” of the psalm tone, twisting around each other like the tendrils of a vine as the piece progresses, the dux moving from the greatest possible simplicity at its beginning (it only has two pitches) to cascading sixteenth notes at its close.

In verse twelve, Jesus first pronounces his commandment, “That ye love one another.” But the command is ironic. Love, any kind of love — between lovers, between friends, between God and His creatures — cannot be commanded, it cannot be forced. To be love, it must be spontaneous and given freely. Anything else is not true love. To exegete the spontaneity required by love, at this point the violins cease their mechanistic canon, breaking into free, melodic counterpoint while the chorus breaks from the strict confines of the psalm tone, erupting into ecstatic utterance. The piece is constructed according to spiraling Golden Mean principles and the end of the canon and the beginning of the free counterpoint marks the Golden Mean of the full work.

Each of the repetitions of the psalm tone is eight measures long, except one.
In verse thirteen, Jesus points to the laying down of one’s life for another as evidence of the greatest possible love. To lay down one’s life is to voluntarily cut it short and that repetition is one measure shorter than the rest. It is also the only place in the canon with a chromatic accidental, a lowered-leading tone in the bass.

In the final verse, the violins reveal — in three octaves — the melody that has always been nascent in the psalm tone harmonization but never clearly presented while the chorus, for the first times, sings the verse in unison. But in the second half of the verse the choir breaks into a new harmony and the measure that was deleted from the setting of verse thirteen is added back, lengthening the standard eight measure variation by one measure. With love nothing is truly lost. The music ends as it began, with the simple two note incipit of the dux and the psalm tone, but ornamented by simple descending D Major scales.

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