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Songs from the Community of Taize

The opening of this article is taken from the Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation (available from Faith Alive Christian Resources; 1-800-333-8300; www.FaithAliveResources.org). Others contributed to the notes on the three Taizé songs, which are also taken from that edition.

In 1940, at the age of twenty-five, Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community, left his native Switzerland and moved to France, where war was raging. A seminary graduate from a Reformed tradition, he carried with him the idea of forming a community of reconciliation—first, to reconcile Christians, and then, through the reconciliation of Christians, to overcome conflicts within the human family.

Brother Roger found a house in the isolated village of Taizé, a short distance from the line of demarcation that divided France in two at that time. He spent his days in prayer, living alone until he began to hide political refugees, especially Jews, between 1940 and 1942. In November 1942, the Nazi Gestapo came to the house. Brother Roger was in Switzerland at the time.

When he was able to return to Taizé in 1944, Brother Roger brought with him a group of men who were committed to his idea of creating a community of reconciliation. In 1949, the first group of brothers made lifetime monastic commitments to celibacy, community life, and great simplicity of lifestyle. As the years passed, the brothers increased in number. While the first brothers were Protestant, Catholic brothers eventually joined the community as well. Today the community of Taizé has brothers from twenty-five countries that represent every continent. By its very existence, Taizé is a sign of reconciliation among divided Christians and among separated peoples. The community desires to be a “parable of communion,” a place where people seek to be reconciled every day.

Since the late 1950s Taizé has been welcoming young adults in ever-growing numbers. Each week in the summer, the intercontinental meetings bring together 3,000 to 5,000 visitors, and between 500 and 1,000 each week in the spring and autumn. Three times each day, everyone gathers in the Church of Reconciliation for prayer. During other parts of the day, visitors may attend a rehearsal to learn the songs that will be sung later that day, participate in a Bible study or discussion with other members of their language group, sit in the always-open chapel to pray and meditate, or simply go for a walk. Hundreds of thousands of young people have gathered in Taizé through the years to immerse themselves in the community’s central theme: inner life and human solidarity. They come to search at the wellsprings of faith for meaning for their lives, and then to set off home again with a renewed impetus.

The Music of Taizé

With pilgrims gathered from various parts of the world, finding a common language for prayer presented an early challenge to the community. And while it is easy to proclaim the Scriptures and other spoken texts in multiple languages, common song became the greatest difficulty. At first, the brothers attempted to teach visitors certain hymns and psalms in French. This proved to be unsatisfactory. It was Brother Robert who conceived the idea for what has come to be known as the music of Taizé.

Brother Robert chose a six-measure canon by Praetorius, which could be sung in up to six parts and had only two Latin words and one Hebrew word: Jubilate Deo, Alleluia. The simplicity of form, textually and musically, lent itself to repetition and development—unison, two-voice, three-voice, and so on, and the eventual overlayering of instruments. The result was music that was accessible and textually uncomplicated, thus uniting the entire gathered assembly in a single communal song while at the same time freeing the individual to lift his or her heart in prayer.

Brother Robert took the concept, along with brief texts chosen from Scripture or written by various brothers, to a friend of the community, Paris composer/organist Jacques Berthier. The form inspired the compositional genius of Berthier, who, working in close collaboration with Brother Robert, began a prolific outpouring of short songs and chants for use in prayer at Taizé. A number of new canons were written, and the ostinato form (brief pieces that are repeated numerous times) was heavily adopted. Later, some of these ostinati became refrains for intervening solo verses.

At first, most of the texts remained in Latin—a language with which everyone was equally uncomfortable(!)—while intervening verses as well as verses superimposed over an ostinato were sung in a variety of living languages. Later on, many of the refrains, canons, and ostinati were composed for texts in living languages. At Taizé today, most of the chants in the songbook used at daily prayer are printed with multiple texts in various languages, and are often sung in various languages simultaneously.

For each song in the Taizé repertoire, Berthier composed numerous and various components, mostly identified as either accompaniments or solos. A separate choir accompaniment or two might be added to the simple chant sung by the entire assembly. Various solo verses for cantor have been composed for most of the pieces. Instrumental accompaniments—solos, duos, and ensembles for keyboard, guitar, and orchestral instruments—also lend complexity and beauty to an otherwise simple form.

Laudate Dominum/ Sing, Praise and Bless the Lord

Click to listen  [ melody | full ]

Text

Praise, blessing, song—related, but distinct. This simple song calls all nations and peoples to raise all three to the Lord. The Latin text, with rounder vowels and crisp consonants, is better for singing than the thicker English translation.

Music

The simplicity of this tune masks a deeper complexity. While always prayerful, the ambiguity of modal harmony allows for the expression of a great range of human emotion: awe, joy, even fear.

Note the vigorous accents (not present in the singer’s edition but part of the original notation). Feel in one beat per measure (q = 104), and be careful to observe the rests (vocally and instrumentally). Taizé songs are wonderful unaccompanied, once the congregation is familiar with them. If you wish for more support, a keyboard instrument or strummed guitar chords will suffice. Adding a single treble instrument (see descants) is also effective. Sing several times, adding and subtracting instruments to encourage cycling through different emotional and spiritual postures. Here is one possible map for accomplishing various postures (additional descants can be found in Music for Taizé vol. 1, GIA Publications):

  1. keyboard introduction (second half of song)
  2. keyboard, congregation, and trombone duplicating the keyboard bass part
  3. keyboard, congregation, and flute on C descant
  4. keyboard, congregation, and flute on C descant
  5. keyboard, congregation, and oboe or violin on descant
  6. keyboard, congregation, and oboe or violin on descant
  7. keyboard, congregation, trumpet on Bb descant, and trombone duplicating the keyboard bass part
Ideas for Use
  • As a song of prayerful rejoicing, especially at the opening or closing of worship.
  • Have a cantor sing Psalm 117 superimposed on the refrain, as found in Songs and Prayers from Taizé (GIA Publications, 1991).
  • Use as a refrain in a responsorial psalm of praise, such as Psalm 145 (Sing! A New Creation, 27).

Scripture

Psalm 117:1

In God Alone

Click to listen  [ melody | full ]

Text

This text, which speaks of finding true rest, peace, and joy in God alone, is reminiscent of Psalm 62 and St. Augustine’s famous prayer “Our souls are restless, Lord, till they rest in Thee.”

Music

Expressing both restlessness and confident repose in God, this music perfectly fits the content of this meditation. The first phrase aims towards “rest and peace,” but then brightens as the exact center of the piece ends on “joy” before then returning to the quieter “rest and peace.” Play at a steady tempo (q = 66). The music is restful, and at the same time rich in harmony and rhythm, especially in the slightly syncopated ending; keep the accompaniment simple and supportive.

The instrumental descants will add interest, and would best be played one at a time in successive repetitions. Here is one possible map for layering the repetitions:

  1. recorder introduction on melody only
  2. guitar, congregation, and recorder on melody
  3. guitar, congregation, and recorder on 1st descant for C instrument
  4. guitar, congregation, and recorder on 2nd descant for C instrument
  5. keyboard, congregation, and flute duo
  6. keyboard, congregation, and clarinet or trumpet on descant for Bb instrument
  7. guitar and congregation
Ideas for Use
  • As a centering song at the outset of worship.
  • As a call to prayer, perhaps throughout an entire season (e.g., Lent).
  • As a refrain interspersed with the reading of Psalm 62 or a psalm of lament.
Scripture

Psalm 62:1

Bless the Lord, My Soul

Click to listen  [ melody | full ]

Text

This text is a paraphrase of key lines from Psalm 103 that speak of God’s mercy and compassion.

Music

Accompany on piano or organ (with the organ, use soft foundation stops on the refrain and an eight-foot flute accompanying the cantor) at a gentle tempo (q = 84). Shape the second phrase dynamically, reaching a peak on the high notes. Or use a guitar, not strumming, but with the more classical finger-picking style.

The verses are best sung by a cantor with a secure yet gentle voice that can convey the gentle compassion of this text. Everyone can accompany the cantor by singing softly (or humming) the music of the refrain.

Enjoy the variety of musical obligatos, and feel free to experiment with different instruments. For example, two violins could play the recorder duo, or a saxophone might play the recorder part.

Here is one possible “map” for utilizing various musical layers with each repetition of the song:

  1. keyboard introduction
  2. keyboard and congregation
  3. keyboard, congregation, and recorder on simple melody
  4. keyboard, congregation, cantor (st. 1), and recorder on simple melody
  5. keyboard, congregation, cantor (st. 2), and recorder duo
  6. keyboard, congregation, and flute duo
  7. keyboard, congregation, cantor (st. 3), and clarinet/recorder duo (Bb and C instruments)
  8. congregation and recorder on simple melody
Ideas for Use
  • During the distribution of the elements at the Lord’s Supper.
  • As the thanksgiving to conclude the communion service. (Psalm 103 is historically the Psalm of Thanksgiving after communion.)
  • Can be especially appropriate during Advent and Lent.
Excerpt
Source

The community at Taizé (in France; www.taize.fr) is an ecumenical community of brothers who share a common concern for reconciliation between people and God as well as people with one another.

The main composer of music for the community of Taizé was the Paris composer Jacques Berthier (1923-1994), who left a wonderful treasury of short songs for worship. Most of his songs were formed after the ancient psalm tones and call-and-response worship style. Berthier’s musical gems are in worldwide ecumenical use.

Music from Taizé in Sing! A New Creation

Bless the Lord, My Soul (256)
Eat This Bread (254)
Gloria, Gloria (115)
In God Alone (187)
In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful (220)
Jesus, Remember Me (143)
Laudate Dominum / Sing, Praise and Bless the Lord (30)
O Lord, Hear My Prayer (203)

Singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing thus becomes a way of listening to God. It allows everyone to take part in a time of prayer together and to remain together in attentive waiting on God, without having to fix the length of time too exactly. To open the gates of trust in God, nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of “heaven’s joy on earth,” as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.

—from www.taize.fr