When Professor Jorge Muñiz was up for sabbatical, he knew he wanted to spend the time working on a project that had been in the back of his mind for years: a musical piece based on the psalms.
When he finished the composition, Muñiz knew he wanted to premiere the piece not in a concert hall but at his home parish, St. Monica Catholic Church in Mishawaka.
“It’s not a concert piece in the traditional way,” Muñiz said. “The purpose of this piece is to bring people closer to the Eucharist and to the ideas in the psalms. It has both a pedagogical and evangelical side, a purpose to the piece that is beyond just offering a concert of music.”
Jorge Muñiz grew up in Spain and began writing music as a teenager. He first came to the United States for graduate studies. Though he wasn’t sure at first how long he would be in the United States, he stayed for his doctorate, met his wife, and began teaching at Indiana University South Bend. Now, he’s lived here for 25 years, and he acknowledges both countries as important to his background.
Muñiz has written musical pieces in many different styles, including funk and bluegrass. He loves doing commissions, which comprise most of his pieces, but he says sacred music like his recent “Book of Psalms” project is “closer to his heart.”
Muñiz has a special love for the psalms. A secular Franciscan, he reads the psalms as part of his daily prayer with the Divine Office. “Yes, they are in our sacred Scriptures, but they also speak so individually, so personally, to each one of us,” Muñiz said.
In his latest project, Muñiz wanted to highlight that personal quality of the psalms. “That is what music does,” he said. “Like the psalms, they can speak in emotions generally, but also we can all find this personal connection with the music we hear.”
Before beginning to write the piece, Muñiz recruited the help of Timothy O’Malley, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame and the Academic Director of the university’s McGrath Institute. O’Malley’s own academic research was in the use of psalms in worship. He directed Muñiz to some background reading for his project, such as Song of Songs and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
Muñiz wanted his piece to focus on the idea of marriage in the psalms – spousal marriage as well as the mystical marriage of Christ and the Church. Yet the more he read and worked, the more he realized the project was changing. “The psalms started speaking on their own,” Muñiz said. “Eucharistic love ultimately what was holding it all together.”
Muñiz’s finished piece, which he referred to as “a story,” draws from five psalms speaking on this theme of Eucharistic love. Muñiz also drew on several refrains from 1 Corinthians 13 – the well-known “love is patient, love is kind” passage – to inform the psalms and the music. “The New Testament texts help me musically,” he said. “They add another layer to work within the music.”
A piece based on Psalm 51, the Miserere, forms the prologue to the group of five, which Muñiz calls “Volume I” of a hopefully much bigger project. Muñiz hopes to put all the rest of the psalms to music, and he intends for his Psalm 51 composition to be the prologue for each future set. He chose that psalm because he wanted to “start with humility.” He added, “I think it’s hard to look at the psalms, you know, without having that humble perspective of what we are – we are sinners.”
When Muñiz finished writing Volume I of the “Book of Psalms” this past summer, he had to learn how to play it. He was both composer and performer at the premiere, which was held in mid-August at St. Monica. While the music is technically challenging to perform, the “Book of Psalms” is in some ways simple: There are no words besides the psalms themselves, and those are read aloud instead of sung. The instrumentation involves only a piano. “The music itself is the reflection,” Muñiz said.
O’Malley enriched the performance by offering some background and introductory remarks, and by reading each psalm before Muñiz played its corresponding musical piece. O’Malley said he was interested in how the piece “possesses no words but captures the affections and texts of the psalms.”
Jessica Roberts, Director of Music at St. Monica, coordinated the event and was present for the performance. “The piano work was truly something special; [Muñiz] put so much passion into his performance,” Roberts said. “His compositional style is influenced by a lot of different music, and while it is diverse, it is still very digestible and accessible to any listener.”
Roberts added, “We are extremely lucky to have Jorge Muñiz and other talented parishioners like him who use their skills for the greater glory of God and to help our community worship Him.”
In reflecting on this piece and his other compositions, Muñiz appreciates their ability to spark conversation and to deal with themes such as grief and faith.
“To me, I see the sacred music always in that kind of way,” Muñiz said. “It’s not just a composition. It’s something that needs to connect, needs to speak, hopefully lighten up a flame of faith or inquiry or question – something that will help others.”
Muñiz said he and O’Malley would love to bring the “Book of Psalms” performance to other parishes in the area, especially since the piece’s focus on Eucharistic love fits so well thematically with the parish year of the National Eucharistic Revival. Anyone interested in this opportunity for their parish can email Muñiz at [email protected].
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