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

Acclamations “Suite M├ędievale” – 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.

-CD