This Sunday, the choir will sing "If Thou Wilt Be Perfect," a new anthem that St. Peter's has commissioned from Philadelphia composer Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980). Many St. Louisans are already familiar with Dunphy's music. She was recently the composer-in-residence for the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus.
David Sinden recently sat down with Dunphy for a conversation.
David Sinden: Your anthem sets the words of Jesus about how it is easier for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. You don’t seem to be a composer who shies away from political or provocative texts. Is this part of what drew you to this Gospel passage?
Melissa Dunphy: It’s true that many of my works are inspired by political messages, movements, and events, and it’s no accident that this text also reads as political. But I think we also sometimes forget that Jesus was an inherently political figure. His message that we should care for the sick and the poor as a moral priority, that the humblest are the most holy, and that the meek shall inherit the earth, is just as political and relevant today as it was when he first preached it. One of the things I most admire about Christian philosophy is the introduction into mainstream discourse of the idea that wealth and status do not equate to goodness, and even more radical than that, that wealth and true Christian goodness might be mutually exclusive. It’s a question that we all have to examine, whether or not we are Christian: is inequality, especially extreme wealth inequality, damaging to our own spirit as well as the world at large? I think this is an important issue that we are currently facing, even though Jesus addressed it two thousand years ago.
DS: I can’t think of any existing musical settings of these words. Did you search for any in this process?
MD: I was aware when I suggested setting these words that this wasn’t a text I had ever sung in my upbringing in the church. It seems like a historically uncomfortable text to focus on in song for some reason!
DS: Why did you use the Douay-Rheims translation of the bible? (I seem to remember you’ve used this for other biblical texts?)
MD: I’ve used the Douay-Rheims translation before for my choral work “Together,” and I turn to it for both practical and artistic reasons. First, the practical: all modern English translations of the Bible are copyrighted, and composers can't set those texts without explicit permission from the publisher. Regarding historical translations, I've never been a huge fan of the KJV because the language, while beautiful, is quite archaic, and can cause the message to seem less relevant and approachable to modern audiences. This version of the Douay-Rheims, however, is a specifically American edition, and the language, while having some archaic elements, is a little more modern and relatable.
Also—this is a total aside, but I think it's interesting anyway—the Douay-Rheims was first published in America in my home town, Philadelphia, in 1790. The publisher Mathew Carey was Irish, but met Benjamin Franklin in Paris during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, and they became such friends that Carey joined Franklin in Philadelphia to work in Franklin's print shop. He subsequently opened his own publishing company, which published both the Douay-Rheims Bible and several editions of the KJV. I've recently become a bit of a nerd regarding this period of Philadelphia history because some of the walls in the building where we live (and two privies in our foundation) date back to 1761, so it’s always interesting to me to learn about what the Founding Fathers were doing and reading in the very spot where I now compose music.
DS: The tempo of this piece is so slow in the first and last sections. Half note = 30. My metronome doesn’t even go that low. What's the deal?
MD: I really agonized over the harmonies in these phrases, writing and rewriting them what felt like dozens of times, and I think the effect that I’m going for is something sort of set in marble, which in my head goes at this tempo! I imagine conductors will have an easier time rehearsing it by counting in four instead of two, but in the end, I want it to feel like a very slow forward walk. Across a marble floor. Something like that!
DS: You and I talked about this piece a few years ago, and it’s exciting to see it come to fruition. Does that much time make it easier or harder to write a piece like this?
MD: Honestly I feel like I don’t have much control over whether my brain decides to make it more or less difficult to finish a piece. Sometimes an entire piece will pour itself onto the page in three days and be done. Sometimes half of it will come out, and then the last half gets very stuck and has to be worked and reworked endlessly. I feel like I’m still learning how it all works as a composer; for this piece, I kept it in a corner of my brain for all that time, jotted down ideas, and hoped that it would come together quickly, but it ended up being the kind of piece that required some agonizing! My brain likes to keep me guessing, I suppose. I do know from memoirs and letters that a lot of other composers had similar struggles, so at least I’m in good company.
DS: The choir also sings your splendid “O Oriens” and we’ll sing it again this Advent. You’ve been writing music for a number of different choirs since then. What is your approach to writing choral music? Is it evolving? Does it depend on each choir?
MD: I do try as best as I can to cater music to the commissioning choir and the context, but most of my approach to vocal writing is derived from the text, and the consideration of how my music is going to interact with the text. I grew up reciting poetry and Shakespeare and performing in theater, so I think I bring some of the actor’s sensibility to my composition work. Just as an actor is aware of how their performance interacts with the script, I am always asking myself as a composer: how can I set these words to give them the most meaning? Will my setting elevate these words, support them, undercut them, or juxtapose them with some kind of musical grammar to give them an unexpected subtext? There are a lot of choices, and just like an actor, I don’t use the same approach when preparing different texts for different kinds of performances.
DS: What will you be doing this Sunday while we sing the premiere?
MD: How I wish I could be there! This weekend is a very busy one for me. On Saturday night, my husband Matt and I are going to New York City to see Nine Inch Nails perform, and we’ll get back very late. But on Sunday afternoon, the choir PhilHarmonia is giving the second performance of a major work they commissioned from me this summer—American DREAMers, which sets the words of five immigrants brought to the USA as children—so we’ll be back in Philadelphia for that, then back up to New York for another Nine Inch Nails concert on Sunday night. If it makes you feel any better, yours is not the only performance of my work I’m missing this weekend; my first big political choral work, the Gonzales Cantata, is being performed in Portland, Oregon on Saturday and Sunday as well. I’m very upset I can’t be in three places at once.
DS: Any other upcoming choral projects that you’re excited about?
MD: Later this month, the Cornell University Treble Choir is premiering a new commission, setting a poem by Lola Ridge, “It Isn’t a Dream.” And I have several larger works coming up in the next year or so, including another for the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus about the Gallipoli campaign, and another about the women’s suffrage movement for a choir in Philadelphia. I also have a couple more ideas for multi-movement works that I’m hoping will come to fruition; stay tuned!