“As Torrents” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 3 November 2019

“As Torrents in Summer” – Edward Elgar, Cambridge University Choir
under the direction of Christopher Robinson

In the 19th century Western music was rocked by an interesting “ethical” debate – so called “program music” (music that strives specifically to depict an extra-musical picture or story) versus “absolute music” (music which does not, that exists simply to be music). One side is symbolised by works such as Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, that depicts three scenes in the life and mind of an artist yearning for his beloved, and on the other the equally fantastic, but proudly non-depictive symphonies of Johannes Brahms.

Depiction in music did not begin in the nineteenth century, indeed it is one of the most ancient of musical fascinations, particularly in the realm of setting texts. The nineteenth century twist was the argument about whether it was right or wrong to do it… the counter-argument running that to contaminate music with an external “program” cheapens it; whereas great music can and should simply stand on its own. Music, Brahms would have argued, needs to be nothing “more” than music.

In a sense, texted music is automatically a brand of program music, even if it makes no special attempt to depict its text. Elgar’s beautiful choral song As Torrents in Summer (coming from his otherwise-mostly-forgotten Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30) would be just as musically beautiful sung without words or played on the piano, but when paired with Longfellow’s poem it takes on a special additional beauty. But here’s a question: is Elgar trying to ‘show’ the text in the music?

In a sense, texted music is automatically a brand of program music, even if it makes no special attempt to depict its text. Elgar’s beautiful choral song As Torrents in Summer (coming from his otherwise-mostly-forgotten Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30) would be just as musically beautiful sung without words or played on the piano, but when paired with Longfellow’s poem it takes on a special additional beauty. But here’s a question: is Elgar trying to ‘show’ the text in the music?

On the surface the answer is no: one certainly hears no rivers (half-dried or rushing), no far-off rainfall in the music – but what one does perhaps hear in the lush Victorian harmony is God’s fulfillment of fainting hearts to which those surprisingly risen rivers are being compared, and which, similar to those who marvel at unexpectedly rising rivers in summer, we fail to attribute to God’s own far-off work in those hearts.

So, is As Torrents in Summer programmatic or not? The text is deeply compelling either way, and it would be difficult to argue that any more intentionally pictorial setting of it would make it any more so. Sometimes, as McLuhan said, the medium is the message – beautiful words simply need beautiful music.

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“Geistliche Lied” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 27 Oct 2019

“BRAHMS: Geistliche Lied”, arrangement for strings by Sir John Eliot Gardiner
(the organ set originally by Brahms, is just poetic backdrop to this performance)

Babel (Genesis 11:1–9, a tale of human ambition to godlike-ness and God’s efforts to thwart same) paints language as a kind of powerful super-weapon. By causing a linguistically (and we imagine culturally) uniform society to be ‘struck’ with many different tongues, God renders humankind unable to finish its tower-project, and scatters it along with its new languages to form the nations, cultures, ethnicities and ideologies that so beautifully colour – and in some cases so sharply divide – our world today.

Language is indeed a powerful weapon, but not because there are so many.  The phenomenon of thousands of languages and dialects may have given little help to our construction projects, but it has allowed cultural encoding of a rich kind. In other words, language is able to communicate much more than the semantic ‘meaning’ of the words: it teaches us much about whoever wrote or said them, and sometimes why. And at the vanguard of unlocking this treasure trove of hidden information is the art of translation.

Take the title of Brahms’ Geistliche Lied.  I first encountered this beautiful piece when I was a teenager, and recall our choirboy’s humor about what was, literally, a ‘ghostly song’ (and as an aside I still often seek a way to program it on the nearest appropriate Sunday to Halloween). But unlike ‘Lied’ which translates more-or-less literally to ‘song’ in English, ‘Geistliche’ in German means, not as we supposed ‘Ghost-like,’ but ‘Holy’. To miss or ignore this allows us a childish joke; to know it offers an admittedly non-specific, but reverent title for its gorgeous music and beautiful sentiment of trust in God’s plan over the fear and worry we so often substitute.

The word ‘Amen’ is shared by both languages: it means (to borrow Lennon & McCartney’s paraphrase) ‘Let it be.’ Arguably no single word in any language has been treated in more diverse musical ways, from the plagal two-chord Amen that was once a custom at the close of Protestant hymn-singing to the several-page “Amen Chorus” concluding Handel’s “Messiah”. In Geistliche Lied the elaborate setting of this word is easily the work’s most beautiful moment – indeed you may occasionally hear it sung, without the rest of the anthem, at the end of our services.

“What a great man, what a great soul…yet he believes nothing!”

– Antonìn Dvoràk, speaking of Johannes Brahms

In vocal and choral music having a text, the music itself also encodes a great deal of information – yet one thing you might not spot looking at this piece is that Brahms was an avowed atheist (his friend Antonín Dvoràk lamented, “What a great man, what a great soul…yet he believes nothing!”). Geistliche Lied displays Brahms’ passion and skill – even his Germanic style with its Lutheran Chorale-like entries (spiced here and there with shorter rhythmic bits and a polyphonic treatment), and tradition of elaborate ‘Amen’ settings. Yet it is not hard to imagine Brahms, with his famously lonely life (typified, according to some, by his love for Clara Schumann) finding comfort in Paul Flemming’s reassuring text, even without a belief in “God’s plan” to back him up. If the text touched him sufficiently to inspire this beauty, perhaps his relationship with it is not so different from that of a Christian similarly comforted, perhaps as St Paul and Timothy might have been had they ever read or heard it.

We are grateful this week to RPC chorister Nancy Olfert, who undertook a new English translation of Geistliche Lied, which in turn allowed me to create the new RPC edition we sing this morning.

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“How shall we?” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 20 October 2019

Petite Suite – Gerald Bales; performed by David Simon, organ
4 May 2017, Norton Presbyterian Church, Darein, CT USA

The composition of music begins – yes, with a touch of inspiration and yes, often with some germinal idea (be it a melody, chord progression, text or other foundational premise) – but on the road to a finished piece of music before long a composer is faced with a host of choices, the ‘best answers’ to which are sometimes difficult, and rarely obvious.

The late Gerald Bales (1919-2002), whose music features prominently in today’s service, was a kind-of international rock star among Canadian church musicians. Canada’s church musical history has many facets, but one noticeable one is the predominance, particularly in English Canada, of leading figures born in other countries. Bales was not just a home-grown leading musical figure who rose to international prominence in his field: his harmonically and energetically unique and creative compositions have taken their place among others emanating from our many great adopted ex-pats (Healey Willan, Derek Holman and Barrie Cabena to name but three). Foremost among these is his Petite Suite, which at RPC today accompanies his worthy but largely-ignored Jubilate Deo, a choral setting of Psalm 100.

Fast-forward to 2017 – Canada’s now-50-year-old Summer Institute of Church Music, which in the late 2000s began honouring distinguished Canadian church musicians with the title “Fellow of the Summer Institute of Church Music” (F.SICM) selects Toronto’s Patricia Wright as 2017 honoree, selects a young Canadian composer, Patrick John Murray, to create a new piece in her honour, and the two of them manage to come up with a third ‘Pat’, Toronto poet Patricia Orr, to create a new text. Unable to resist the coincidence SICM issued its press release of this tri-Pat collaboration on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March 2017. The result, now published by Vancouver’s Cypress Music, is Murray’s Morning Hymn (you can read the text and listen by searching the above info, or if you’re reading this online at ideasaboutmusic.ca, by clicking here).

A particular detail of verse two of Orr’s text has always struck me. She seems to ask two (actually four) “How shall we…” questions:

How shall we touch the rafters, raise the roof, disturb the sky,
How shall we mark the rhythm of our days,

Morning Hymn – Patricia Orr (excerpt)

Just to be safe, Orr provides no question marks to confirm ‘questionhood’ – but even if they are more poetic declarations i.e. “(Look), how we shall…!”, they strike me as fitting into the composer’s – or indeed any artist’s – voice when engaged in creating, or even when deciding how to create. Whenever Bales, Murray, Orr, or anyone creates, the “How shall we…” ‘s are unavoidably there, shaping and/or celebrating the gift.

Our Associate Minister, Rev Lt Seaton Brachmeyer, is far from the first to turn to scripture in asking one of the greatest ‘How shall’ questions, “How shall I then live?” Artists may not find all the answers to their creative ‘How shall’ questions in scripture, but the questions they ask, and the answers they reach have a kind of gravitas – a kind of holiness – to the creative process and the final product. Perhaps it is more the act of asking that confirms the outcome than the existence of clear and obvious answers?

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“Countless Gifts of Love” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 13 October 2019

John Rutter’s popular seeming fusion of “Now thank we all our God” with his “Gloria”

Martin Rinkart’s “Nun danket alle Gott” is one of the most popular hymns on earth. The tune (Nun danket by Johann Crüger, heard several times in today’s service) named for it and associated with it since inception is far better-known than even the quintessential (and century-older) Lutheran chorale tune, Ein feste Burg by Luther himself.

Catherine Winkworth’s 19th century translation (#457 in our Book of Praise), taking its cue from Rinkart’s text, fits to the metre 6868 6666, a very symmetrical, practical, some might say ‘square’ organisation of syllables and rhymes. Like many hymn tunes of its day, including those of the Scottish Psalter so important to the Presbyterian singing tradition, the emphasis is on learnability and memorability. In other words, upon great utility to the early Protestant project of teaching and sharing the faith through congregational song – rather than to, let’s say, creativity, poetic freedom or other more ‘artsy’ objective.

So, how does a piece of such ‘square’, utilitarian music rise to the ‘greatest hits’ of hymnody? This is NOT how Bach’s Passions or Beethoven’s Symphonies did it! Well – though it might shatter your visions of inspiration – regularity, and to a degree simplicity, are precisely how it happens. Here’s another metre: 8686, like the first half of Nun danket with long and short lines reversed, and known (for reasons that will immediately become obvious), Common Metre or C.M. Want to know what fits it? Amazing Grace, probably the world’s favourite hymn (and hands-down the most popular in the English language). Want to know what else it fits? O God our help in ages past, Praise God from whom all blessings flow, It came upon a midnight clear, O for a thousand tongues to sing… etc, etc… and just for fun, also the Gilligan’s Island theme.

How do pieces of such ‘square’, utilitarian music rise to the ‘greatest hits’ of hymnody? This is NOT how Bach’s Passions or Beethoven’s Symphonies did it! Well, regularity, and to a degree simplicity, are precisely how it happens.

Yet, though simple, the tunes you might already be imagining while reading the above list of texts are not simple ‘appliances’ for conveying the text. Each has aspects that have combined with their associated texts to contribute to their achievement, at least within Christian circles, of ubiquity. Returning to Nun danket, the tune’s unusual shape stands out (the first two phrases begin high and fall, ending low; the third begins low and journeys to high (a musically interrogative gesture?); the fourth returns to the earlier pattern, bringing all to a satisfied resolution). This happens within a simple, clearly mathematical pattern of syllables hardly changing from line to line – easy to learn, easy to sing, easy to remember.

In seeming exception to its easily-countable syllables, Winkworth’s first verse ends with a phrase that has always struck me, “countless gifts of love.” An English poetic clean-up of unzählig viel zu gut (‘innumerable way too good!’), it adds to Rinkart’s enthusiastic sentiment about the immensity of God’s gifts the softer, Victorian idea that they are all inherently gifts of love. There can be no doubt that bits of text (this one follows direct on the heels of the invocation of God’s blessings on our way “from our mothers’ arms”) have also aided the hymn’s rise.

Wes’ message today is about our own giving – in some sense the very best possible response to God’s giving – that should appropriately be as unsegregated as God’s own. Let us take the analogy one step further: while Wes warns against our own designation of sheep and goats among the people around us, we should remember also that, just as God gives in love, so too should we.

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