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;– Sarum Primer, 1558
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.
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.
The Brahms, sadly, will not be sung on Sunday morning. But I was glad to be able to rehearse the anthem a few weeks ago with our choir. I appreciated being introduced to the Brahms but will admit to preferring another setting of this Psalm text, by the 18th century composer Maurice Greene. Here is a recording https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glCMVf740F4 by the choir of Peterborough Cathedral in England. For me, the Greene setting perfectly captures the mood of the Psalm, which this month seems a propos. From the middle stanza, the Psalmist comments that we “disquieteth [ourselves] in vain.” There is no relief for those who “heapeth up riches”. Our hope comes from our request to God to ‘hear our prayers’. That, and frequent hand-washing.
The link to the music, as a security measure likely didn’t show up. To find the recording, search “youtube” “Maurice Greene” “Let me know” “Peterborough”.
Mark, if you listened to the Brahms here or on the RPC “Choir View Radio” episode you will have noticed a different translation than the one we were preparing – it always made me think of the Greene, which I would love us to do. I don’t believe it is in the RPC library, but I am willing to bet we could harvest it from IMSLP or CPDL. Some other Lent, I guess!
Sounds good. I did listen to the Brahms version, but I will admit that the audio quality on the smartphone wasn’t good enough to pick up many of the subtleties of the text.