Daniel Knaggs Composes Music as an Icon for the Sacred

American composer Daniel Knaggs premiered his Two Streams, a cantata based on Jesus Christ’s message of Divine Mercy for mankind, last fall in Houston, Texas.  The concert celebrated the historic Church of the Annunciation’s 150-year anniversary in a gala evening event with almost 400 in attendance. The interior of the Romanesque-Gothic Church, a virtual jewel-box of carved marble, serene statues, and the original 19th-century stained glass, showcased the sacred music within vibrant architectural beauty.

            Two Streams is Knaggs’ most substantial project in an award-winning career that includes commissions, prizes, and awards for composition from around the globe.  The initial impetus for the piece arose from Knaggs’ desire to compose music in response to his experiences in the Polish cities of Kracow, Warsaw, and Gdansk, the city now famous for the Solidarity movement’s founding and contribution to the downfall of Soviet Communism. Knaggs’ strong attraction to the Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, which revealed God’s message of Divine Mercy, provided the touchstone for the piece’s ultimate grounding and spiritual context. He says, “The idea of a God who is merciful to a fault disarms me. This is our God whose greatest attribute is His unending mercy for us and which He wants us to spread throughout the world.”  The sudden and premature death of Knaggs’ father just after the commissioning of the piece brought a deeply felt personal dimension to the spiritual reassurance of Christ’s Divine Mercy. The title of the piece, Two Streams, evokes the two rays emanating from the image Christ asked St. Faustina to have painted of His Divine Mercy: a white stream of life-giving grace and the red stream of purifying grace flowing from His heart.

            For Knaggs, the composition of music is a painstaking process.  He says, “You have to be in it for the long haul—to be able to work with a piece until every feature is right.”  Both spiritual and practical aspects influence a composer, like Knaggs, whose goal is participation in conveying metaphysical or spiritual aspects beyond daily reality.  He says, “In composing, we are indebted to what has come before us, for example, chant, polyphony. When you write music, you have the ability to bring in the register and range of voices, dynamics of soft and loud, keys and tonality to add to the meaning. One movement of Two Streams has no words, but I believe things are being conveyed. If someone tried to write music without a belief in the spiritual truths, the audience would know.”

            Two Streams has 14 movements based on texts from three sources: the Diary of St. Faustina, Scripture, and liturgical texts. The movements are arranged symmetrically with the first and last movements related, the second and the 13th, and so on.  Four hymns (songs) of Mercy are interspersed between the movements to ground the listener in both trust and joy. Each song  features a hymnic stanza sung in English with a subsequent hymn of Mercy sung in Latin. The intention is to depict a timeless scriptural echo of the content in each hymn’s stanza which then ripples eternally throughout the past, present, and future. An example of this structure is the Song of Mercy II sung by the mezzo-soprano soloist. While it is joyous, the hymn spills over into the contemplative Latin section with the words: “Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”

                        You gush forth from the Divine Trinity,

                        But from one single womb filled with love.

                        The mercy of the Lord will be revealed in the soul

                        In all its fullness when the veils falls.

                        Ostende nobis Domine misericordiam tuam. Et

                        salutare tuum da nobis.

While Knaggs, who has studied six languages, simultaneously composed versions of the entire cantata in English and Polish, the liturgical texts of both are in Latin and Greek with the Scriptural texts in Latin. The simple yet powerful words within the composition were chosen by Knaggs. He says, “[The words] speak to the fragility of the human experience. And they speak to the transcendent hope that God offers us.” The music forms a seamless and rich tapestry weaving together threads from many eras including Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and contemporary to explore the much needed message of Divine Mercy. The beauty of the music during the premiere is already an argument in favor of its continued appeal to audiences, whether believers or non-believers in the Christian-Catholic faith. 

            The location of the Church of the Annunciation in the heart of Houston’s frenetic downtown entertainment district provided yet another way for Two Streams to reach out with its message of Divine Mercy to the surrounding community. The pastor of Annunciation, Rev. Fr. Paul Felix, says, “Our parish can feel the heartbeat of our community.  We want to facilitate and promote the positive interaction of faith and culture. We want to bring the culture into a regard of the deeper issues of faith and a consideration of substantive issues. I heard that even the singers during rehearsals were deeply touched by the message of Divine Mercy. This message was heard by the audience which included parishioners, benefactors, many new visitors, seminarians, priests, and faculty members from several universities.”  

            The Two Streams premiere included the Houston Chamber Choir with director Robert Simpson, the 16-piece Kinetic string ensemble, the Annunciation Schola, and soloists Sasha Cooke, Chris Bozeka, Mark Diamond, and Caitlin Aloia. For Rev. Fr. Paul Felix, the experience of hearing the music for the first time was “very powerful and moving” with its harkening back to the eternal theme of Divine Mercy which informs so much of the daily work of a parish priest’s spiritual and corporal works of mercy, such as hearing Confessions, providing spiritual direction, visiting the sick, etc.  Rev. Fr. Felix says, “The Lord intervened to make St. Faustina the apostle of Divine Mercy.  It is so important for our time to listen.  God gave this message so people could find their way out of sin and evil through the redeeming love of Jesus.”

Knaggs’ most ardent wish for sacred music is that “the music conveys its own eloquence.” The mysterious resides inside music; the experience of hearing the metaphysical or spiritual content allows what Knaggs refers to as “music as an icon.  It is a window that points to a great reality. When people experience music that is not just about itself, they can experience realities beyond the music itself.  Maybe that person then sees there is more to life that just what’s here.  Music is a shared experience. It has a unique ability to reach inside the human heart.”

Sarah Cortez is president and founder of Catholic Literary Arts, A freelance writer and editor with fourteen award-winning books to her credit, she resides in Houston, TX.

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