Kyrie in Angustiis (Kyrie for Troubled Times – “Orbis Factor”)

SSAATTBB a cappella

Video credit: Midwest premiere by Dordt University Concert Choir
conducted by Ryan Smit; Sioux Center, IA; March 5, 2021

Recording credit: Premiere performance by Bellingham Chamber Chorale,
conducted by Ryan Smit; Bellingham, WA; May 2017

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Kyrie eleison
Lord have mercy
Christe eleison
Christ have mercy
Kyrie eleison
Lord have mercy

– Liturgical Latin from the Roman Rite

Orbis factor rex aeterne, eleison
Maker of the world, King eternal, have mercy upon us.
Pietatis fons immense, eleison
O immense source of pity, have mercy upon us.
Noxas omnes nostras pelle, eleison
Drive off all our evils, have mercy upon us.
Christe qui lux es mundi dator vitae, eleison
Christ who art the light of the world and giver of life, have mercy upon us.
Arte laesos daemonis intuere, eleison
Consider the wounds produced by the devil’s art, have mercy upon us.
Conservans te credentes confirmansque, eleison
Keeping and confirming thy believers, have mercy upon us.
Patrem tuum teque flamen utrorumque, eleison
Thou and thy Father, an equal light, have mercy upon us.
Deum scimus unum atque trinum esse, eleison
We know that God is one and three, have mercy upon us.
Clemens nobis adsis paraclite ut vivamus in te, eleison.
Thou, merciful unto us, art present with the Holy Spirit that we might live in thee, have
mercy upon us.

– Kyrie (Orbis Factor): Sarum Kyrie IX (Anonymous) from the Sarum Rite


Kyrie in Angustiis (Kyrie for Troubled Times) is a different sort of Kyrie in several ways. First of all, like Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, aka, Missa in Angustiis (Mass for Troubled Times)—after which it is named—it is born out of the socio-political context of its time. 2017 has turned out to be a very troubled time, indeed, in the United States and in the world at large, with many urgent issues, political and social turmoil, a resurgence of a potentially dangerous strain of nationalism, and above all, deep political and ideological divisions both at home and abroad. [NOTE: As I write this additional note at the end of Dec. 2020, we find ourselves in the middle of a deadly spike in the COVID-19 pandemic and with significantly greater political and social division than even seemed possible in 2017—when this work was composed and premiered—thus amplifying and intensifying the work’s desperate cries for mercy and its message of hope for a return to civility and peace.] Kyrie in Angustiis is also a different sort of Kyrie because it is intended to be performed as a standalone movement and not as part of a complete mass setting or even that of a Missa Brevis. Its isolation from the rest of the Mass both focuses and intensifies the pleas for mercy in each line of the traditional text. Finally, it is different in that it includes additional text beyond the standard three lines of the Kyrie–Christe–Kyrie structure (more on that below).

This Kyrie was commissioned by the Bellingham Chamber Chorale in Bellingham, WA for a concert entitled Polyphony, the repertoire for which celebrated and surveyed works influenced by one of music’s greatest composers of polyphonic (AKA contrapuntal) music, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. BCC’s conductor, Ryan Smit, indicated that he wanted me to compose a work that drew on aspects of that tradition. Because the repertoire for the concert included works by Bruckner, Rheinberger, Liszt, and Palestrina himself, I listened to and studied most of the works on the concert and was taken by the Kyrie movements from masses by three of the composers listed above, and I thought it might be interesting to add a contemporary voice to the Kyrie traditions represented by Palestrina , Liszt, and Rheinberger. My decision to compose a standalone setting was born out of both pragmatic and artistic rationale. When choosing the musical material on which to base this contemporary Kyrie, I—perhaps ironically—turned to the fairly common Renaissance practice of setting a sacred work based on its corresponding Gregorian chant setting, which was still used prevalently in the Renaissance Latin rite. I had quite a few Kyrie chants from which to choose, but I ultimately decided on what is listed in the Kyriale (a collection of eighteen Gregorian chant settings for the Ordinary of the Mass) as Mass XI: Orbis factor (Creator of the World). That chant is used on Sundays during the Ordinary (i.e. non-feast) time after Epiphany or Pentecost, which seemed like a reasonably broad and non-specific liturgical season; besides, I just liked the sound of the “Orbis factor” designation.

As I researched what “Orbis factor” meant, I stumbled upon a variant of the Gregorian “Orbis factor” chant that originated as part of the medieval Sarum Rite centered in the Cathedral Church of Salisbury (formally known as New Sarum) in Great Britain. That chant shares some of the musical material from the original Gregorian chant, but differs from it in that it consists of a litany of pleas for mercy rather than the three-part form of the Latin rite, which I found intensified and extended the pleas for mercy beyond the original Kyrie text.

Musically, the first half of the work is based on the Gregorian chant and begins with desperate, turbulent, and often-dissonant pleas for mercy (“Kyrie eleison”), yielding to more tranquil passages filled with the hope of peace (“Christe eleison”), but ultimately returning to the opening sense of desperation. With the hoped-for peace and mercy seemingly beyond reach, the singers turn to the more extensive litany from the Sarum rite—musically based on the Sarum chant for that text—which I set as something between an insistent, obsessive plea for mercy and a dance, as if the petitioners have decided that something more than contemplative prayer is needed to get the attention of their Lord and of their fellow human beings. During this fast, energetic dance, they sometimes end up falling over one another in their desperate attempts to garner attention. Finally, exhausted by their efforts, the singers return to a more contemplative mood on the text “Clemens nobis adsis paraclite ut vivamus in te, eleison.” (Thou, merciful unto us, art present with the Holy Spirit that we might live in thee, have mercy upon us). Having regained their strength, the petitioners burst forth with a final desperate return to the Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison text, which gradually subsides to a hushed return of the opening of the work, now stripped of its angst and desperation, and replaced with an air of hopeful tranquility that culminates in a lush chord that is simultaneously filled with the light of hope, yet unresolved; signifying the hope of mercy tempered with the lesson that we must not simply ask for mercy from outside ourselves; we must also grant it to one another.

– John Muehleisen (May 15, 2017, rev. Dec. 2020)