Demessieux’s setting of the Te Deum demonstrates that 20th-century metric and tonal flexibility are quite suitably paired with a musical theme that is modal and without a fixed meter. The piece was inspired by the organ of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, where Demessieux gave a concert in 1955. Although the piece quotes many different parts of the Te Deum chant that may or may not be perceptible to the listener, the opening three pitches (ascending E, G, A,) are an audible part of the DNA of the piece. This motivic cell, and its transpositions and inversions, form the musical thread connecting a highly chromatic, often dissonant, and polytonal musical landscape. She utilizes standard compositional devices such as ostinati, pedal tones, melodic inversion, and intervallic relationships of 4ths, 5ths and octaves. However, she mixes these more traditional elements with poly-tonality, highly chromatic passages, non-functional progressions of parallel chords, and tritonal relationships. For all of its harmonic and tonal ambiguity, the piece begins and ends with E, stated in octaves in measure 1, and concluding with an unaltered E-Major chord. Because E is not tonicized in any traditional form either at the beginning or end of the piece, it functions as a frame, or an aural signal that the piece has reached its conclusion. Constructed in several sections, the piece can be understood as an introduction, followed by a tripartite form. Demessieux’s Te Deum is not only a successful merging of the ancient and the contemporary, but it is also a vibrant sonic experience and a compelling piece of music.
Jeanne Demessieux (1921-68)
Te Deum, Opus 11, 1957/58