The Cross in the Close – RPC Music Notes, 22 Sep 2019

Choir of St John’s College Cambridge (NB: score is in F major, but motet is sung in A-flat).

I had some of my most formative experiences in the early 2000’s playing organ continuo for the legendary Hellmuth Rilling during the years of the Toronto International Bach Festival at U of T.

Rilling brought an incomparable international reputation, an immense discography, a devotion and gravitas concerning the music of Bach and a formal yet productive rapport with an orchestra and choir of the city’s top musicians. But the now-86 year old retired icon brought something else very particular to me, a feat he seems invariably to accomplish with young musicians. In my case it was a greatly enriched appreciation for symbolism in music: Bach was a master not only of the art and craft of musical composition, but also of the meaningful incorporation of rhetortically significant musical devices in the service of text.

Just one among dozens of allusions Bach ‘baked’ into his vocal and choral music is variously known by “chiasmus”, “circulolo”, “grupolo”, the “X-motif”, or even just “the sign of the Cross” (German: ‘Kreuze’). It is a short four-note melodic shape: a note, a higher note, a LOWER note than the first, and finally a HIGHER note than the first. This notation shows three examples of the use of this distinctive four musical notes which, when connected by line 1 to 3 and 2 to 4, form the sign of the cross.

No.I is from Bach’s Cantata BWV 4 (Versus V) – the “chiasmus” depicts the word ‘Kreuzes’. No.II is a version Bach enjoyed: by inverting (turning it upside-down) and using the German name ‘H’ for the note B-natural he, and many many composers paying homage since, could sign his name.

No.III is by turn-of-the 17th century English composer Orlando Gibbons, who historian Frederick Ouseley crowned “The English Palestrina,” and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould named as his favourite composer. (Gould wrote of Gibbons’ hymns and anthems: “ever since my teen-age years this music … has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.”)

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities,
And in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth Thy right hand
to help and defend us.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Collect for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, The Book of Common Prayer (1549)

Bach did not invent the trick of writing a cross-shape into a Christ reference – indeed Gibbons “Almighty and Everlasting God” was written a half-century before Bach’s birth (and by an Englishman not thought to have left his home country), but it is interesting to see the device unmistakably in use at the close of this beautiful short anthem, on “Through Christ our Lord”, the first and only reference to Jesus in the text.

My musical ears and brain were attuned to this and many other hidden building blocks of music with Maestro Rilling: as Wes takes us through the incomprehensible parable of the Dishonest Steward, let us always look for the ‘hidden gem’ that touches and heals, even while it seems to confound.
-CD

“Verse by Verse” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 15 Sep 2019

The adult Choir of Christ Church, Bronxville, offers Teach me, O Lord by William Byrd.

The verse, one of the parts into which a poem, a song, or a chapter of the Bible or other text is divided, is often a major organising structure in music. We take this familiar concept for granted much of the time, especially in church, where versified text runs throughout hymns, psalm settings and choir anthems. This week, let’s take a closer look.

Hymns and other songs have the most obvious verses found in church services – but those verses can have a variety of natures and origins (for example the verses of #431, Jesus, where’er thy people meet originate in a poem by 18th century English poet William Cowper, whereas those of #625, Karen Lafferty’s Seek ye first the kingdom of the Lord, are drawn from three seemingly unconnected sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew).

The ‘verse anthem’, of which both William Byrd’s Teach me, O Lord and William Mathias’ Lift up your heads, O ye gates are examples, takes a group of verses from scripture (usually the Psalms), setting them in different musical ways – with (Mathias) or without (Byrd) a ‘refrain’. As in the case of versified hymns the musical setting provides a heard structure that reinforces the verses of the original text. With this post on ideasaboutmusic.ca I’ve provided a link to a performance of Byrd’s setting, which alternates three treble solo, and three choir verses from Psalm 119, plus a doxology.

Why do we even have verses, rather than huge uninterrupted stretches of text? Put that way the question answers itself: verses help our limited brains to accommodate and organise large amounts of text more easily. Sometimes devices like rhyming and acrostic help further with cognition or memory (to say nothing of beauty).

“… verses can allow a text not just to exist,
but to progress.”

But the most compelling reason for me lies in story or other narrative arc: verses can allow a text not just to exist, but to progress. Returning to the hymns mentioned above, compare how on one hand Cowper develops the idea of a gathered community, prays for its engagement in worship, and affirms God’s power to make it happen – whereas on the other Lafferty more statically states well-known but unrelated sayings of Jesus.

Versification makes many contributions to larger texts – it helps us accept, understand, remember and appreciate them. But with Wes’ sermon today exhorting engagement rather than complacency, perhaps they can also help us think less about faith as something that is than something that happens.

-CD

IAM – Fall reboot, 2019

The Karl Wilhelm organ and Communion Table Cross
of Rosedale Presbyterian Church, Toronto

Big Reveal: the initials “I-A-M” in my occasional blog, podcast and website were never actually JUST about abbreviating “Ideas About Music.”

In the famous “Burning Bush” conversation, God answers Moses’ request for His name with a seemingly-evasive or even dismissive phrase usually translated to English “I AM that I AM.” Though I make much of my music in the secular world, I have made no secret that music holds a sacred-calibre place in my life. I don’t preach or prosletise, but I see music as God’s gift, which like most others can bear fruit for all people, regardless of faith story, lack thereof – or potential for one. It has always struck me that in this singular act of self-identification, God instead asserts not so much identity as existence – and not any simple, rational form existence like that of a mountain or a chair (as people sometimes try to claim or demand), but rather an entirely different kind that defies proof or disproof, resting instead in possibility – perhaps infinite in nature. Music, despite its unquestioned power and perhaps more mundane existence, also represents possibility: when we make it, when we encounter and hear it we might like or dislike; we might attend or dismiss, we might learn or simply experience.

Following my latest battle with the familiar bloggers’ bane of “too-little-time-and-energy-to-keep-producing-regular-content” I’m excited to shift things to incorporate the new emerging media ministry of Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto, where I am beginning my fourth year as Director of Music.

The IAM blog, which you can find at ideasaboutmusic.ca will now feature weekly notes on RPC’s service music, themes and ideas that I and my colleagues craft weekly into our 10:30 service, along with occasional recorded content captured in those services.

SO – subscribe to the Ideas About Music blog, or return anytime to ideasaboutmusic.ca for a weekly look into what the music of the week – its history, its quirks and contrasts – it’s power and poignancy – is suggesting to one mind inclined to wonder. You may also bump into random snapshots from my ongoing musical travels, which continue to take me to new and interesting places. And always feel free and welcome to check-in in person any Sunday at 10:30am at Rosedale Presbyterian Church, 129 Mount Pleasant Road in Toronto, just minutes from the Rosedale, Bloor/Yonge and Sherbourne subway stations.
– CD

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato