On this Easter Monday, when I had planned to be at rehearsal with the Georgetown Choral Society, I find myself instead at home in a freak April snowfall that has cowed us into cancelling. Because our restart in these ongoing latter (we hope) COVID days was only in mid-March, we have elected not to present a performance this spring, planning instead to turn our attention to future seasons. We hope these seasons will run differently for us than the three pandemic seasons: 2019-20’s abandoned season, 2020-21’s all-online season (our 50th anniversary), or 2021-22’s interrupted, restarted and now strangely ebbing season, melting away around us as soon tonight’s unexpected snow must also inevitably do.
Choral scene watchers like myself occasionally notice particular works taking on unexpected resonance and popularity… and in the COVID-defiant 2021-2022 season that work has been, in southern Ontario, Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, op.45, with recent past performances by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Grand Philharmonic Choir (Kitchener) and Orpheus Choir of Toronto, and upcoming by the Ottawa Choral Society and Ottawa Classic Choir. I may well have missed performances here in Ontario, and we would quickly find others, especially beyond our province.
The Requiem Mass or ‘Mass for the Dead’, of which by one estimate some 2000 settings of all shapes, sixes, texts, languages and musical styles exist, is directed at a very particular cohort of humanity: those victim to, bereft by, or otherwise affected by the inevitability – and yet endlessly powerful and disruptive matter – of death. Based initially on the Roman Catholic tradition of celebrating Holy Communion to mark the death of individuals or groups, and most often still using traditional liturgical texts, one might assume them to be inherently Catholic, or at least inherently Christian.
One would in our time, however, be incorrect in that assumption, and a ground-breaking major choral setting of the late 1860s – the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms, is responsible. Brahms’ use of biblical texts makes it a sacred work, but not a liturgical (it was written for the concert hall, not a church service). ‘German’ in the title refers solely to the language of the text – Brahms told Carl Martin Reinthaler, director of music at the Bremen Cathedral at the time of the work’s premiere, that he would have gladly called the work “Ein menschliches Requiem” (A human Requiem). Brahms himself seemed to have little interest in or time for religion – yet, perhaps uncoincidentally, in 1865, the year of the death of his mother, he set out to create this monumental work – his largest in any form. Assembling the scriptural texts himself from the German Luther Bible, he flouted controversy and criticism by forgoing both the Latin language and all explicit references to Christian doctrine (that is, the salvation of souls in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ).
The resulting song of comfort, of sympathy for those who mourn and who struggle to hope amid despair, indeed, of triumph over the tyranny of death – broke the mold – and set the stage. In the decades that have followed Ein Deutsches Requiem‘s eventual rise to popularity despite the Church’s resistance, Requiems have continued to change, often still rooted in traditional liturgical texts, but gradually coming to reach much farther across the genre universe, freely to incorporate sacred and secular poetic texts, and nearly always to reside not within the rites of the Church, but in the secular choral/concert culture where it feeds a fundamentally spiritually-inclined public. Why does Ein Deutsches Requiem seem to be resonating with choirs, their Boards and Directors this season? It might surely be the millions lost (some of them choir members, supporters, concert-goers and their loved ones) to the virus and its variants, an army that knows no nationality, religion or ideology in its brutality and plunder of human life.
But I think there is something more. Many choirs, including the Georgetown Choral Society, have made conspicuous achievements during the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating obstacles, tackling new skills and technologies, recruiting new members who could be promised no rehearsals or performances beyond those that could be contrived on computer screens – even creating great, unusual works of beauty in the virtual and in-person performances they carried off against impressive odds.
Notwithstanding outstanding achievements, recovery for many of our choirs from the ravages of COVID-19 will take years: but we can be proud of our resilience and persistence. If any of us sings a proverbial Requiem for our departed choral seasons, for the members and supporters and general strength we have lost, let it be a Hopeful Requiem, and let us above all look to a blessed future, full once again of singing.
When Caesar Augustus (‘Caesar the Great’) reigned over the first Roman Empire a remarkable story – some have called it the greatest ever told – was begun with the birth of a boy in Bethlehem, the City of David, who would save his people from sin and found, and head for all time, a worldwide church.
Centuries later, in 1822, a Belgian boy was born and named for the great Roman Emperor – and he would become an important voice in the music of that church. In addition to becoming titular organist at Paris’ beautiful Basilique St Sulpice, César-Auguste Franck became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. Indeed, little of Franck’s beautiful organ music is explicitly sacred: but in this Holy Week dedicated to the culmination of Jesus’ ministry I have chosen and free-associated several works with His story.
To be clear, there is no indication whatever that Franck made associations like mine between his abstract compositions and this (or for that matter, any other) story – he might very well have thought, as did many in the 19th century, the very notion to be complete rubbish! But I defend my use of this great man’s great music uniquely to illuminate a tale we know well – perhaps too well – suggesting like every year that, perhaps, we hear it again. Join me now in following the young rabbi from Nazareth on his journey from Bethlehem to Golgotha.
Advent – Noël suite (extraits de l’Organiste)
Music’s compelling power and persistence enters into our heads and hearts at the slightest invitation, and it comes to describe moments and movements of seismic importance and power. That Christmas carols as disparate as Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime can propose such different affects and aspects of the same story speaks not just to music’s power, but perhaps still more to our own hunger for meaning, for connection – for belonging. The celebration of Jesus’ birth is synonymous with the melodies we sing in its honour… but as you just heard in my first group of Franck’s works, the noël melodies as familiar to the French as the carols I named above are to us seem strange – unknown. Perhaps if, as I assure you, they tell the same story to the French people as our Christmas carols do to we English, you might be able to open yourself to Franck’s organ music doing the same?
I would like to take us first outside of Bethlehem, to a familiar setting. The urban lens that has made the “pastorale” a fixture of Western classical music is often overlooked, but it deserves mentioning here – particularly because of Franck’s take on the idea. If we recall the ‘Pastoral Symphony,’ or ‘Pifa’ in Handel’s Messiah; Bach’s well-loved Pastorale BWV 590 for organ, even Haydn’s picturesque depiction of grazing animals in The Creation, we are reliably given elegant triple-metre, barely jig-like pieces to evoke shepherds cavorting at their rural business. These graceful musical depictions of ‘country life’ probably bore little resemblance to the music, instruments, dances and other aspects of whatever was customary to actual shepherds-in-the-fields.
In Pastorale, op. 19, César Franck gives us an even more idealised glimpse of things pastoral – he does score a reedy “shepherd’s pipe”- like stop, but uses more academic, dotted rhythms instead of the traditional triplets – perhaps following the more ultra-genteel concept of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Nor can he resist giving us a vigorous middle section that seems far more at home in the recital hall than on the slopes amid grass and manure. Notice, too, that the work’s ABA form gives us a basic presentation, and following an interposed diversion, another take on the same music… perhaps in this we can imagine the angels giving praise and worship in the skies, and later, the shepherds doing likewise at the manger, the middle section being their hasty trip to find the babe they were told would be there.
Christmas – Pastorale, op.19
In regarding French organ music in Franck’s day we often miss the detail that an enormous amount of the repertoire of the great composers was written either explicitly for, or to be also playable, on the harmonium. The harmonium or reed organ is most familiar in the English-speaking world in the form of the pump organ once popular in homes, small churches and chapels. Unlike these smaller cousins, French harmonia often had multiple manuals, pedals, and even sometimes enclosed divisions that allowed a form of crescendo/decrescendo. They had the characteristic reedy sound you might know from more familiar pump organs here – but they were considered an entirely respectable and viable classical instrument – and one I will try here to emulate today on this very different instrument.
At birth, my wife of 23 years was given the name Marcia – she pronounces it identically to the Italian term Franck in his Quasi marcia, op.22, like other composers, used to evoke a musical March – not “Mar-CI-a” or “MAR-shaw” as many assume. Seeing Marcia’s name in the title of a piece certainly caught my attention, and not just because her name, coming from the Latin, means ‘dedicated to Mars (the God of War)’ – I will not comment further!
The thing that struck me was the dual meaning within this name… one of the synoptic gospel writers was named Mark, and in Hebrew, his name generally means ‘polite.’ How interesting that in the Latin form coming from the Roman occupiers of Israel… where names like Markus, Marshall, – and yes, Marcia – associate the name with the God of War.
I know this of the entry of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem thronged by his ranks of supporters: despite the raucous crowd He came willingly, (perhaps politely?) to die; he was heralded with shouts from his legions of Hosannas to a King thought from Messianic prophecy to conquer and overthrow the Roman occupiers – yet, as the days unfolded he would save his people not through power of might, but through submission and service.
March into the Holy City – Quasi marcia, op.22
Franck’s most famous work is without a doubt a sacred song he wrote as part of his Mass op.12, to the penultimate stanza of the hymn “Sacris solemniis” written by St Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Franck scored the hymn Panis angelicus originally for tenor voice with harp, cello, double bass and organ accompaniment. The organ arrangement I’ll play today by Pierre Gouin of course gives the vocal part to the organ, but it also respects the familiar canonic scoring of the repeat with cello (a low voice), entrusting it, in the tenor range, to the pedals.
Last Supper – Panis angelicus op.12, arr. Pierre Gouin
After they had sung a hymn Jesus and the disciples went to a garden called Gethsemane. In Jesus’ lifetime, only twice do the gospel writers ascribe to Jesus specific words he spoke, in prayer, to his Father in heaven. Though Jesus prayed to his Father throughout his life, we are only made privy through the Bible to two instances… the first, being in that garden, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.”
To reflect the horrifying story of Jesus’ Passion I chose Franck’s beautiful Prélude, Fugue et Variation, op.12. During its haunting opening melody I think of Jesus’ desperate – yet resigned – plea to be spared the suffering he knew would come. The Fugue, with its short, ominous introduction, to me represents the inevitable march of events comprising his betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. Then, as we hear the return, almost dreamlike, of the opening melody with a more elaborate accompaniment, the only other scriptural instance of Jesus addressing his Father, as he hung broken on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
The Story of the Passion Prélude, fugue et variation, op.18
Today’s program began with a short collection of the songs Franck and his countrymen used to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth. It ends with one of the set of three usually considered to by Franck’s greatest organ works, the three Chorales – which, perhaps in respect for their posthumous publication, have never been given an opus number. These large-scale works have in common an epic, fantastical structure, rich ultra-romantic chromatic harmony… and an original hymn-like tune, the presence of which gives them the name ‘Chorale.’ These simple melodies are presented at the works’ outset, and reprised at their end, offset by free improvisatory and stunningly beautiful melodic passages designed to show off the rich colouristic possibilities of the King of Instruments. They seem like stories unto themselves, each identified by a hymn – but one that is never sung. ‘Les Trois Chorales‘ were first published in 1892, two years after the death of their author, César Auguste Franck.
The story of salvation is not only what has been called the “greatest story ever told.” Like in Franck’s idea of a hymn never sung, it is a story that is never over – it continues, these two millennia later, in churches like this one, in hearts like ours, and even in a world such as this, still filled with the beauty, the wonder, the evil and suffering – and we pray, the redemption it exists to tell to all time.
Today I have proposed that music never associated with this story can nonetheless help us to tell, and receive it. I do not ask for you to agree with my associations or pretense in making them – but together, let us look to the reborn world promised in Jesus Christ, in which (as Jesus put it entering Jerusalem) even the stones, and the creations of God and man (including music), cry out.
When Caesar Augustus (‘Caesar the Great’) reigned over the first Roman Empire a remarkable story – some have called it the greatest ever told – was begun with the birth of a boy in the City of David, who would save his people from sin and head a worldwide church.
Centuries later, in 1822, a Belgian boy was born and named for the great Emperor – and he was destined to become one of the most defining voices in the music of that church. In addition to becoming titular organist at Paris’ beautiful Basilique St Sulpice César-Auguste Franck became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, a position that likely limited his own compositional output.
Almost none of Franck’s organ music is explicitly sacred: but in this Holy Week dedicated to the culmination of Jesus’ ministry I have chosen and free-associated several works with the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. To be clear there is no indication whatever that Franck made associations like mine between his abstract compositions and this or any other story – he might very well have thought the notion to be complete rubbish.
But I defend my use of this great man’s great music to uniquely illuminate a tale we know – perhaps too well. Join me in following the young rabbi from Nazareth on his journey to Golgotha.
Advent Noël suite (extrait de l’Organiste)
Christmas Pastorale, op.19
March into the Holy City Quasi marcia
Last Supper Panis angelicus, op.12
The Story of the Passion Prélude, fugue et variation, op.18
Unlike for many, two years spent largely at home failed to furnish me with much time to write blog entries or publish podcasts – but times, they are a changing. Though restrictions have eased in many places cases are multiplying, and COVID-19 is not by any means securely endemic much of anywhere – and it is a significant worry in such relative (and very different) strongholds as China and the UK. But the time has come for me to resume posting for Ideas About Music.
This early April 2022 my musical work has mostly resumed – indeed, term is nearly finished at the U of T Faculty of Music; we are a mere two weeks out from Easter at Rosedale Presbyterian Church (for which we have just finally welcomed the full choir to resume rehearsing), and I have been invited to give three Holy Week performances at St Thomas’s Anglican Church (Baroque Music by Candlelight), All Saints’ Anglican Church, Kingsway (the ORGANIX Series), and Beach United Church (Easter livestream Recital). Though it is not until next Christmas I’m honoured to have been invited by the Guelph Chamber Choir to produce an encore humorous pre-performance show “Messiah Night Live!” at the River Run Centre, and by the Orillia Concert Society to offer a solo organ recital in tribute to our late mutual friend, Maestro Kerry Stratton.
The Georgetown Choral Society is back in-person rehearsing, the Orpheus Choir under Robert Cooper is just about to offer a beautiful performance of the Brahms Requiem, and even the long-silent Marion Singers of Greater Toronto are once again joining their a capella voices in support of several concert invitations benefitting worthwhile causes next season. Meanwhile, the Summer Institute of Church Music is running its 53rd Session and its 26th biennial Osborne Organ Competition in Whitby this July AND thrillingly, launching a second concurrent campus at the King’s University in Edmonton. And the Southern Ontario Chapter of the Hymn Society is well into its 2022 programming season, with my presentation of a McLuhan reading of the Church Media world (changed perhaps forever by cameras, microphones, remote congregations and a permanent presence of the Internet) debuting online in both SOCHS’ season, and at the Hymn Society’s annual conference in Washington, DC.
Why the long hiatus in posting for Ideas About Music? Indeed, many writers and content creators found, with much of their physical work shut down by the pandemic, new energy for their home studios and word processors, websites and YouTube channels. But for me, IAM is not just some fountain of ideas and inspiration emanating from me personally… it is more of a dialectical proposition, “what happens when the musical world all around me makes me think – and makes me want to share some of those thoughts with you?” This is not to say that the pandemic somehow stopped me from thinking – or from making music, although through much of it that music making was very different… but somehow blogging about it was just not the same absent the journey.
Resuming weekly posts next Tuesday April 5th after two years of silence, I’m looking forward to welcoming the curious and thoughtful music lover along on the musical journey that has taken us all an increasingly interesting ride…