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By Jeremy Baskin

Call it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The pope called, and John Harbison listened. Well, not exactly, but it makes for a good story.

This January, Institute Professor and renowned composer John H. Harbison will be on a plane to Rome to hear the world premiere of “Abraham,” a motet he recently composed for double choir and 13 brass instruments, at the Paul VI Auditorium in the Vatican City.

Among the audience of more than 7,000 will be His Holiness Pope John Paul II, as well as other religious leaders from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, at a concert whose official purpose is “to promote the commitment to a peaceful coexistence among all the children of Abraham.”

How exactly does one get a commission from the pope? Well, the story begins with the New York premiere of Harbison’s “Requiem” last March. In the audience was one Gilbert Levine, who is dubbed by many as “the pope’s conductor,” as he has a relationship with Pope John Paul II dating back to Levine’s days as music director of Poland’s Krakow Philharmonic.

Levine was so impressed with Harbison’s musicality and spirituality that in early September, he contacted Harbison’s publisher with regard to a concert he is scheduled to conduct on Jan. 17 at the Vatican. On the program is Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” and Levine wanted something more contemporary to serve as a prelude to the Mahler symphony. And hence, the commission was born.

Commission heavily planned

Harbison chooses his words carefully when describing his communications with many disparate entities in putting together this commission, though he does say that in general, he “enjoys certain kinds of restrictions, self-imposed or from the outside,” when writing music.

Why did Harbison choose, for “Abraham,” brass instruments to accompany his choir of roughly 300 voices? The Mahler symphony that follows on the program, Harbison says, has “an unusually large group” of brass players who will be making the trek to Rome, and, “in terms of the playing load, they have probably the least to do. They play a lot in that piece, but of course they play less than everybody else.”

Why thirteen brass instruments? The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which will be performing the “Resurrection” Symphony, will provide the brass players for “Abraham,” but they must number at least thirteen in order to be identified as the Pittsburgh Symphony, according to the orchestra’s contract with its musicians.

The subject material, though, was agreed upon from the beginning. Abraham was chosen as the focus for Harbison’s six-minute motet, the composer says, as this Biblical figure is the “father of many nations.” After some negotiations, mediated by Levine, with a papal artistic committee, texts and a language were chosen. As the concert is part of a conference of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic religious leaders, everything is a sensitive issue. There is “no topic you can get into today that’s as rough as the Middle East,” Harbison says.

Harbison initially suggested texts from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran. He also proposed poems by two modern poets, the British-American Denise Levertov and Czeslaw Milosz, the 1980 Nobel Prize laureate in Literature who has interacted with Pope John Paul II. In addition, Harbison also initially suggested that the piece have parts in three different languages (Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic). In the end, however, a single text was chosen from the the Old Testament (Genesis), and it will be sung in the oddly secular language of English.

Even the dedication of the work was a negotiation, the writing of which was mostly out of Harbison’s hands. The dedication is to the pope, but the commission comes from somewhere else. The full text is: “Dedicated to His Holiness Pope John Paul II in honor of his pontificate, his long dedication to fostering reconciliation of the people of Abraham -- Jews, Christians, and Muslims -- and with deep gratitude to Maestro Sir Gilbert Levine, KCSG, for his 15-year long creative collaboration with His Holiness, which led to the great honor of this commission. Commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with the generous support of the Knights of Columbus.”

“As you can see, it’s carefully worked out,” Harbison said.

Church’s role in the arts diminished

The Roman Catholic Church is a far cry today from what it was half a millennium ago, not only in terms of political influence across the world, but also in terms of patronage for the arts. Hundreds of years ago, many composers made their livelihood from the Church, perhaps most famously Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

“Some of those popes,” Harbison says, “they weren’t theologically the most august, but they were among the greatest patrons of the arts: musical works, architectural works, paintings. They were unbelievably discerning and highly knowledgeable.”

Pope Julius II “was perhaps not the most admirable spiritual leader, but he understood a lot,” Harbison says. “If there was a choice between giving money to Michelangelo or starting another [military] campaign, he’d usually put Michelangelo first.”

The Church was somewhat bizarre in their dealings with composers, too. “Miserere mei,” arguably the most famous work of Gregorio Allegri, a 17th-century composer who composed music for the Roman Catholic Church, was deemed so heavenly that only the papal choir was allowed to perform it, and a copy exists today only because Mozart, who was invited to conduct it, purportedly memorized the score and transcribed it.

Yet, as most music history students learn, right around Beethoven’s time, composers divorced themselves from both their religious and secular patrons and began to compose independent of one overarching sponsor.

Religious music, however, did not stop being composed. Most major composers since Bach have composed liturgical works, with masses and requiems as the most outstanding examples. In relatively recent years, Harbison names in particular Olivier Messiaen, Cesar Franck, Igor Stravinsky, Frank Martin, Alfred Schnittke, and Kryzsztof Penderecki as examples of major composers for whom religious music was a major part of their output.

Stravinsky, for example, dedicated his “Symphony of Psalms” to “The Glory of God and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”

“You wonder,” Harbison says with a smile, “if there should be a comma there.”

Thus, in modern times, religious pieces of music are still being written, but unlike the liturgical works of Bach’s time, they are usually not written directly for the Church audience or financially supported by the Church.

Or at least not until Harbison’s phone rang in September.

Religion influential to Harbison

As a child, Harbison was exposed to religion not only through the usual avenues (e.g., going to church) but also in hearing about his parents’ professional activities. His mother was a writer who worked for a magazine called “Presbyterian Life,” and his father was a historian of the Reformation.

“The music that I gravitated to was Lutheran,” Harbison says. “As a very young musician, the music I was most interested in was Bach, and later on, in college, Schutz.”

When he came to Boston, he found spirituality at the Emmanuel Church, the home of the Cantata Singers, a group he directed from 1969 to 1973. Though the church is officially Episcopalian, they are “remarkably broad-ranging in terms of the kinds of ideas you can hear, Harbison says. “It pursues what I would call an inquiry rather than a dogma.”

Yet Emmanuel is the exception, rather than the rule, Harbison says, in terms of the importance of music in the church today. Music “is so downgraded in the general scheme of church life around the world ... We’ve sort of gone from being a great hymn-singing, rabble-rousing country, with a grass-roots tradition,” he says about the United States, to having “a very tepid idea of what sacred music is, with a few exceptions. I think gospel music does retain that sense of connection.”

Even the Lutheran Church, whose founder, Martin Luther was a composer and a poet, has seen music diminish greatly in importance. “The Lutheran Church is not the vigorous preserver of Schutz and Bach ... Go to Lutheran churches now and you’ll mostly hear guitar players.”

Harbison’s Vatican visit

All of these trends make Harbison that much more excited to have been given the opportunity to engage in a musical dialogue with the religious leaders at the Vatican.

Dialogue is an interesting choice of word, because oftentimes patrons have unreasonable expectations of the composers whom they commission. As an aside, Harbison recounts a story in which members of the New York Bar Association walked out on the premiere of a piece their organization had commissioned Harbison to write, as both the music and the selection of text was jarring to their ears.

Will the papal audience react in a similarly visceral way to “Abraham”?

“In the dialogue of the kind that the pope is reopening here,” Harbison says, “we have to address the idea that the composer reserves the right to expose listeners to unfamiliar experiences. They’re not willy-nilly, random ones -- those can be saved for one’s home, but they are perhaps going to be outside the experience of the listener, and they may be as much of a bridge towards some spiritual world as very familiar ones.

“For anyone with a sense of history, you would feel ... a great sense of opportunity and fascination that the leader of an institution as powerful as this one is willing and able to engage in a dialogue about aesthetics, or even says that music is an important element in worship and the experience of religion.”