Miserere Mei – RPC Music Notes Sun 1 March 2020

Miserere Mei (original Latin text) – Gregorio Allegri
(performance unattributed, but sounds like King’s College Cambridge)

Gregorio Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51, composed for Holy Week Tenebrae services at the Sistine Chapel, is thought to date from the 1630s, and other than the distribution of three authorised copies was for almost a century and a half expressly forbidden to be transcribed or sung anywhere else. According to a popular story (supported by family letters, but challenged by some historians), a 14-year-old Mozart heard it there in Holy Week 1770 and later wrote it down from memory, providing it eventually to English historian Charles Burney who had it published in London in 1771.

Neither Mozart nor Burney was ever censured in any way for defying the papal transcription ban and disseminating the precious Miserere – indeed in 1771 Mozart was summoned to Rome and awarded the Order of the Golden Spur for his feat of musical genius and service in propagating the Catholic faith. The mystique of the Allegri Miserere continues to this day, although beyond the Catholic tradition its veneration is now more associated with the beginning of Lent than the end.

Works of art are altered by the context of their reception – how might 21st century Presbyterians ‘hear’ the Miserere differently from, let’s say, 17th century Roman Catholics or for that matter 18th century Londoners? For one thing our denomination (not so much RPC itself) has tended to frown on service music sung in languages other than English – and particularly in Latin, the signature tongue of the Catholic church. Surprisingly the RPC Choir library has full sets of copies in both English and Latin, but I chose English for the power of the words not just comprehended, but actually heard in the language we speak.

Our usual length of Sunday service has some trouble accommodating 11-12 minute anthems designed to accompany rituals we no longer observe, so some form of abridgment seemed appropriate – but how exactly to do this? The beautifully balanced work shares the 19 verses of Psalm 51 between three sets of choral forces: male cantors, and two choral ensembles (one of which is often sung by soloists): so to maintain its regular, almost hypnotic sequence of these shifting forces verses must be omitted not individually, but in groups.

But which verses? Scripture in general, and the Psalms in particular, are frequently excerpted for our services both for reasons of length and for theological focus – but occasionally certain verses – penned by David in reference to his acts of sin with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah the Hittite – also grate against our general sensibilities (‘Behold, I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me’, for example).

Through – and in at least some sense over – the Word and tradition of this piece runs its beautiful music, and the emotion it has the power to elicit. In this way at least despite the changes in us and its context, it functions as it always has, seeking to draw us closer to God, and Jesus’ work of salvation – and even if simple choral beauty is what draws you to it, as with many others, remember my old mantra of beauty as a kind of window upon truth.


Liminal Glory – RPC Music Notes, Sun 23 February 2020

A theme running through today’s service at Rosedale Presbyterian Church is what is sometimes known in psychology as ‘liminality.’ The story of the Transfiguration and the sacrament of Communion share in common a holy encounter beyond the normal. The latin root ‘limen’ means “threshold” – liminal places and experiences connote crossing boundaries and barriers.

According to the rite of consecration the bread and wine of communion are ‘set aside from all ordinary uses’ in order to be symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus (indeed in some traditions they are thought to be not just symbolic, but actually transformed into the holy Body). Either way Communion is known almost universally as a sacrament, or sign of God’s direct presence in our world, and taking the elements in the Holy Eucharist is nothing less than an encounter with God Godself.

In the Transfiguration story Jesus and three of his disciples ascend an unnamed mountain, whereupon Jesus appears transfigured from his normal self: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2). Then Jesus is joined by the prophets Moses and Elijah, moving Peter to offer to build dwellings for Jesus and the prophets. Then a cloud gathers and a voice recalling that present at Jesus’ baptism years earlier issues forth: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5). To the disciples this remarkable series of events must have had life-changing proportions.

Music, one of worship’s most powerful and poignant voices, can offer us liminal experiences too… even singing spiritual arrangements throughout the month of February the anthem “Go where I send thee!” offers a number of remarkable departures from our more usual musical offerings. It is an exuberant gospel-style paraphrase of God’s call to us, and it is a counting song, teaching or reinforcing the number system with biblical amounts in similar fashion to meaning some attach to a Christmas song you might previously have thought was entirely secular, The Twelve Days of Christmas. From its style and character to its traditionally constant changing keys to its closing repeated ‘groove’ it leaves behind many conventions to both spirituals and sacred music writ larger. In this regard I must also mention the remarkable expansion of our usual Choral Amens tradition by Jester Hairston’s arrangement!

There is good reason to believe that liminal experiences draw us from habit, from complacency and boredom into a world of sharper relief, even if it is unfamiliar, unsettling, and perhaps even dangerous. Liminal experiences offer unquestionable value, and should be sought out, in music as well as in all parts of life – they have immense potential not just to surprise and challenge us – but indeed to teach and change – to transfigure – us.


Embedded – RPC Music Notes, Sun 16 Feb 2020

In recent decades the term ’embedded’ has been used to describe a situation where journalists are integrated into political, humanitarian and military operations in order to bring stories from distant, unpleasant and dangerous places back to the comfortable media consumer. Crucially it connotes the agency of higher authorities that perceive power in the narrative that reaches us, and value in being able to control as well as facilitate it.

Music and text offer an interesting parallel to this practice: both can carry embedded ideas and images of great power – sometimes placed at the behest of authority, and sometimes of the creator(s) (if indeed they are not one and the same). Today, let’s look at two strikingly different examples within our Black History Month-long focus on the Spiritual.

‘The Lily of the Valley’, a serene, and wistful testament to Jesus’ beauty, heaven’s riches and the seemingly mundane subject of shoes(!), is almost seemingly a propaganda piece for the slavery institution. It bears the striking allegory of Jesus as a pure, white flower (the lily is associated with beauty and purity both within and outside of the Biblical tradition, but its Easter connotation appears to be a 19th century invention), of heavenly riches beyond imagination, and the suggestion of shoes (typically denied to slaves for the enablement they provide to escape) as a mark of elective holiness and obedience.

In contrast ‘Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho’ might seem nothing more than a well-loved rock-’em, sock-’em Old Testament story of God’s triumph on behalf of his people. But burrowing a bit deeper it is a striking tale of a hopeless-looking attack and surprise vanquishment of a greatly-fortified enemy, wrapped up in the blasting of judgment-day-style trumpets. No ‘gospel shoes’ for the submissive subject here! The story of course came to enslaved Christians from the imposed Bible, but it is interesting to look at that story from their perspective, and perhaps imagine them daring to identify with the Israelites freed from bondage and led to victory.

In most cases music supports the embedded power and purpose of text; in the serenity of the ‘Lily’ example geared perhaps at submissive passivity, or the vigorous rhythms of ‘Joshua’ conveying the sound and feelings of battle.

We have become accustomed to suspicion of the authority-crafted narratives embedded journalists bring us from troubled places; music too deserves our scrutiny, especially where (as in the church) we seek to take it on as an expression of ourselves. Keep this in mind the next time you see war reporting broadcasts in western media – the reporting may be telling you what to think, while the music tells you how to feel about it. If ‘The Lily’ contains some sort of hidden agenda it in no way invalidates the notions of Jesus’ beauty and purity, heaven’s riches or the value of wearing figurative ‘gospel shoes’ – but, as music often does for me and I hope for you, “It makes you think.”


Preacher & People – RPC Music Notes, 9 Feb 2020

“Fix me”, arr. J. Hairston – soprano Kathleen Battle in a Philadelphia choral performance

Every churchgoer, and for that matter nearly everyone else, is familiar with the concept of the lone preacher with the gathered congregation. But if you have heard choirs sing spirituals or sung them yourself, and have noticed the preponderance of soloists as compared with other styles of anthem, have you ever connected the dots?

As we consider Spiritual arrangements such as those heard at RPC throughout this Black History Month, we must try to untangle the sources and intervening factors that gave them shape. This is a complex fusion of a variety of African cultural building blocks, the imposed Christian faith both in African mission and American enslavement settings, and of course the omnipresence of struggle, suffering and oppression. But for the present we will consider just one obvious aspect, the Preacher and People.

Leaders, and the musical incarnation known as “Call and Response” is a cultural trope that spans the songs and societies, sacred and secular, of the globe: thus it is a simplification to suggest that the paradigm of the Preacher can explain entirely its presence in the modern Spiritual arrangement.

Practically any leader facilitates learning: cantor/choir forms the basis of the Hebraic and monastic chants that in turn founded all Western sacred music, but it is of obvious value to all cultures, allowing ideas and traditions to be led now, and passed on to the future.

The modern Christian Preacher finds their roots in the teachers and leaders of ancient faiths, and most recently Judaism and Islam. Through the lens of colonial Christianisation of African slaves, he adopts older known leader roles to teach the new faith, reinforce behaviors such as obedience and productivity, and strengthen a new stratified community model.

But in the Spiritual we find another dimension that stretches back thousands of years earlier into the songs and practices its founders brought with them: and followed richly into Gospel, Soul and arguably other genres: the role of emotional inspiration. When a soloist sings “Fix me Jesus, fix me” in the first person they are not really even preaching – they implore us, in a deeply personal way, to pray as they do. While a choir repeats John the Baptiser’s sober warning to “Don’t you let nobody turn you ’round”, in great authority the soloists recount his story and call the faithful to unity.

Indeed in our Presbyterian tradition, along with interpreting and sharing the scriptures the speaking Preacher, Wes Denyer and Seaton Brachmeyer as two fine examples, appeal to us in a deeply personal and often autobiographical way. And RPC’s long tradition of fine soloist leadership within its Choir offers a unique gift of beauty and humanity that goes far beyond the musical.

When you hear a voice raised in leadership, in teaching, in prayer or in community rest assured, both you and it are in an ancient social contract with a rich and powerful history – and continuing great potential for grace.