There are relatively few musical settings of the Beatitudes, perhaps the most notable among them by Arthur Bliss (1961) and Arvo Pärt (1990). This text, from St Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 5) is difficult to categorise. It is often described as Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and is neither a prayer nor a narrative, but more a beautiful description of human qualities balanced with the benefits which result from possessing them. In that respect, the text presents some problems for a composer. Its form is rather like a list of statements or rules and one might imagine them inscribed on the wall of a sacred building, each sentence able to exist on its own, having a perfect balance. There is a feeling of a Litany as each phrase except the final one begins with ‘Blessed are …’, always voiced in the plural, as if speaking to the world. The lack of poetic flow might be a reason for dissuading composers from setting the text but, perhaps influenced by the version by Pärt, Łukaszewski uses the solid pronouncements as a shape to write granite-like blocks of strong writing, each separated by a double-bar, providing as much a space for the listener’s thought as for the choir to breathe. The construction is mainly homophonic, the voices singing the words at the same time, rather than creating music on a horizontal, flowing plane. The interesting thread throughout this work appears to be concerned with bells, or at least bell-suggestions. It happens in many ways. Starting on the vertical, many of the 'Beati' statements are ‘chimed’ on harmonies which pile up intervals of fifths and seconds. Although bells have their own, distinct harmonic characteristics, these words, always stated first as a separate gesture, have a ringing quality, and each of the sentences has its own, if you like, add-on bells, in differing proportions, and in imaginative variations. The phrases which follow have two other techniques which develop the initial tolling effect. There is a comprehensive use of graded proportions of note-values, nothing unusual in itself, but here used to distract us from the restrictions of measured note-lengths and to throw the piece into the freedom of bell-pealing. In addition, there is a deliberate delay built-in to some of the rhythms, rather like the delay between pulling on the rope and the bell sounding. This is not immediately clear but creates a subtle impression of the cacophony of bells being heard reflected from walls, out of time and sometimes with chaotic harmony. At the climactic point, where the text lines change from 'Beati' to 'Gaudete et exsultate' ('Rejoice and be glad'), all the voices are in exact synchronisation, but they still make use of the same, ringing shapes as have been impressed on our ears from the opening of the work.
from notes by Greg Murray © 2018