Dear followers of ideasaboutmusic.ca … as the seasons have changed I have (as some of you might have guessed) taken a break from posting while attending to other projects, and perhaps a little good old-fashioned vacation time. My last post was a couple of weeks ago on June 2nd, and so as the 20’s lined up in today’s date, and summer beckons from tomorrow, it seemed time to make this decision and update you.
I will confess that as the COVID-19 pandemic has, unpredictably, temporarily and resoundingly turned me into more of a digital media professional than a musician the fount of musical experiences and ideas has been running a little dry – so it feels like a natural moment to press pause.
I am of course involved regularly with music through the lens of online content, as an audio/video recordist and publisher, and in fact am meeting regularly with a few colleagues from Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto to make music for summer services – so I am stimulated, inspired and active.
You’ll see me back in a few weeks, as the summer unfolds, and as the musical world gradually emerges, blinking as it adjusts to the sunlight, out of its home lock-downs – in whatever shape it will.
Blessings and beautiful warm wishes to match both the weather and the music still running through our heads and imaginations,
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. O Christ, thy triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.
– Henry Hart Millman (1791-1868)
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.
Greetings! From the basement web and audio/video studios of IAM in Georgetown Ontario, warm wishes for safety, sanity and hope through these trying times. Thank-you for following along with whatever part of this effort brings you here, and my warmest wishes for you and those around you.
I’ve always been a bit tickled at the unintended reference René Descartes made to us in “I Think, Therefore I AM,” and I was interested recently to read that this argument emerged out of a swirling sense of self-doubt about what, if anything, he could be sure of being true. Most of us today rarely harbour doubts about our own existence, but there is plenty out there posing as truth that we can (and should) doubt. Though Descartes went no further than verifying his existence by the fact that he had thoughts, I like to extend this idea to the self-evident truth that by thinking we can more credibly interrogate the truth than by not.
In view with the swirling landscape of COVID-19 news about us, I’ve been adjusting my activities at IAM better to fit circumstances and serve the constituencies that gather here. A couple of recent developments have suggested changes to the way things have been.
Firstly the final season performances of both the Georgetown Choral Society and the Marion Singers have joined the list of cancelled events and projects we all grimly accumulate in these sorts of times; this has released us a bit from any immediate need to prepare music without the benefit of rehearsals (!), but it does not erase the beauty and the interesting culture around the music in the organisations’ lives. Thus, Choral View Radio episodes continue to emerge for choristers’ and followers’ enjoyment, with a couple of changes.
In the case of The Georgetown Choral Society we will continue to dwell on the May 2nd program concepts and themes – the First Half of which was the subject of an hour-long episode released earlier this week. The cancelled concert, entitled “United we Sing: Songs of Love and Hope for Humanity” is only more compelling in the midst of a crisis – and even while the song is silent for a time, this will continue to be way I hope we as choir – like we as a species – can remain pointed.
In the case of The Marion Singers the loss of our June 6th concert at Jubilee United Church in Toronto is potentially a still greater blow. COVID-19 uncertainty and possible economic legacy may severely impact our ability to secure concert bookings for the fall, which in a normal year we would be booking already. Or, who knows, when public events resume we might have churches beating our door down to help them raise money! In any case with TMS I am taking the opportunity for a step back, and over the next eight weeks am sharing the four CD recordings Marion Singers made between 2000 and 2011 under then-Director Tony Browning. Besides a wonderful snapshot of our group under different direction these recordings are packed with beautiful a capella music, familiar and unfamiliar, that we can consider reinstating. Most of all I am looking at it as a celebration of a wonderful institution, with a bright future when the world is again ready for choirs to rehearse, and for them to meet with audiences in performance.
The biggest change here at IAM will affect the Rosedale Presbyterian Church CVR episodes… after two weeks of offering a diverse set of resources (including a special CVR episode) for home-bound congregants to use at will, we on the RPC staff have decided in time for Holy Week to switch to producing something more formal like a composite audio/video “Virtual Service” containing most the elements found in a typical RPC service – which, of course, includes lots of music. In order to do this we have turned our attention to the IAM YouTube channel as a platform to collect and share the six parts of the service, which will play in order as a Playlist. And to top it all off we will be promoting and holding a virtual coffee hour at 11:30 each Sunday using Zoom technology. None of this will replace the experience of gathering in our church, but it will serve during what, it now seems, might be months without the privilege.
Tuesday IAM Blog posts will of course continue, although the concept of the musical travelogue I had hoped they would be has a significant damper on it at the moment, since I’m neither travelling nor making much music… but if we can reach back for a moment to “I Think, Therefore I Am” – perhaps it suggests that all IAM needs to exist is a brain!
On this first day of spring at a most unusual time in our history I am making a unusual Friday post to the weekly blog. Followers and newcomers alike will want to know about some significant changes here at Ideas About Music in response to changing circumstances around the COVID-19 outbreak. I would first send out wishes to all readers and followers for health, safety and spiritual strength: we are all in need of these.
The suspension of Sunday Services at Rosedale Presbyterian Church, as a particular case of this, has generated a response from us on the staff to create a weekly Virtual Service Bulletin, a regular multi-media transmission of information (and we hope inspiration) intended to replace BOTH our usual print Bulletin, and the Sunday Service itself. My contribution to this has been to convert the Choral View Radio episode I might otherwise have created for the RPC Choir into a weekly curated episode that seeks to fold into 30 minutes two hymns, two anthems, an organ voluntary and in the form of spoken commentary, my Music Notes, as you might otherwise have read them here at ideasaboutmusic.ca.
With RPC’s Sunday Music Notes now having temporarily moved in spoken form to the RPC CVR episode, depending on my available time I will be taking the opportunity to think and write about musical topics outside of the church context, so you can continue to expect weekly submissions of some sort. I would encourage you, if interested to look into the three weekly CVR episodes as well – as you know or might guess about them, where I’m concerned if there’s music, the ideas flow fairly quickly around them!
The cover graphic/music for this post is Kaikki Maat, Te Riemuitkatte (‘All Nations, you must Reimagine’) by Finnish a capella supergroup Rajaton, whose name in their native language means boundless. It serves as the theme music for the three weekly episodes of Choral View Radio, but its character and the sentiments expressed by both the song itself and the band’s name are I think valuable to this moment in human history.
As I say at the close of each CVR episode, see you next week, stay safe, keep in touch with one another, look after one another and the people around you, and most of all, Enjoy the View.
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; 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.
– Sarum Primer, 1558
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.
Desolate is one of many words our language gained from England’s Norman conquerors in 1066. In English we tend to associate it with places, whereas its French antecedent desolée expresses more of a personal feeling of loss or regret. We see both meanings in today’s two choral selections, and we see two strikingly different musical portrayals.
The longing words of Psalm 42’s first three verses are in the voice of one spiritually bereft, perhaps feeling abandoned by God after daily mocking by those questioning his faith – perhaps questioning it himself all the while. The poetic image used is that of a thirsty deer longing for water, and Noel Rawsthrone’s musical depiction of this longing shifts sadly between solo and duet passages in weeping, descending melodies, and terse choral chant-like textures that bring the whole into the first person plural voice.
William Byrd’s anthem setting of Isaiah 64:10, Civitas sancti tui is a frank acknowledgment that the holy city has been made into a desert, a desolation. The greater meaning here than the ‘mere’ physical destruction of the city cannot be understated: for God’s people Jerusalem forms the seat of faith, of power and of hope, a fact not lost on its Babylonian conquerors, now leading defeated Israel into exile. In the music, a short section expresses that simple fact, and then we hear Jerusalem and its more poetic name Sion along with the Latin words deserta and desolata repeated over and over in a strikingly serene, almost psychological way. As if to drive home the simplicity of this admission, the voices of the choir sound here for the first time homophonically, that is, at the same time rather than in alternation.
Rev. Kendall reminds us today of the sanctity of water – in the ancient world, yes, but no less in our own time and place: Canada, with its unparalleled wealth of fresh water continues to fail its First Nations in the provision of this basic life-critical commodity, and also faces the uncertainty of water sovereignty as its increasingly parched neighbour to the south increases pressure to have access within a deteriorating climate. Water gives life, gives sanctification through baptism, gives health, cleanliness and stability to individuals and nations – its loss is synonymous with desolation.
In March 2020 the world teeters on the brink of uncertainties such as a global disease outbreak and global climate emergency: let us remember that water, though plentiful in the way we know it, in many other places is already rare as music in the desert. Let us pray and work to maintain and remediate the people and places made desolate by us and our world.
Today the season of Lent lasts 40 Days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. If you try to figure this out from a calendar you must not count the six Sundays, which are technically not part of the traditional Lenten observance (and for those of us who have chosen to ‘give things up’ – interesting to know that in some traditions, Sunday is the weekly day off from those commitments!)
Ever notice the prominence of the number 40 in the Bible? From the length of the flood (40 days and nights), to Moses’ days on Mount Sinai, the Israelites’ two periods of wandering in the desert (40 years twice), to the period of Jonah’s warning to Nineveh and the period of time in which Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection (both 40 days) the number is mentioned a striking 146 times in scripture. The Bible, as it turns out, was even written down by exactly 40 people, if you count them up.
The earliest recorded references to a pre-Easter season of self-denial, introspection and prayer date from the early days of the church, in the writings of Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200), but at that time it was just a few days in length: sometime after discussion by the Council of Nicea (325) Lent eventually climbed on the bandwagon of the Bible’s seeming fascination with the number 40, inspired of course by the days Jesus himself spent fasting and praying in the wilderness.
In musical terms Lent can imply many things in addition of course to melodies and texts traditional to or thematically fitting the season. Music conceived with Lent (and especially Lenten texts) in mind can often have a reverent, sober and cerebral character not so suited to more festive seasons. In some very catholic-style churches an ironically Calvinistic texture is adopted without organs and other instruments, reverting to the austerity of unaccompanied singing by both choirs and congregations. And where instruments continue to be used through Lent there is often a culture of using them sparingly, more quietly, and – dare I say it – more humbly. Even the musicians’ most beloved ‘Hallelujah!” is often put away, as though its true meaning at Easter could ever be compromised by its release in the preceding weeks.
At RPC, in addition to following detailed sermon plans (you will always find these and complete musical details published on our monthly Word and Music List in the Music/Media section of the RPC website), Lent gathers many diverse genres and ideas into our musical life, including this year our ongoing winter/spring project to sing all seven movements of Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem‘ where they pick up on themes of the day.
As much as sacred music at RPC reaches far beyond our Presbyterian tradition, the true riches in our Lent are often found within our hymns. This is an expression of not only the basis of the Reformed perspective on literacy, on direct congregational worship and a metrical literary tradition, but also I think of the way hymns seek to collect together the immensity of self-introspection that is germane to a personal faith, rather than one perhaps more clouded by ritual, decoration, sense and experience, or on any other beautiful thing liable to be a target for idolatry.
After all, in some sense art may be thought to be true and beautiful only when it is seen, heard or otherwise experienced by people. We with good reason build cathedrals, paint and compose masterpieces to God’s glory – but, perhaps, they become art only through people.
Gregorio Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51, composed for Holy Week Tenebrae services at the Sistine Chapel, is thought to date from the 1630s, and other than the distribution of three authorised copies was for almost a century and a half expressly forbidden to be transcribed or sung anywhere else. According to a popular story (supported by family letters, but challenged by some historians), a 14-year-old Mozart heard it there in Holy Week 1770 and later wrote it down from memory, providing it eventually to English historian Charles Burney who had it published in London in 1771.
Neither Mozart nor Burney was ever censured in any way for defying the papal transcription ban and disseminating the precious Miserere – indeed in 1771 Mozart was summoned to Rome and awarded the Order of the Golden Spur for his feat of musical genius and service in propagating the Catholic faith. The mystique of the Allegri Miserere continues to this day, although beyond the Catholic tradition its veneration is now more associated with the beginning of Lent than the end.
Works of art are altered by the context of their reception – how might 21st century Presbyterians ‘hear’ the Miserere differently from, let’s say, 17th century Roman Catholics or for that matter 18th century Londoners? For one thing our denomination (not so much RPC itself) has tended to frown on service music sung in languages other than English – and particularly in Latin, the signature tongue of the Catholic church. Surprisingly the RPC Choir library has full sets of copies in both English and Latin, but I chose English for the power of the words not just comprehended, but actually heard in the language we speak.
Our usual length of Sunday service has some trouble accommodating 11-12 minute anthems designed to accompany rituals we no longer observe, so some form of abridgment seemed appropriate – but how exactly to do this? The beautifully balanced work shares the 19 verses of Psalm 51 between three sets of choral forces: male cantors, and two choral ensembles (one of which is often sung by soloists): so to maintain its regular, almost hypnotic sequence of these shifting forces verses must be omitted not individually, but in groups.
But which verses? Scripture in general, and the Psalms in particular, are frequently excerpted for our services both for reasons of length and for theological focus – but occasionally certain verses – penned by David in reference to his acts of sin with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah the Hittite – also grate against our general sensibilities (‘Behold, I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me’, for example).
Through – and in at least some sense over – the Word and tradition of this piece runs its beautiful music, and the emotion it has the power to elicit. In this way at least despite the changes in us and its context, it functions as it always has, seeking to draw us closer to God, and Jesus’ work of salvation – and even if simple choral beauty is what draws you to it, as with many others, remember my old mantra of beauty as a kind of window upon truth.
A theme running through today’s service at Rosedale Presbyterian Church is what is sometimes known in psychology as ‘liminality.’ The story of the Transfiguration and the sacrament of Communion share in common a holy encounter beyond the normal. The latin root ‘limen’ means “threshold” – liminal places and experiences connote crossing boundaries and barriers.
According to the rite of consecration the bread and wine of communion are ‘set aside from all ordinary uses’ in order to be symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus (indeed in some traditions they are thought to be not just symbolic, but actually transformed into the holy Body). Either way Communion is known almost universally as a sacrament, or sign of God’s direct presence in our world, and taking the elements in the Holy Eucharist is nothing less than an encounter with God Godself.
In the Transfiguration story Jesus and three of his disciples ascend an unnamed mountain, whereupon Jesus appears transfigured from his normal self: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2). Then Jesus is joined by the prophets Moses and Elijah, moving Peter to offer to build dwellings for Jesus and the prophets. Then a cloud gathers and a voice recalling that present at Jesus’ baptism years earlier issues forth: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5). To the disciples this remarkable series of events must have had life-changing proportions.
Music, one of worship’s most powerful and poignant voices, can offer us liminal experiences too… even singing spiritual arrangements throughout the month of February the anthem “Go where I send thee!” offers a number of remarkable departures from our more usual musical offerings. It is an exuberant gospel-style paraphrase of God’s call to us, and it is a counting song, teaching or reinforcing the number system with biblical amounts in similar fashion to meaning some attach to a Christmas song you might previously have thought was entirely secular, TheTwelve Days of Christmas. From its style and character to its traditionally constant changing keys to its closing repeated ‘groove’ it leaves behind many conventions to both spirituals and sacred music writ larger. In this regard I must also mention the remarkable expansion of our usual Choral Amens tradition by Jester Hairston’s arrangement!
There is good reason to believe that liminal experiences draw us from habit, from complacency and boredom into a world of sharper relief, even if it is unfamiliar, unsettling, and perhaps even dangerous. Liminal experiences offer unquestionable value, and should be sought out, in music as well as in all parts of life – they have immense potential not just to surprise and challenge us – but indeed to teach and change – to transfigure – us.
In recent decades the term ’embedded’ has been used to describe a situation where journalists are integrated into political, humanitarian and military operations in order to bring stories from distant, unpleasant and dangerous places back to the comfortable media consumer. Crucially it connotes the agency of higher authorities that perceive power in the narrative that reaches us, and value in being able to control as well as facilitate it.
Music and text offer an interesting parallel to this practice: both can carry embedded ideas and images of great power – sometimes placed at the behest of authority, and sometimes of the creator(s) (if indeed they are not one and the same). Today, let’s look at two strikingly different examples within our Black History Month-long focus on the Spiritual.
‘The Lily of the Valley’, a serene, and wistful testament to Jesus’ beauty, heaven’s riches and the seemingly mundane subject of shoes(!), is almost seemingly a propaganda piece for the slavery institution. It bears the striking allegory of Jesus as a pure, white flower (the lily is associated with beauty and purity both within and outside of the Biblical tradition, but its Easter connotation appears to be a 19th century invention), of heavenly riches beyond imagination, and the suggestion of shoes (typically denied to slaves for the enablement they provide to escape) as a mark of elective holiness and obedience.
In contrast ‘Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho’ might seem nothing more than a well-loved rock-’em, sock-’em Old Testament story of God’s triumph on behalf of his people. But burrowing a bit deeper it is a striking tale of a hopeless-looking attack and surprise vanquishment of a greatly-fortified enemy, wrapped up in the blasting of judgment-day-style trumpets. No ‘gospel shoes’ for the submissive subject here! The story of course came to enslaved Christians from the imposed Bible, but it is interesting to look at that story from their perspective, and perhaps imagine them daring to identify with the Israelites freed from bondage and led to victory.
In most cases music supports the embedded power and purpose of text; in the serenity of the ‘Lily’ example geared perhaps at submissive passivity, or the vigorous rhythms of ‘Joshua’ conveying the sound and feelings of battle.
We have become accustomed to suspicion of the authority-crafted narratives embedded journalists bring us from troubled places; music too deserves our scrutiny, especially where (as in the church) we seek to take it on as an expression of ourselves. Keep this in mind the next time you see war reporting broadcasts in western media – the reporting may be telling you what to think, while the music tells you how to feel about it. If ‘The Lily’ contains some sort of hidden agenda it in no way invalidates the notions of Jesus’ beauty and purity, heaven’s riches or the value of wearing figurative ‘gospel shoes’ – but, as music often does for me and I hope for you, “It makes you think.”