Music at Home

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring,
performed by musicians of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from their homes.

As I announced last Friday I’ve made some temporary changes to under the unusual circumstance of self-imposed lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Of most significance to this weekly blog post is that it is now temporarily detached from the Sunday Service music of Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto because, well, there are no Sunday services there. RPC’s Sunday worship ministry now consists of a set of materials distributed each Friday by the staff for the informational and devotional use of the congregation, including from me a special weekly 30-minute episode of Choral View Radio offering hymns, anthems, organ music and commentary – it is there, in spoken form, that you may find the nearest facsimile of the former RPC Music Notes – because again, there are currently no Sunday Bulletins to print them in.

In the past week of quarantine-based thinking and living, the online world of we unemployed, homebound musicians has virtually exploded with an entirely new genre of music-making… or is it entirely new?

While I’ve been throwing myself into homemade guerilla radio-like podcasts, in the past few days I have been contacted by an old university friend, Dave Kutz, who is currently Principal Tuba to the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, to collaborate online with he and a cellist friend who resides in Australia. On the suggestion of a member of Rosedale Presbyterian Church I and one of the church’s soprano soloists Rebecca Genge scraped together, from our respective homes, a rendition of the storied opera aria Bist du bei Mir by Heinrich Stötzel (which you might, along with many others, understandably think to be a sacred song by Johann Sebastian Bach). I see choirs, including Chorus Niagara and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus holding proto-rehearsals over video conferencing software platforms like Zoom and Skype, and the much better-tested (and better-suited) giving of one-on-one video music lessons, complete with household noises, pets walking by, sweatpants and unshaven beards. And perhaps most intriguing of all, we are seeing good-spirited daily compositional challenges – “fill your time by creating new music,” be that an original fiddle tune, a song about your experience, or that symphony you’ve never quite gotten around to writing.

Going beyond the fascination of seeing friends, colleagues, choristers and for that matter strangers in their natural habitats, for a professional musician there is something deeply humanising about sharing the imposed regime that is being variously called quarantine, self-isolation, social distancing, and shelter-in-place.

But it also reminds me that amid all of the impressive technology that simply didn’t exist a short decade ago, there is, ironically, a much older story being retold. The German term Hausmusik (‘house music’, a term we wouldn’t typically use in English) was in standard use in the late 18th century as the post-baroque rise of the middle class spurred families and friends to share music, sung or played, in their homes. The piano lay, and remained at the centre of this movement for a century and a half before the advent of recording and broadcasting, and the decline of institutionalised music education gradually shifted music-making into music-listening, and transformed the broadly-held urge and ability to play and sing into an anointed ‘priesthood’ increasingly conferred only upon celebrities and professionals.

Of course the images in my Facebook Feed of music at home are showing me something that existed before; we all practise, teach and sometimes even play or sing together in our homes – always have. But the unexpected explosion of sharing gives me another to add to the positive outcomes some hope of this pandemic such as environmental healing, the re-decline of incompetent and ignorant populism, socialised wealth-redistribution and the retooled non-fossil-fuel energy infrastructure our planet so desperately needs. That hope is for music in the home; music in the heart.


Posted in IAM.

COVID-19 and Ideas About Music

Kaikki Maat, Te Riemuitkatte by Finnish a capella supergroup Rajaton – some brightness and optimism for spring, and the theme music of IAM’s new Choral View Radio shows.

On this first day of spring at a most unusual time in our history I am making a unusual Friday post to the weekly blog. Followers and newcomers alike will want to know about some significant changes here at Ideas About Music in response to changing circumstances around the COVID-19 outbreak. I would first send out wishes to all readers and followers for health, safety and spiritual strength: we are all in need of these.

  1. With the suspension of public gatherings three choirs under my direction, the Georgetown Choral Society, the Marion Singers of Greater Toronto and the Choir of Rosedale Presbyterian Church are unable to meet, and either have already or will likely be cancelling performances / service offerings. I have reached into an old skill set and hauled out old equipment to create Choral View Radio, a tool intended to help choirs keep connected to the music we are working on, and to one another in the absence of meeting. I am producing a weekly 30-minute “radio show” format episode for each choir, all hosted right here at
  2. The suspension of Sunday Services at Rosedale Presbyterian Church, as a particular case of this, has generated a response from us on the staff to create a weekly Virtual Service Bulletin, a regular multi-media transmission of information (and we hope inspiration) intended to replace BOTH our usual print Bulletin, and the Sunday Service itself. My contribution to this has been to convert the Choral View Radio episode I might otherwise have created for the RPC Choir into a weekly curated episode that seeks to fold into 30 minutes two hymns, two anthems, an organ voluntary and in the form of spoken commentary, my Music Notes, as you might otherwise have read them here at
  3. With RPC’s Sunday Music Notes now having temporarily moved in spoken form to the RPC CVR episode, depending on my available time I will be taking the opportunity to think and write about musical topics outside of the church context, so you can continue to expect weekly submissions of some sort. I would encourage you, if interested to look into the three weekly CVR episodes as well – as you know or might guess about them, where I’m concerned if there’s music, the ideas flow fairly quickly around them!

The cover graphic/music for this post is Kaikki Maat, Te Riemuitkatte (‘All Nations, you must Reimagine’) by Finnish a capella supergroup Rajaton, whose name in their native language means boundless. It serves as the theme music for the three weekly episodes of Choral View Radio, but its character and the sentiments expressed by both the song itself and the band’s name are I think valuable to this moment in human history.

As I say at the close of each CVR episode, see you next week, stay safe, keep in touch with one another, look after one another and the people around you, and most of all, Enjoy the View.


Let me Know – RPC Music Notes, Sun 22 March 2020

Lord, let me know mine end (III, Ein Deutsches Requiem – Johannes Brahms)
– note, English translation in recording is slightly different than in RPC’s planned usage

As I write this on 16 March 2020 it seems likely that the Session of Rosedale Presbyterian Church will decide tomorrow (by socially-distanced telephone meeting) to join churches throughout Southern Ontario in suspending public worship as part of society’s broader effort to blunt the progress of the COVID-19 outbreak that is ravaging the world, already devastatingly in some places. Should this happen I hope these notes on what would have been this Sunday’s music become part of our self-isolated community’s life. As so often seems to happen music chosen weeks ago is taking on an eerie – or – perhaps divine – connection to the events unfolding around us.

Brahms’ German Requiem, a concert work largely unaffected by the centuries-old impulse to sing sacred music in a language understood by the listener, is heard most often by English speaking audiences in its original German. As we have journeyed through offering, literally piece-by-piece, this masterwork as part of our winter (and God willing, our spring) services the option has certainly existed to go with this norm – but so too in our Protestant sensibilities has the interest in offering our congregation music and meaning as one, without the abstraction of a printed translation. A discussion of the dynamics of this choice are for another day – today, let’s look squarely at its 3rd movement, made more vivid, perhaps, by the vernacular language, and certainly by the time in which we are hearing it.

The work’s third movement sets an unanswerable question “How long will I live?” answering only with the assurance that righteous souls lie in God’s hands (Wisdom 3:1) – slightly hollow, though set in a magnificent fugue composed entirely over the rock-firm grounding of a D-pedal point, suggesting God’s abiding presence and strength. But am I one of those righteous souls? Is my loved one? What about the unrighteous souls, however determined, and the communities we share? As our days begin to take on apocalyptic tones these matters may affect some of us more than others: to the unknowable future belongs the impact of COVID-19 on our communities and ourselves, but the questions it raises certainly seem closer than mere weeks ago.

In the unlikely event RPC gathers for worship this coming Sunday, the choir will accompany this disturbingly existential offering with a short, simple and strikingly personal prayer text, set in this instance by John Rutter.

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

– Sarum Primer, 1558

If the assurance of Wisdom 3:1 in Brahms rings a bit hollow, this prayer strikes me (as it always does) deeply comforting. If God is in my understanding I can think and feel beyond my fear and anger. If God is my looking I can see clearly my correct course. If God is in my speaking I can offer words of wisdom and comfort when they are needed. If God is in my heart I can look beyond my own household, to a community, a species and a planet that ask, and should expect my commitment to their well-being. For me the final, and least immediately comforting petition seems to pale against the riches provided by the others to the situation in which we find ourselves – but that discussion, too, is for another day.

Today we live; today we work together.


Desolate – RPC Music Notes, Sun 15 March 2020

Desolate is one of many words our language gained from England’s Norman conquerors in 1066. In English we tend to associate it with places, whereas its French antecedent desolée expresses more of a personal feeling of loss or regret. We see both meanings in today’s two choral selections, and we see two strikingly different musical portrayals.

The longing words of Psalm 42’s first three verses are in the voice of one spiritually bereft, perhaps feeling abandoned by God after daily mocking by those questioning his faith – perhaps questioning it himself all the while. The poetic image used is that of a thirsty deer longing for water, and Noel Rawsthrone’s musical depiction of this longing shifts sadly between solo and duet passages in weeping, descending melodies, and terse choral chant-like textures that bring the whole into the first person plural voice.

William Byrd’s anthem setting of Isaiah 64:10, Civitas sancti tui is a frank acknowledgment that the holy city has been made into a desert, a desolation.  The greater meaning here than the ‘mere’ physical destruction of the city cannot be understated: for God’s people Jerusalem forms the seat of faith, of power and of hope, a fact not lost on its Babylonian conquerors, now leading defeated Israel into exile. In the music, a short section expresses that simple fact, and then we hear Jerusalem and its more poetic name Sion along with the Latin words deserta and desolata repeated over and over in a strikingly serene, almost psychological way. As if to drive home the simplicity of this admission, the voices of the choir sound here for the first time homophonically, that is, at the same time rather than in alternation.

Rev. Kendall reminds us today of the sanctity of water – in the ancient world, yes, but no less in our own time and place: Canada, with its unparalleled wealth of fresh water continues to fail its First Nations in the provision of this basic life-critical commodity, and also faces the uncertainty of water sovereignty as its increasingly parched neighbour to the south increases pressure to have access within a deteriorating climate. Water gives life, gives sanctification through baptism, gives health, cleanliness and stability to individuals and nations – its loss is synonymous with desolation.

In March 2020 the world teeters on the brink of uncertainties such as a global disease outbreak and global climate emergency: let us remember that water, though plentiful in the way we know it, in many other places is already rare as music in the desert. Let us pray and work to maintain and remediate the people and places made desolate by us and our world.


Forty Days – RPC Music Notes, Sun 8 March 2020

The season of Lent

“The Glory of these Forty Days” hymn arrangement

Today the season of Lent lasts 40 Days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. If you try to figure this out from a calendar you must not count the six Sundays, which are technically not part of the traditional Lenten observance (and for those of us who have chosen to ‘give things up’ – interesting to know that in some traditions, Sunday is the weekly day off from those commitments!)

Ever notice the prominence of the number 40 in the Bible? From the length of the flood (40 days and nights), to Moses’ days on Mount Sinai, the Israelites’ two periods of wandering in the desert (40 years twice), to the period of Jonah’s warning to Nineveh and the period of time in which Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection (both 40 days) the number is mentioned a striking 146 times in scripture. The Bible, as it turns out, was even written down by exactly 40 people, if you count them up.

The earliest recorded references to a pre-Easter season of self-denial, introspection and prayer date from the early days of the church, in the writings of Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200), but at that time it was just a few days in length: sometime after discussion by the Council of Nicea (325) Lent eventually climbed on the bandwagon of the Bible’s seeming fascination with the number 40, inspired of course by the days Jesus himself spent fasting and praying in the wilderness.

In musical terms Lent can imply many things in addition of course to melodies and texts traditional to or thematically fitting the season. Music conceived with Lent (and especially Lenten texts) in mind can often have a reverent, sober and cerebral character not so suited to more festive seasons. In some very catholic-style churches an ironically Calvinistic texture is adopted without organs and other instruments, reverting to the austerity of unaccompanied singing by both choirs and congregations. And where instruments continue to be used through Lent there is often a culture of using them sparingly, more quietly, and – dare I say it – more humbly. Even the musicians’ most beloved ‘Hallelujah!” is often put away, as though its true meaning at Easter could ever be compromised by its release in the preceding weeks.

At RPC, in addition to following detailed sermon plans (you will always find these and complete musical details published on our monthly Word and Music List in the Music/Media section of the RPC website), Lent gathers many diverse genres and ideas into our musical life, including this year our ongoing winter/spring project to sing all seven movements of Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem‘ where they pick up on themes of the day.

As much as sacred music at RPC reaches far beyond our Presbyterian tradition, the true riches in our Lent are often found within our hymns. This is an expression of not only the basis of the Reformed perspective on literacy, on direct congregational worship and a metrical literary tradition, but also I think of the way hymns seek to collect together the immensity of self-introspection that is germane to a personal faith, rather than one perhaps more clouded by ritual, decoration, sense and experience, or on any other beautiful thing liable to be a target for idolatry.

After all, in some sense art may be thought to be true and beautiful only when it is seen, heard or otherwise experienced by people. We with good reason build cathedrals, paint and compose masterpieces to God’s glory – but, perhaps, they become art only through people.