How Music says Home – RPC Music Notes, Sun 22 Dec 2019

The Road Home – Stephen Paulus
Conspirare under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson

In one of our anthems this morning, which I reserve each year for what we call here at Rosedale Presbyterian Church “Homecoming Sunday,” the late Stephen Paulus brought an American folk hymn tune ‘Prospect’ (appearing first, it is thought, in Southern Harmony (1835) under the title “The Lone White Bird”) to writer Michael Dennis Browne, who wrote three beautiful stanzas on the idea of coming home after a time of wandering. Paulus’ setting of Browne’s words has proved very popular, but while those words are surely key to its emotional purchase with conductors, choristers and audiences, let’s set them aside and look at Paulus’ setting of the music.

The Southern Harmony hymn tune is ‘pentatonic,’ that is, it employs just five of the seven notes traditional major scale (specifically the ones we we sometimes call do, re, mi, so, la, omitting fa and ti – Fraulein Maria taught you, I and the Von Trapp kids about these in The Sound of Music). The omission of the ‘unstable’ notes (fa which longs to fall to mi, and ti which longs to rise to do) conveys an incredible stability or groundedness. One simple way to explore this unique sound is to play only the black notes on the piano: interestingly it is the foundational harmonic system of many world musics, most famously those of China, Japan and other Asian cultures. To accompany this basic system of harmony Paulus employs a familiar sound from 20th and 21st century choral music, ‘added harmony’ – that is, despite the melody’s harmonic simplicity, the choral harmony is often enriched by added mild dissonant notes from within the scale, but again, in a stable sort of way that more colours the moving chords, than tells them where they need to go. Critically, the idea of home in music has a sound that is both stable and beautiful.

“Rise up, follow me, come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart as the only song;
There is no such beauty as where you belong:
Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home.”

In perhaps the anthem’s most compelling feature, just after Browne’s second stanza alludes to the existence of a ‘Voice’ that will lead the wanderer home, Paulus adds a new element, a soprano descant over the hymn tune to personify that Voice. The implication to some persons of faith, a loving God calling sinners home, is self-evident, and had Browne been not a 20th century writer, but rather the 18th or 19th century writer of an original text attached to this melody, that would be the whole story here.

But the notion that ‘home’ is not so much an abstract place of our ordered and perhaps irresistible return – perhaps like other species like salmon or monarch butterflies; rather, what we understand about home is a deeply human idea, and the addition of a solo voice to the until then exclusively plural choral texture tends, for me at least, to seal the deal.

I write this as one who has always enjoyed the privilege to discern, and to mostly choose a meaning to attach to Browne’s phrase quoted above, “where you belong” – and I acknowledge that this concept that many of us idealise and take for granted has it has often been, and continues to be used by people that look like me to control others.

Welcome home to RPC if you have returned from your wandering this Christmas season; enjoy your unique version of home, be it a place, people, evocative music such as the carols you hear and sing – or all of the above. Or if you lack home in any sense this Christmas, may God’s comfort and music’s balm both rest upon you.

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The Power of Melody – RPC Music Notes Sun 15 Dec 2019

Choral Prelude on ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’, BWV 650 – J.S. Bach
Ton Koopman, Silbermann organ

With the possible exception of the Gregorian chant-descended hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel” no tune better captures the spirit of the Advent season than Martin Luther’s 1523 composition (both tune and words), Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland (Now, come, Saviour of the Nations). Our service today offers no fewer than six unique settings of this tune.

Three of those settings are the triad of organ preludes from Bach’s Leipzig Chorales, BWV 659-661. The haunting BWV 659, perhaps Bach’s most sublime setting of any melody for the organ, is written in a style known as alio modo, in which imitative voices in the left hand and an ornamented solo line in the right are united, phrase by phrase, over a simple independent ‘walking bass’ in the pedal. BWV 660 is a more academically- oriented trio in which left hand and pedal trade references to the first musical phrase of the tune, while the right hand presents the entire tune, again well-ornamented. BWV 661 is a grand and vigorous full organ setting in which the pedal presents the entire tune while the right hand offers a three-voice fugue based more loosely on the tune material.

The other three settings of the tune appear in the latter part of today’s service, first a duet and chorale taken from one of Bach’s four Advent Cantatas, BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor. The duet Brooke, Nancy and I offer today, originally scored for two oboes d’amore and continuo, presents the tune richly ornamented by both voices, the two solo instruments, and the continuo line in roughly equal partnership. The chorale that closes Cantata 36 turns out to be the exact words of our usual Doxology, but, you guessed it, set to our “Melodie von heute.”

Briefly, what is it about this tune, which continues to appear regularly in hymn books 500 years later (although, alas, not our Book of Praise)? It has a few unusual properties, most obviously that the first and fourth phrases are identical. And though to our ears it lies solidly in the key of G minor, it skips the all-important raised leading note (F#) we usually like in minor keys (if your ears are trained and tuned in to this sort of thing you might notice that today’s many Bach settings, despite the difficulty voices have in singing it before the B-flat that must follow, often add it).

The unusual structure of Nun komm’ (the last phrase being the same as the first) might be as simple as helping illiterate 16th century congregations in learning, let’s remember, mostly for the FIRST time EVER, to sing hymns at all, especially in their own spoken languages. The F-natural on the third note of the first and last phrases suggest the musical time Luther lived in, not yet by any means moved on to the more recent major/minor hegemony that seemed to abolish the older church modes except as a theoretical abstraction. Also, it’s not hard to see why simple intervals (like the perfect fourth from F-natural to B-flat) would be easier and more intuitive to help get the Church’s first real foray into full-congregational singing.

Finally, I have added an ‘Amen’ setting to my series composed for the RPC Choir. In it our wonderful altos, who so often suffer with simple and repetitive parts while others enjoy singing the real tune, are given the tune throughout, while the other parts add an ornamental tapestry befitting the entreaty of a coming Saviour.

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Cantata – RPC music notes, Sun 8 Dec 2019

Classic Choral Society & Orchestra, Artistic Director: Janiece Kohler
United Church of Christ, Blooming Grove, NY Dec 2016

Over and over as we regard history, things we might have supposed to be older turn out to have fairly recent causes, and one such example is the tradition in Protestant Churches of “Special Music” and at this time of the year, that special instance of Special Music, the ‘Christmas Cantata.’

The Italian term ‘Sonata’ describes a multi-movement work for instruments. Its root ‘Sona-‘ comes from sound: it is music to be heard. The related term ‘Cantata’ describes a work similar in most ways, except that it incorporates voices, and comes from ‘Canta-‘: it is music to be sung. The seemingly parallel terms Sonata and Cantata are in fact not parallel, though – the former describes how the piece is received (through sound), whereas the latter describes how it is offered (by singing). Presumably Cantatas, also received through sound, should just be a special case of ‘Sonata’, right?

Wrong. In the Biblical context singing, as opposed to other sorts of music making, seems to have a special imperative all its own. True, the Psalms and a handful of other biblical stories mention instruments, but instances and explicit exhortations to singing, perhaps the most intimate and personal way of making music, far outnumber them.

So much so, that when in Reformation times our denomination’s Calvinist precursors were ‘cleaning house’ of various corrupt and non- or dubiously-scriptural practices, instruments (including the organ) were summarily removed from worship, while singing remained. Along with selling indulgences (essentially ‘salvation paid for in cash’) and the instruments went the elaborate ritual practices and sublime choral music of the Catholic tradition. Ah, you say, but what about the Lutherans and the great Cantata tradition of Bach? Yes, on this point (as well as others) Lutherans and Calvinists appear to have differed, and Lutheran worship retained, at least in principal churches, a place for elaborate music.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, when scholars of both music and liturgy became deeply interested in returning to both the works and the ‘authentic’ practices of earlier times. The Calvinist streams of Protestantism had by then re-introduced instruments and non-scriptural sung texts (i.e. ‘hymns’). And a society placing some emphasis on music in education and public life was producing fine musicians to lead public worship, who felt drawn to the riches of the Cantata tradition, then re-emerging mostly on the concert stage. The accomplished and aspirational church musician sought occasional special musical goals for their church choirs and other ensembles, and found in history (or created brand-new in history’s honour) – the Cantata.

So, music from an earlier tradition is restored (as we do at RPC this morning with masterpieces of the German Baroque before Bach), and a new repertoire of Christmas, Lenten and Easter Cantatas emerges, mostly in the English west – not every week as in the impressive practice of Bach at Leipzig – but rather on special occasions and in special seasons.

The Church Cantata today reminds us of the unique role of singing in worship throughout God’s church, of the aspirations of choirs like other ministry teams working in service, and the compelling ability of artistic beauty to offer us a window upon a Gospel of truth.

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Revealing the Kingdom – RPC Music Notes, Sun 1 Dec 2019

E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come – Paul and Ruth Manz

As the new church year dawns this Advent Sunday, at RPC we have been thinking about a new kingdom. The annual observance of Reign of Christ Sunday followed immediately by Advent expectation of that kingdom is no coincidence.

But as we implied last week, with our varied musical conceptions of Jesus’ kingship, it is no conventional or even mythical kingship we await. The Kingdom, when it comes, dwells not in fortresses and palaces – it dwells in us – our choral music today explores this idea from three angles.

American Lutheran pastor and musician Paul Manz and his wife Ruth Manz wrote “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come” in 1953 during a time when their three-year-old son John was critically ill. Reflecting on the time, Ruth Manz reported, “I think we’d reached the point where we felt that time was certainly running out so we committed it to the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus quickly come'”. During this time, she had prepared some text for Paul for a composition based on the Book of Revelation. While at his son’s bedside, Paul began drafting the composition, which later became the current piece. Their son did recover, which the couple attributed to the power of prayer.

Elizabeth Poston’s sole contribution to the sacred repertoire, the beautiful “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is a deeply personal affirmation of the balm of Jesus’ indwelling that grows from a single voice to full higher voices, to full SATB choir, and then returns.

The French carol known as the hymn-tune Picardy has since the early 19th century been associated with the awe-filled Communion hymn “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”, rich in conventional kingly imagery. Today’s setting is by the late Sir Stephen Cleobury, longtime Director of the Chapel Choir at King’s College, Cambridge, who left this earth a week ago last Friday on St Cecilia’s Day, adding extra poignancy to our sharing it today.

If you noticed the prominence of Revelation imagery in today’s choral texts, this too is no coincidence: if a new kingdom is to be ours, it is to be revealed, rather than calamitously imposed. And as in the case of the author of the poem “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, and the invitation and answered prayer from Ruth and Paul Manz for healing of their little son, it is to visit and dwell among us in deeply personal ways, rather than “lord” over us from afar.

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“A Confused Homage” – RPC Music Notes, 24 Nov 2019

Acclamations “Suite Médievale” – Jean Langlais, performed at St-Clothilde, Paris
performed by Olivier Penin, Langlais’ third successor at that famous organ.

Here’s a question: What are the most common words in the Bible? The answer to this question is of course highly translation-dependent, but let’s assume the New International Version (NIV) of our pew Bibles at RPC, and leave out the articles, prepositions and other structural words which tend to be the most common in every text ever written in, or translated to, English.

The top ten ‘contet’ words include ‘Man'(#6) and ‘Men'(#8) – and though the gender-neutral ‘People’ beats out both at #5 another male term, ‘Son’ beats the lot at #3 (unsurprisingly female nouns fail entirely to appear). ‘Israel'(#7) and the more general concept ‘Land’ (#9) are there, along of course with ‘God'(#2). ‘Jesus’ squeaks in at #10, although to be fair he’s included in #2 above, and though prophecied several times earlier he doesn’t make an appearance by name until the New Testament.

If you’ve been keeping track you are probably wondering about #4 and certainly #1 – they are, respectively, ‘King’ and ‘Lord,’ two terms that might seem quaint or even irritating to us today, but which were commonplace and have clear associations with the life and culture of Biblical times.

What does ANY of this have to do with music? The last Sunday of Ordinary Time, now mostly known by the title “Reign of Christ,” brings us face-to-face with the image of God’s and Christ’s kingship, almost as if to prepare us for the traditional carols that will do echo it in the coming weeks. As with many other historic but less-current images to modern life the musical response is – a bit confused.

There is no shortage of grand, powerful, kingly pieces like the famous ‘Christus Vincit’ acclamations of today’s postlude in the sacred music tradition, but because our understanding of this particular view of Christ is now somewhat more nuanced there are other responses. Today’s Prelude, for example, despite its size and nickname “Little,” is one of the best-known and best-loved of Bach’s Fugues for the ‘King of Instruments’ – not the most clever connection, but perhaps the point is made in its dignity and calculating eminence, rather than the sweeping scale of larger works.

The text of both of today’s choral pieces, settings of Psalm 117, speak an imperative for any loyal subject, ‘Lobet den Herrn’ in German or ‘Laudate Dominum’ in Latin. Both initial words mean mean ‘Praise’, a word I would have picked for the ‘top ten’ above, and though apparently it didn’t make that achievement it surely can’t lie that much further down the list. Yet it would be hard to imagine two more different musical responses to setting the same text. Bach’s setting is earnest, vigorous and exuberant; Mozart’s is serene and personal, the soprano soloist supported and upheld by the choir, which only joins her half-way through her exquisite personal statement.

In the church we are sometimes bothered, but also often struck by the grandeur, dignity and power of arcane images such as the Kingship of Jesus. But Jesus is not changed by being called ‘King’: rather, being King is transformed by the person of Jesus the kind, the just, the self-sacrificial. Measure and consider, we should, the kings of the earth and our idea of kingship itself by the King of Heaven, not the vice-versa.

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“To boldly go” – IAM for Fri 15 Nov 2019

Fanfare for the Common Man (1943) – Aaron Copland
members of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy

Why does this iconic music for brass and percussion, created at the request of Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinatti Orchestra on the USA’s entry into WWII in 1943, make not just the creators of the video above, but also all of the rest of us, think about space?

Over the past two months, as accompanist to the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, I had the privilege of helping it prepare a program dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing on 20th July 1969, and among its beautiful offerings of choral music interspersed with audio from NASA, Carl Sagan, the late President John F Kennedy and others, the Canadian premiere of Tawnie Olson’s That’s One Small Step.

Olson freely admits to evoking Copland in the work’s second movement Longer Strides while setting John F Kennedy’s famous speech exhorting his country to support the space program. But what exactly did she do to reference this most quintessential of American composers, or more broadly to capture that spirit of endeavour so important to American identity at the time?

It would be at best difficult, and at worst delusional to consider the cultural history of the moon landing without reference to the Cold War – this is a topic about which much has been written, and I won’t address it here (although Olson certainly does in her composition). No, I am seeing a simpler musical connection from Tawnie Olson back to Aaron Copland and also – wait for it – the Star Trek “Original Series”, which debuted in 1966, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, which premiered in 1968.

The opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra which in 2001 A Space Odyssey was selected for the moment when the film posits our species’ move from simple threat and posturing of brute force to the more calculated use of weapons against one other. The work was composed in 1896, inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name, and it was as surely a part of the sonic backdrop to the moon landing as were the iconic stacked fourths of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from Star Trek‘s popular TV series, a visionary imagination of a diverse America in space.

Copland and other American composers were asked to contribute fanfares to the Cincinnati Orchestra because of a similar program that had solicited British composers to do the same during WWI. What Copland did in 1943, following Strauss’ example in Also Sprach Zarathustra, omitting the third from a conventional fanfare arpeggio, created a kind of ambiguity, a kind of modernity that was not the serial music of the 2nd Viennese School, and not the real or seeming randomness of aleatory and minimalism (all other significant movements in classical music at the time), but something that somehow sounded like America’s aspirations that would ultimately lead it to put men on the moon.

The third of the chord, which had for centuries defined major keys against minor ones suddenly became – passé. As the world looked obsessively towards a post-World War future it needed something that sounded familiar, but that departed from the past with all of the ambiguity that modernity required. And so we built, and continue to build, tonal music based on fourths and fifths – because despite its ambiguity, it sounds like who we are.

So when Tawnie Olson set JFK’s famous words in melodic fourths and later harmonised them using techniques evoking Copland she was drawing upon a sonic axiom that is now deeply embedded in that country’s culture. It speaks, as did Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, to a deeply exceptional and aspirational concept of the United States of America.

With some hope, I would wish that the USA, the country of my birth, will remain capable of someday becoming its mythologised, virtuous and noble self within a world that increasingly has to point out that it is not, and really has never yet been, that.

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Posted in IAM.

“Sing for the Morning”- RPC Music Notes, Sun 17 Nov 2019

By relative coincidence my entire musical life in the church can be characterised by the adage “twice on Sundays.” When my education began in organ apprenticeship to an Anglican Cathedral, each Sunday began with either Matins or the Holy Eucharist, and ended with Choral Evensong – a pattern that continued twenty years for me, until I finished 12 years’ service to Toronto’s St James’ Cathedral. Then, as the Georgetown Christian Reformed Church became a home for my growing family I was surprised to discover that it was one of the last in its denomination to worship twice on Sundays, a ritual that had been the norm in my wife’s youth.

Increasingly rare and even anomalous evening worship traces its history back to the monastic liturgy of the hours, which saw monks and nuns rise every three hours, all day and all night to pray and sing – but so too do the morning traditions of Lauds and Matins. There is a body of compositions, both hymns and anthems specifically geared towards the idea of rising and beginning one’s day in worship and praise… and at RPC today the Choir offers two very beautiful and very different ones.

Gabriel Fauré wrote his Cantique de Jean Racine, op.11 at the age of 19 as the winning entry in the 1865 composition competition of the Paris École Niedermeyer church music school, where he studied composition under Camille Saint-Saëns. The text, “Verbe égal au Très-Haut” (“Word, one with the Highest”), is a French paraphrase by Jean Racine of a Latin hymn from the breviary for matins, Consors paterni luminis.

“Word, one with the Highest, the Almighty, our only hope,
Eternal day of the earth and heavens;
We break the silence of the peaceful night,
Divine Saviour, look upon us!”

English translation of Cantique de Jean Racine (excerpt)

Across the Channel and a century later English poet and author Ursula Vaughan Williams’ (the late widow to composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) vivid and touching poetic tribute to Cecilia, Patron Saint of music and musicians, finds gorgeous partnership with the music of Herbert Howells for the Livery Club of The Worshipful Company of Musicians. Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day is November 22nd, so you will often find her music creeping into choral services around that time of year.

“Sing for the morning’s joy, Cecilia, sing
in words of youth, and phrases of the Spring,
Walk the bright colonnades by fountains’ spray,
and sing as sunlight fills the waking day.”

– Ursula Vaughan Williams, A Hymn for St Cecilia (excerpt)

Musical and poetic depictions of the morning have a special power in a beautiful created world such as ours – if the above examples don’t convince you look to the secular theatrical compositions for orchestra Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel and Peer Gynt by Grieg. Mornings signify reawakening, renewal, the defeat of night’s darkness and dawning hope for the day.

As Sunday morning worship remains ubiquitous while worship at other times is increasingly rare, it is worthwhile recalling a time and place where every part of every day was offered to God – and uniquely done so in songs for different times. We close our service today with a favourite hymn of mine that captures this outlook, “Lord of all hopefulness” by Jan Struther.

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“Music and Memory” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 10 Nov 2019

“Lord, thou hast been our refuge” by RVW – a setting of Psalm 90, whose overarching theme is time – the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, under the the direction of George Guest.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), often said to be the father of English hymnody, had a particular vision for the language of faith. Watts was a poet – and a critic of ponderous and banal church music – from a tender age, famously annoying his family by rhyming in daily conversation (one attributed line spoken to his irritated father “Oh Father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”) That father, a learned deacon in the dissenting Congregationalist church, famously challenged him to improve on the rather functional hymn-psalm settings used by protestants in that time – Isaac accepted this challenge and wrote a new hymn every Sunday for two years, eventually contributing more than 600. One of which was the striking paraphrase of Psalm 23 “My Shepherd will supply my need” sung by the choir last Sunday, and another, the central melody of our annual Remembrance Service, a paraphrase of Psalm 90, “O God, our help in ages past.”

Music and memory are deeply intertwined, music often added to word to aid in our remembering. We continue to see, in children learning to speak right up to dementia patients, snatches of song and pieces of music entering first and remaining longest in memory. The new field of music and cognition continues to enrich our understanding of why pieces of music evoke, on simple hearing, memory of a time or place perhaps not thought of in years, or for any other reason.

“O God, our help in ages past,” sung and heard today at RPC to William Croft’s 1708 tune, ‘St Anne,’ picks up on the theme of time that Psalm 90 so grandly explores, even in the six of Watts’ nine verses still in use (and interestingly after a significant change made by John Wesley upon re-publishing it in 1738, changing the first line from “Our God…” to “O God…”). The simple ‘St Anne’ tune is masterfully incorporated into Ralph Vaughan Williams’ own choral paraphrase of Psalm 90, “Lord, Thou hast been our refuge”, figures into one of Handel’s ‘Chandos anthems, “O Praise the Lord with one consent,” and perhaps more dubiously into today’s postlude, the great E-flat major ‘St Anne’ Fugue.

“Time, like an ever-rolling stream” bears the memory of our war-fallen further and further away: several generations of us here in the west now have never lost a loved one to war, known a veteran, or been forced to suffer the experience of war. But we know that war continues – its refugees become our neighbours and our sisters and brothers. It would not be hard to argue that deeply evocative texts and tunes such as those running throughout our service today have become key agents in our remembering – but as Seaton suggests today, remembering is also about the future: our call to a gospel of peace, in contrast to a past of conflict. Perhaps our songs and verses can be repurposed in a similar way as we journey on.

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“As Torrents” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 3 November 2019

“As Torrents in Summer” – Edward Elgar, Cambridge University Choir
under the direction of Christopher Robinson

In the 19th century Western music was rocked by an interesting “ethical” debate – so called “program music” (music that strives specifically to depict an extra-musical picture or story) versus “absolute music” (music which does not, that exists simply to be music). One side is symbolised by works such as Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, that depicts three scenes in the life and mind of an artist yearning for his beloved, and on the other the equally fantastic, but proudly non-depictive symphonies of Johannes Brahms.

Depiction in music did not begin in the nineteenth century, indeed it is one of the most ancient of musical fascinations, particularly in the realm of setting texts. The nineteenth century twist was the argument about whether it was right or wrong to do it… the counter-argument running that to contaminate music with an external “program” cheapens it; whereas great music can and should simply stand on its own. Music, Brahms would have argued, needs to be nothing “more” than music.

In a sense, texted music is automatically a brand of program music, even if it makes no special attempt to depict its text. Elgar’s beautiful choral song As Torrents in Summer (coming from his otherwise-mostly-forgotten Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30) would be just as musically beautiful sung without words or played on the piano, but when paired with Longfellow’s poem it takes on a special additional beauty. But here’s a question: is Elgar trying to ‘show’ the text in the music?

In a sense, texted music is automatically a brand of program music, even if it makes no special attempt to depict its text. Elgar’s beautiful choral song As Torrents in Summer (coming from his otherwise-mostly-forgotten Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30) would be just as musically beautiful sung without words or played on the piano, but when paired with Longfellow’s poem it takes on a special additional beauty. But here’s a question: is Elgar trying to ‘show’ the text in the music?

On the surface the answer is no: one certainly hears no rivers (half-dried or rushing), no far-off rainfall in the music – but what one does perhaps hear in the lush Victorian harmony is God’s fulfillment of fainting hearts to which those surprisingly risen rivers are being compared, and which, similar to those who marvel at unexpectedly rising rivers in summer, we fail to attribute to God’s own far-off work in those hearts.

So, is As Torrents in Summer programmatic or not? The text is deeply compelling either way, and it would be difficult to argue that any more intentionally pictorial setting of it would make it any more so. Sometimes, as McLuhan said, the medium is the message – beautiful words simply need beautiful music.

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“Geistliche Lied” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 27 Oct 2019

“BRAHMS: Geistliche Lied”, arrangement for strings by Sir John Eliot Gardiner
(the organ set originally by Brahms, is just poetic backdrop to this performance)

Babel (Genesis 11:1–9, a tale of human ambition to godlike-ness and God’s efforts to thwart same) paints language as a kind of powerful super-weapon. By causing a linguistically (and we imagine culturally) uniform society to be ‘struck’ with many different tongues, God renders humankind unable to finish its tower-project, and scatters it along with its new languages to form the nations, cultures, ethnicities and ideologies that so beautifully colour – and in some cases so sharply divide – our world today.

Language is indeed a powerful weapon, but not because there are so many.  The phenomenon of thousands of languages and dialects may have given little help to our construction projects, but it has allowed cultural encoding of a rich kind. In other words, language is able to communicate much more than the semantic ‘meaning’ of the words: it teaches us much about whoever wrote or said them, and sometimes why. And at the vanguard of unlocking this treasure trove of hidden information is the art of translation.

Take the title of Brahms’ Geistliche Lied.  I first encountered this beautiful piece when I was a teenager, and recall our choirboy’s humor about what was, literally, a ‘ghostly song’ (and as an aside I still often seek a way to program it on the nearest appropriate Sunday to Halloween). But unlike ‘Lied’ which translates more-or-less literally to ‘song’ in English, ‘Geistliche’ in German means, not as we supposed ‘Ghost-like,’ but ‘Holy’. To miss or ignore this allows us a childish joke; to know it offers an admittedly non-specific, but reverent title for its gorgeous music and beautiful sentiment of trust in God’s plan over the fear and worry we so often substitute.

The word ‘Amen’ is shared by both languages: it means (to borrow Lennon & McCartney’s paraphrase) ‘Let it be.’ Arguably no single word in any language has been treated in more diverse musical ways, from the plagal two-chord Amen that was once a custom at the close of Protestant hymn-singing to the several-page “Amen Chorus” concluding Handel’s “Messiah”. In Geistliche Lied the elaborate setting of this word is easily the work’s most beautiful moment – indeed you may occasionally hear it sung, without the rest of the anthem, at the end of our services.

“What a great man, what a great soul…yet he believes nothing!”

– Antonìn Dvoràk, speaking of Johannes Brahms

In vocal and choral music having a text, the music itself also encodes a great deal of information – yet one thing you might not spot looking at this piece is that Brahms was an avowed atheist (his friend Antonín Dvoràk lamented, “What a great man, what a great soul…yet he believes nothing!”). Geistliche Lied displays Brahms’ passion and skill – even his Germanic style with its Lutheran Chorale-like entries (spiced here and there with shorter rhythmic bits and a polyphonic treatment), and tradition of elaborate ‘Amen’ settings. Yet it is not hard to imagine Brahms, with his famously lonely life (typified, according to some, by his love for Clara Schumann) finding comfort in Paul Flemming’s reassuring text, even without a belief in “God’s plan” to back him up. If the text touched him sufficiently to inspire this beauty, perhaps his relationship with it is not so different from that of a Christian similarly comforted, perhaps as St Paul and Timothy might have been had they ever read or heard it.

We are grateful this week to RPC chorister Nancy Olfert, who undertook a new English translation of Geistliche Lied, which in turn allowed me to create the new RPC edition we sing this morning.

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