As part of the Liturgy of the Hours, Compline is the final ‘office’ or service at the close of the day. When I came to Minneapolis and began singing in the Basilica of St. Mary choir, I found that Compline was still done at the Basilica. Compline is the prayer before sleep. Personally I view Compline from three different standpoints. From a rational standpoint it is a time to begin to let the mind rest. From an emotional standpoint it a time of gratitude for the day that has past. From a spiritual standpoint it is a time of awe and wonder at the universe of God.
A bit less than two years ago I began singing with the Minnesota Compline Choir. This is an ecumenical choir—it’s not just Catholics who do Compline. This was part of reason I joined this choir. It is important to me to sing in a choir that crosses denominational lines. (In CCD I was also listening to some of the lessons of the Second Vatican Council.) Twice a month from September to May we sing the service on Sunday nights at 8:00 PM in the Basilica of St. Mary.
Each time part of the service consists of a psalm setting, normally done as a chant, sometimes with minimal harmony added. I wanted to write a simple psalm setting. These settings are normally written and prepared quickly. To me, that was the challenge. Chant is the original musical minimalism and from a compositional standpoint one must write it while thinking ‘less is more.’
I approached our director, Aaron Humble, and asked if he would be willing to look at a psalm setting I would write for the choir. After he said yes I asked if there was a particular psalm I should set. He said set one that speaks to me.
Geek that I am, I began doing some research into psalms that have a long-standing relationship with compline. I decided to use Psalm 4. Although this psalm, according to the Rule of St. Benedict, is to be performed straight through without antiphon, I decided to structure the piece in an antiphon/verse format using the last line of the psalm as the antiphon: “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.”
Now for the truly ‘esoteric’ composer-speak: Since the text referenced sleep I decided that I wanted to begin the piece with a downward melodic gesture. I did not want to use any pre-existing plainchant melody, but rather write my own. I also decided the antiphon would be metered (in 6 8 time) while the verses would be done in un-metered chant style. From a harmonic standpoint I choose to pentatonic scale, but not be strict and allow myself to borrow notes from other scales.
I am so thankful that Mr. Humble has included this setting in our service tonight (May 3, 2015 at 8:00 PM). I am looking forward to hearing the setting in the reverberant space of our Minneapolitan Basilica.
Psalm 4 from the King James Version
I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.
Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.
There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.
Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.