Setting Kenosis to Music

If you were at Catholic Mass today, you were treated to an extra reading, perhaps. I hope. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross calls for three readings, not the usual Monday two. One of my favorite Scripture passages was proclaimed by my friend Jeff at noon liturgy today, the canticle quoted by Saint Paul in Philippians 2.

Back in 1982, I heard Michael Joncas speak about setting particular texts to music. At the time he was in his early thirties. He said then he didn’t yet feel competent to set the Lord’s Prayer to his own music. But he talked about the Magnificat being a source of inspiration for him. I think then he had already three published settings and had only released two albums.

My own feelings about those texts were the opposite. The very first music I had ever written was a setting of the Lord’s Prayer. A spiral-bound manuscript notebook has that melody and chords somewhere in my office or in the basement at home–not sure where. It will never see the light of day, but there it is. Unlike Joncas, I’ve never felt competent in setting the Canticle of Mary. In 1991, I wrote a hymn text based on it. I use those words with one of the great tunes from the Sacred Harp, (or ST COLUMBA) but a serious setting with the Grail text or the Latin? That’s something for the future.

Although I’ve sat with Philippians 2 many times, I’ve never felt inspired enough for the music to pour out. Or even trickle. Roc O’Connor’s “Jesus The Lord” may be the best setting out there. I’ve seen a lot: metrical hymn adaptations, Joncas, Conry, and others. None of the music I’ve seen, played, or heard has ever thrilled me. It’s such an important passage, not just for its theology of kenosis, and not just because it appears weekly at Vespers on Saturday night. I’ve always thought the Church needs a really, really standout setting of the passage.

When I’ve played the O’Connor setting, I’ve turned it inside out and all around to really stick the arrangement. When I play guitar, I do the verses entirely on guitar harmonics. The refrain needs, I think, a slow tempo (unusual sensibility for me) and a prayerful build-up, like a Taize piece.

Anybody out there have a favorite choral or congregational setting of Philippians 2:6-11?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Setting Kenosis to Music

  1. Joyce Donahue says:

    My personal favorite setting of the Kenosis hymn is the gospel-influenced “At the Name of Jesus” by Christopher Walker. Listen to it at This is one the people can learn easily and really get to like in a short time… and it wears well.

  2. John Behr says:

    Tony Barr’s “Though in the Form of God” repeats text nicely for emphasis and crescendos naturally through the verses. The tune seems awkward to sight-read, but it can be picked up by ear more easily and can even work with congregation a capella. Canadian CBW III has melody-only with helpful spare accompaniment. OCP has an octavo.

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