Sisters of Mercy prayer inspires professor’s choral work

Paul McGovern

SUSCIPE

My God, I am yours for time and eternity. Teach me to cast myself entirely into the arms of your loving providence, with the most lively, unlimited confidence in your compassionate tender pity. Grant me, O most merciful redeemer, that whatever you ordain or permit may be acceptable to me. Take from my heart all painful anxiety; Suffer nothing to sadden me but sin, nothing to delight me but the hope of coming to the possession of you, my God and my all, in your everlasting kingdom, in your everlasting kingdom, in your everlasting kingdom. Amen.

Every year the campus community celebrates Mercy Week in late September to honor the founding of the Sisters of Mercy by Catherine McAuley. This year's celebration featured the Concert Choir performing Dr. Paul McGovern's original choral composition based on a prayer written by Sister McAuley.

The prayer was printed on the back of a bookmark that came with McGovern's faculty orientation packet when he arrived two years ago as the first full-time music professor in many years. It is special to the Sisters, who use it at all their important gatherings.

"A lovely sentiment is expressed in the prayer," he says. "I began to wonder if there was a musical setting for it."

Though the prayer had been set to other music accompanied by guitars in the folk Mass tradition, McGovern began, in the summer of 2004, a four-part choral score based on an entirely new melody. The creative process flowed nicely - until he realized he had to stop in order to finish his doctoral dissertation. When he came back to composing in the summer of 2005, the process again flowed easily, and he committed himself to having the Concert Choir perform the piece for Mercy Week.

Called "Suscipe" (Receive), the music's vocal harmonies are both lovely and emotional. "The prayer is very personal. I tried to capture that intimacy," McGovern notes. He composed the piece as a motet - a short, sacred work for a capella choir. "There is a long tradition of composers taking standard Catholic texts and setting them to music. The ‘Ave Maria' is one example," he says.

student playing piano

Having studied composer Paul Hindemith’s technique of going from the general to the specific, he started with knowing where he wanted to have the piece climax. “I wanted to build to that point,” he states. To establish the intimate feeling of Sister McAuley’s complete trust in God, he sought to make certain tones smooth, soft and low. For that part, he wanted consonant, rich and lush harmonies.

He also relied on the text to provide some of the rhythm. For example, he needed to accommodate certain syllables that are naturally stressed. He also used the tradition of relating specific musical gestures to the literal meaning of words. “You want to sustain and hold the word ‘eternity’ as a chord – to suggest eternity. For the word ‘confidence,’ you want to sound confident, so you give it a higher, stronger, accented sound,” says McGovern.

Certain parts of the prayer conveyed a sense of urgency about taking away painful anxiety, and these he made sound dissonant.

The prayer’s words inspired McGovern. “I’d repeat the words and say: What would that sound like musically?” He went back and forth through ongoing edits. “Like a performance, you get so involved in the creative process that time stops, place doesn’t matter, the telephone and the laundry are irrelevant,” he says.

“I’m a conductor, not a composer, but there’s always been a part of me that has wanted to try composing,” Dr. McGovern says.

Not only was it satisfying to hear his own work performed – he got goose bumps when he heard the harmonies come together for the first time – the experience has lit a fire to do more composing. In the meantime, he has submitted “Suscipe” to GIA Publications with the hope of getting the work published for use by other choirs.

Sister Sylvia Comer, R.S.M., who heard “Suscipe” at its premiere during Mercy Week Mass, says she felt immediate gratitude. “It was so well done, it was so professional. He absolutely captured the feeling of the prayer,” she says.