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Day by Day, These Things I Pray - an interview with Margaret Rizza - Frances Novillo

Day by Day, These Things I Pray - an interview with Margaret Rizza

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Frances Novillo
Posted at 12:25pm on 13th December 2013

Margaret Rizza’s new collection Officium Divinum blends together some of her existing popular pieces with new compositions suitable for singing prayer throughout the day. It’s versatile and relevant even in places where the Divine Office isn’t prayed collectively and formally. The Gloria derives from her Mass of St Benedict, and Blessed Bread from a small collection of Eucharistic anthems. The canticles set lesser-known versions of the familiar words which are particularly suitable for singing during Advent (Song of Mary and Benedictus) and Candlemas (Song of Simeon). Sweet dreams, form a shade would be a delightful addition to Christmas services, and the renowned Twenty-Third Psalm is found here in a beautiful setting with words by George Herbert.

Pieces from the first section containing music for morning prayer could be sung as a choral introit to any form of Sunday morning service. The music itself is similarly flexible, accommodating adaptation for smaller choirs, even soloists. Instrumentalists may add optional parts, or replace descants or missing vocal parts if the singers are few in number. This is the intention of the composer, with whom I met to discuss the thinking and the spirituality from which her music arises.

Margaret tries to commit herself to two twentyminute times of meditation each day – one in the morning and one in the evening. She emphasizes the importance of these formal times of prayer for her and yet she admits the difficulty of keeping faithful to them. ‘One tries to keep the mind still through the repetition of a prayer phrase so that the deeper levels of consciousness are able to be open to the indwelling transforming spirit deep within one’s being. It becomes a “letting go” of all the clutter and baggage I hold in my head. In being cleansed of this it becomes an opportunity to offer one’s daily life to God, leaving it in God’s loving hands to do with it as he wills.’

She finds that through these stark yet rich times of silence, prayer seems to spring out naturally during her ordinary everyday life, thus giving purpose and sacredness to even the smallest and simplest tasks. This impact is transformative for her and spills over into many different areas of her life. We spoke of the limitations which restrict a full and abundant life – the demands of our modern culture leaving little space for quiet times. And then the interior obstacles – the insistent ego demanding its own way, ‘leading us to places where we have to be very careful not to focus on our achievement at the expense of everything else.’

We also spoke of the restrictions of ill-health Margaret is currently experiencing as she recovers from major surgery, which is proving to be a new learning curve. She is looking forward to writing a new series of compositions which will strive to express something of the poverty, the brokenness, the injustice of a fallen world, things which weigh so heavily on her heart; prayer and music, she believes, can be a way to be alongside those who suffer.

During her time at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama she organized visits for the students to experience sharing their gifts of music with the disadvantaged, taking them out of the privileged and insulated college environment of which they were a part and introducing them to communities which included urban schools, hospitals and such like. This was a way of crossing bridges, bringing together people of different backgrounds to benefit each other. She herself gave workshops for a year at Maidstone Prison and she maintains she gained so much more than she gave.

Margaret does struggle with the divisions and disunity which exist between the various Christian denominations and in fact she commits herself to worshipping regularly at two different churches on Sundays: one with her daughter, son-in-law and her three grandsons, and the other with her husband. She offers her music as a channel for receiving God’s healing and promoting reconciliation. Although she would say that all her music is underpinned by prayer she would never describe herself as ‘religious’ or ‘holy’ in any way.

Her compositions have the possibility of bridging the practical divide between the choir and music group, which often explore separate repertoires, but can play and sing together in such pieces as The night has passed, Kindle in our hearts and Night Prayers. The influence of repetition features in her music, as is shown in three of her pieces in this new collection: Kindle in our hearts, Keep me as the apple of your eye and Blessed Bread.

Her approach to church music-making seeks to balance performance and prayer. One of the reasons behind her simplified compositional style is a recognition that church musicians have very little rehearsal time, part of which she insists must be spent experiencing the meaning of the words we sing so that it becomes ‘praying through music’ and not just a performance. ‘Praying through music in this way has the possibility of bringing us together as community; we share our compassion for each other; we share the need we have for one another. Music is a language which breaks down barriers and enables us to build up friendships and so create a caring and loving community.’

Margaret is a fan of the RSCM’s Voice for Life scheme, which promotes, together with many other important things, a good vocal technique. She believes we must recognize the unique gift each singer is given and strive to refine this to the best of our ability.

She hesitates from time to time during our conversation to remind me that faith is not easy for her to talk about. She feels that something of it is revealed through her music, which she hopes will speak to the heart of each listener in an unknown way, in many cases unlocking inner depths.

In this collection she has been inspired to use other people’s poetry and words. For instance, the words of Mary Holtby, Anne Harrison, David Adam, George Herbert, William Blake, Lancelot Andrewes, alongside prayers from Common Worship. She credits contemporary Christian writers such as John Main, Richard Rohr, Laurence Freeman, Daniel O’Leary and Philip Yancey among others as inspiration for her, together with the Christian mystics such as St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Teresa of Avila, and many other great spiritual writers.

Her hope is that the CD accompanying the published music for Officium Divinum will be heard by many more than those who sing the pieces; that it will be listened to for pleasure and prayer, as well as learning for those singers who are not fluent sight-readers. The collection offers any church an opportunity to expand its vocabulary of prayer at any time of day. The CD may be played or pieces sung in all sorts of services and prayerful situations.

Margaret composes sung prayer for the Church to experience ‘togetherness – it’s all about relationship and community.’ Her encounter with God in prayer is frequently expressed as a journey from head to heart which she hopes sincerely others will discover through singing or hearing her pieces. This may seem primarily an interior journey, but its transformative impact is felt on the outside and worked out in the chaos of daily life, which cannot but be affected by the prayer to which it is connected. ‘It’s about how we lead our lives, our relationships. It is about love and how we treat our neighbour and bring love to them in our community. Here we have to pose the question, “Who is my neighbour?” It involves loss, but results in huge gain if we have the courage to leave all in God’s hands. Then as we continue to travel in faith, love and trust, God will do the rest for us.’

Margaret Rizza was in conversation with Frances Novillo, Regional Music Adviser for London and the South East.

Reproduced from the December 2013 issue of Church Music Quarterly / Sunday by Sunday. Copyright © 2013 The Royal School of Church Music. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission.


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