Music, like all art, tends to thrive on the energy of dialectic – that is, the inquiry real or implied into contradictions and their solutions. When death is both the most radical undoing and yet also the most soothing release – we have a dialectic. When a pandemic causes suffering and fear and yet also connects, strengthens and heals its survivors, same thing. When a work of art can be strangely beautiful and yet strangely disturbing it draws the mind of the onlooker into consideration of meaning and perhaps magic.
Perhaps no stop along the church’s year illustrates this in more striking relief than the dual-named Palm/Passion Sunday, the start of Holy Week, exactly one week before Easter Sunday. It is a well-loved observance from the depths of Lent that juxtaposes the elation and excitement of the crowds that accompanied the young rabbi Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem with that rabbi’s ever bolder affronts to the Jewish establishment, the horror of his betrayal by one of his chosen, and his trial, suffering and death.
To take a more directly musical example, consider a familiar hymn text, which Australian-born one-time Master of the Queen’s Music set in his Procession of Palms:
Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp, ride on to die.– Henry Hart Millman (1791-1868)
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.
What form majesty leads its bearer to death? How can anyone’s death be the harbinger of triumph over death and sin? Isn’t that paradox defined?
Here’s a way of looking at it – we have discussed recently the concept of liminality, the notion that it is only when pushed beyond comfort, beyond reason that we can begin to see beyond such assumptions as the permanence of death, the seemingly inevitable triumph of earthly power. How does a beloved become a betrayer? A king become a criminal? One’s triumphant procession become one’s march to execution?
In Williamson’s piece we see a uniquely British attempt to reconcile these diametrics, a piece that folds the great texts of the day into a vigorous, exciting setting that seeks to capture Israel’s euphoria at its inevitable release from Roman bondage through the promised Messiah, but which flows into a tapestry of diverse textures and emotions on the way to a thoroughly unsettling ending.
A Procession of Palms was never sung in my twelve years at St James’ Cathedral in Toronto, but I will always remember the solution arrived at by my colleague and mentor Giles Bryant; though the Palm Sunday liturgy always featured the great hymns, waving branches and choral Hosannas by the tradition’s pinnacle composers it always quietly imploded during and after the Eucharistic celebration with some truly sombre motet and the congregation’s singing of the Passion Chorale, and left the jarred congregation staring ahead on Holy Week’s journey to the cross with no way to go but forward.
It was only many years later during graduate work that I became initiated into such terms as dialectic and liminality. But as in the rhythms, chords and other sounds of my parents’ countless vinyl records that implanted themselves early in my mind only to be named much later when I learned music theory, early experiences such as Palm/Passion Sunday at St James’ indelibly fueled my love of church music long before I had the tools to speak of it philosophically. In this most unusual of Holy Weeks without services, choirs and organs I find myself feeling like that disoriented Palm Sunday congregation, and equally with no way to go but forward.