Poet Murray Bodo, OFM, Photo by Michael Wilson and Composer Michael Chertock, Photo by Lisa Ventre.
Poetry and music have long been intertwined, and now the words of faith-filled friar and author Murray Bodo have been set to music by gifted composer Michael Chertock to be performed in concert at St. Francis Seraph Church in Over-the-Rhine on Sept. 17.
The concert is for choir and small orchestra and is based on Murray’s poem, “Mass for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi,” a series of eight poems titled, “Introit,” “Kyrie,” “Gloria,” “Credo,” “Homily,” “Sanctus,” “Agnus Dei” and “Meditation after Communion.” The poems are from Murray’s book, Visions and Revisions: Celebrating 800 Years of the Franciscan Way of Life.
Murray said several lines from his poems have been set to music in the past, but none in their entirety. At a symphony performance one evening several years ago, he wondered about the possibilities for “Mass for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi” and felt compelled to reach out to Michael, resident pianist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and chair of the piano department at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).
“I wrote to Michael asking if any of his doctoral students were looking for text they would like to put to music, and if he wouldn’t mind telling him about my poems,” Murray explained. “When I heard from him, he said he had read one of my books and was interested, so I sent him the text, and out of the tragedy of the pandemic, he had the time to compose.”
“I feel so honored that someone of Michael’s caliber would take this on,” Murray added. “It seems surreal in one sense, and it’s such a grace for it to be coming in the same year of my 85th birthday (June 10) and the 50th anniversary of the publication of Francis: The Journey and the Dream.”
Michael said the honor is his. “Father Murray has been on my radar screen since the 1980s, when I was a student at the University of Cincinnati,” he explained. “Someone put the book Letters from Pleasant Street into my hands and I found his descriptions of life on Pleasant Street interesting and poetic. I met him quite a few years later at an awards ceremony for a friend of his and found him to be very thoughtful and easy to talk to. The life and character of St. Francis is as compelling as ever to anyone who begins to read about him, and Father Murray has written a lot about him.”
A preview of selected parts of the composition was presented last September at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Montgomery, where Michael serves as director of music. The plan was to present the entire work at various area churches once COVID was reasonably at bay. Michael has visited St. Francis Seraph and feels it’s the ideal place for the entire concert to premier.
“We’re very grateful to Father Al Hirt, pastor, who has been so welcoming about having the concert there,” Murray said. “That means a lot.”
The Mass movements are being completely prepared with the choirs and soloist from St. Barnabas, with a few instrumentalists from the CSO. Joshua Goines, a graduate student in choral conducting at CCM and director of choirs at St. Barnabas, will conduct. He is also an accomplished organist, pianist and singer.
“My role in all of this has been as a consultant, if needed, just helping if a different word was necessary, which was very rare,” Murray said of the process of working with Michael. “I was really surprised when Michael said the rhythm of my poem lends itself well to music. I’m thrilled with the music. It’s going to be recto tono (Latin for “straight” or “uniform” tone), with the ‘Homily’ spoken by a baritone.”
He noted that the composition is very focused on Francis’ relationship with the poor, “so my hope is that people will take away from the concert an awareness of the poor, especially in inner-city Cincinnati,” said Murray. “I hope they will be focused on the poor among them, on the Franciscan vision of the poor that we get from St. Francis. It’s the vision of the poor as the face of the poor Christ.”
“I think if St. Francis had lived in modern times he would have had many things to say to Christians of every denominations, and to the world at large,” Michael said. “His message, influence and heritage are probably needed now more than ever. I am grateful that Father Murray’s request necessitated a careful season of thought about the manner in which St. Francis imitated life in the Gospels. Studying Father Murray’s words very carefully, including the very poignant phrases on the poor, nature and the Lord Jesus, opened up their lyrical possibilities.”
The poems are from Fr. Murray’s book, Visions and Revisions: Celebrating 800 years of the Franciscan Way of Life. The poem, Slow Walking, substituted in the place of “Homily”, is from his book, A Far Country Near, Both volumes of poetry are published by Tau Publishing.
Visit Fr. Murray’s website, MurrayBodo.com, for more information or to purchase these and other books. Michael Chertok’s website is MichaelChertok.com. Learn about the mission of the Center for Respite Care on their website, CenterForRespiteCare.org
If You Go:
Mass for the Feast of St. Francis
Saturday, Sept. 17, 3:00 p.m.
St. Francis Seraph Church
1615 Vine St., on the corner of Liberty and Vine
Cincinnati, OH 45202
Livestreamed on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SFSChurch
Proceeds benefit the Center for Respite Care.