Okay, I admit it. I do complain about the heat of Fresno in the summer, and even, occasionally, escape it. But there is one wonderful grace about my city in the dead of summer, and that is sunrise. Without an alarm, I usually pop up around quarter of six in the morning and jump on a bicycle for a quick 5 or 7 miles, just to enjoy the quietness, treasure time alone with the Lord, and relish the stunning beauties of the sunrise.
Speaking of sunrise (how’s that for a Fresno connection?!), a new work by Frank Felice, Liturgy of the Hours (Violin Sonata No. 1) begins shortly before that hour in escorting us through a voyage of the Roman Catholic offices of prayer throughout a day. Felice, like me and several of my composer friends, finds himself still largely influenced by his evangelical, Biblically-based theology, but finding new closeness to the Lord through liturgical worship and structures. A commission by Ascending, the violin-piano duo of Tricia Fraser, violin, and Caitlin Foster, piano, led to this stunning work that, in my mind, accomplishes three great things: rekindles the joy of liturgical worship, celebrates the wonderfulness of the hours of prayer from Matins to Compline, and brings new life (for me, real life) to so many of the extended compositional techniques we, in Felice’s and my generation, had to learn and use in our college and university student days.
It can be daunting to contemplate a 24-minute work going through the seven prayer hours, but Felice’s score, so beautifully brought to life by Ascending, immediately engages one into this deep spiritually-enriching journey. And Felice wastes no time in using techniques such as plucking the strings inside the piano or aleatoric structures that de-sychronize the violin and piano or wonderful, Olivier Messiaen-inspired harmonies to draw us right into this wonderful ancient, yet new world. Felice mentions his debts to Messiaen, George Crumb, Henry Cowell, and Charles Ives, and, indeed, his hand-drawn score evokes Crumb and his extended piano techniques are indebted to Cowell. I myself see inspiration from Messiaen’s epochal Quartet for the End of Time in Felice’s choice of contrasts from thick, dense harmonies to a high-energy, scherzo-like movement featuring the violin and piano in quickly moving octaves. I am also reminded of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet in C# Minor that, like Felice’s work, is in seven movements, several of which seem like recitative introductions to other movements. But this also demonstrates that the subtitle Violin Sonata No. 1 is most appropriate; Felice has used the ancient offices of prayer to effect a new version of sonata form.
There is also a wonderful George Rochberg moment of bold contrast as Felice journeys from a John-Cage like aleatoricism of “None” into the rather straight modal (C Mixolydian) simplicity of “Vespers.” In this precious transition, Felice evokes the promised rest of God to our souls most effectively. The work’s final movement, “Compline,” appropriately takes us back into the dark hours of day from whence “Matins” emerged and thus brings this journey back full circle in a most ingratiating way.
This work is truly worthy of listening; please visit https://soundcloud.com/felice-composer/liturgy-hours to enjoy Ascending’s excellent performance. You may also visit Felice’s website at https://www.frank-felice.com.