Saturday, February 27, 2010

Go uncomplaining forth

It's another snowy, slushy weekend in northeast Ohio. We've reached that time of winter when we it's all too easy to start complaining about the cold weather, the shoveling, and the wet shoes. Stores are starting to stock their garden supplies and spring bulbs, which only makes us more eager for spring and dissatisfied with the lingering winter.

This topic came to mind as I was looking over this Sunday's music, which includes the hymn "A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth." (The tune will feature prominently in the prelude as well.) It reminded me of a line from the old Agatha Christie movie "Appointment with Death." A devout woman is asked if she is feeling well, and she responds, "What are my sufferings compared to those of our Savior?"

As I see it, that rhetorical question is one of two extreme attitudes that can stem from this line of thinking. One is exemplified by that quote: a maudlin meditation of the sufferings of the Passion story, which I fear can quickly become a joyless faith. The other approach is to cultivate a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving. Personally, I prefer to see the positive and hopeful aspects of this particular hymn text:

"A lamb goes uncomplaining forth to save a world of sinners.
He bears the burden all alone, dies shorn of all his honors."

Picking up on a topic from earlier in the week, perhaps we treasure simple hymn tunes like "Jesus Loves Me" because they so clearly express a simple, joyful faith of God's love. But even hymns that recount the Passion story should be a joy to us, and a reminder that we have few reasons to complain - even while we're shoveling our driveways for the third time in the same week!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

No respect

I have to admit that I don't listen to American Public Media's Composers Datebook regularly. I mostly blame the delivery method. After all, I read Writers' Almanac online almost daily, but clicking play on a daily audio clip always seems to require one too many steps for convenience. Fortunately, people around me are faithful listeners and don't let me miss the best segments. I received two emails this week about the broadcast from Feb. 22nd.

The broadcast included a discussion of the anniversary of the premiere performance of Virgil Thomson's "Symphony on a Hymn Tune." It should more properly be titled a symphony on two hymn tunes. Not only did he utilize the well-known tune "How Firm a Foundation," but he also layered it with strains of "Jesus Loves Me." The piece was not a success, with the NY Times describing it as "Too trivial and inconsequential, too unoriginal in its material, and flimsy in its material to merit discussion."

Could that opinion have stemmed in part from the use of the simple tune "Jesus Loves Me" in a symphonic setting? Pastor commented to me that it seemed like that particular tune is the Rodney Dangerfield of the hymnal, getting no respect. It seemed especially timely to me today, given the sermon hymn last night, "There Is a Green Hill, Far Away." It too was originally composed for children, with a simple tune and text. Some people see beauty and meaning in that comforting simplicity, while others dismiss it as lacking depth.

I'm sure there's a range of opinion on singing simple hymn tunes, so what do you think, readers? Are such hymns best relegated to Sunday School or do they deserve a place in worship? And what hymns would you nominate for Rodney Dangerfield status - those favorites of yours that seem to get no respect?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Chopin

Today may or may not be Chopin's birthday. He always claimed that it was March 1, though church records put it earlier. No matter what the date, though, this year marks the bicentennary of the great composer's birth.

Chopin composed only for the piano, which is only one of the reasons we don't associate his work with church music. I actually did play one piece of Chopin's during my time at Bethany, employing the A major Polonaise as a postlude (Op 40, No 1, nicknamed the Military Polonaise). It's about as close to a march as we could ever claim he composed and worked as a change of pace, I believe.

However, some people would shun Chopin's music for its romanticism. His pieces plumb the depths of the passions (in the broad, classical sense of the passions, not simply amorous). Despite his fondness for Bach and classical influences, Chopin's piano music was fully steeped in 19th century Parisian salon culture. The turmoil of the era can be heard in the etudes and the romance in the waltzes, as well as the nationalism of the Polonaises and mazurkas.

I find it intriguing that much of the famous and beloved classical music of the concert hall is from the romantic era, but the church largely shuns it in favor of earlier work (or its modern revival and reinterpretation). A Washington Post article on Chopin today might have touched on the problem when it described the challenge of his work as "walking the fine line between emotion and sentiment, between feeling something and looking back, fondly, on the way it felt." The romantics urge us to action and emotion, not contemplation. Romantic music could inspire liberation theology, perhaps, but not push us toward meditative prayer. Thus, the cliche remains of yoga and prayer to the strains of chant or Bach. Is that fair to the composer's intentions? And is it fair to us that such music is not part of our worship experience?

In other words, do you ever feel that church music (or perhaps even the worship experience in general) intellectualize faith too much (exclude too much romanticism), and thereby diminish the experience? Or does such an emphasis wisely avoid the irrational whirl of personal emotions in order to instruct us and learn God's will?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Health and Transfiguration

I feel like I'm recovering as much from a week of the winter blahs as from a touch of the virus that's been going around campus. It reminded me that we sometimes forget how much of our lives we do spend "on the peak" (to continue the theme from Pastor's Transfiguration sermon again).

Good health, a good home and family, friends and loved ones, work and hobbies - we all have many daily blessings in our lives. It can be difficult to maintain a sense of gratitude and celebration, so in some ways it's good for us to have less-than-perfect, off-peak days to remind us of how good our lives are. It's too tempting and too easy to fill into inspiration cliches on this topic, but it's still worthy of our reflection and notice.

This Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent, and we'll be singing hymns to remind us that the season ahead is one of repentance and reflection. Among them will be ELW 319:

O Lord, thoughout these forty days you prayed and kept the fast;
Inspire repentance for our sin, and free us from our past.

We'll also be singing one of my favorites: "Life Every Voice and Sing." It's such an inspiring anthem of social change and hope for the future. It's music that can accompany us on our march toward the peaks of Palm Sunday and Easter!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Transfiguration and Sondheim

I've been away from the blog for a couple of days, but plenty of ideas have been bouncing around the back of my mind. I've been thinking about Pastor's sermon from Transfiguration Sunday, in which he discussed the contrast between peak moments in life and the quotidian existence between them.

Musically, the church year certainly has an example of such a contrast. Between the peak celebrations of Christmas (or, if you'd prefer, Epiphany) and Easter we have a long valley of non-descript Sundays and the trudge through Lent. Even though there is some fantastic music during this time of year, they aren't tunes that the average person can sing in the same way as the songs of the major holidays.

It reminds me as well of the gaps between concerts or performances. Hearing the St. Olaf Choir or seeing a great Broadway musical can provide moments of beauty and musical epiphanies that sustain and provide inspiration for weeks and the next opportunity to hear such beauty again.

Living up to my motto that a showtune exists for every occasion, Stephen Sondheim wrote beautiful lyrics on this topic in the musical "Into the Woods." After a magical 'moment' and before returning home to her daily life, the Baker's Wife sings these words:

Oh if life were made of 'moments,'
Even now and then a bad one.
But if life were only 'moments,'
Then you'd never know you had one.
Must it all be either less or more;
Either plain or grand?
Is it always 'or'?
Is it never 'and'?
That's what woods are for!
For those moments in the woods.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Biblical knowledge

I've commented before on how much music can help impart Biblical texts and messages. Just this past week, one of the readings should have been familiar to everyone from the ordinary liturgy. During the Sunday School hour lately, I've overheard one class of students learning the books of the New Testament by singing the names.

So it made me laugh especially hard to see last week's episode of "Psych" on television, where one character tried to recite the books of the Bible:
Do...the right thing

If only his Sunday School teacher had taught more music!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

St. Olaf Review, Part 3 (and last)

My last thought about the concert is really a series of question for my readers regarding repertoire. The St. Olaf choir sang Charles Forsberg's setting of "Prayer of St. Francis." Of all the music they sang, it was the piece that had the least impact on me, personally. In thinking about it, I wonder if it was because I know the text so well and have heard it sung (and recited) so many times. Has repetition simply dulled its effect?

The question brings to mind a segment I once heard on "This American Life." Ira Glass told the story of a school teacher who took his students to Washington D.C. and played Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech for them on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Of course, we'd expect anyone to be awed by the history, the emotion, and the power of that place and those words. Instead, many of the students shrugged and said they had heard it plenty of times before and it still hadn't seemed to change the world. Is that just general cynicism or the inevitable effect of repetition?

Obviously it would be difficult to argue with the message of the text of the Prayer of St. Francis - "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace." On the other hand, a perfectly obvious result is often considered boring or elementary in other disciplines. A mathematical tautology doesn't need further study, after all.

So my experience has brought three questions to my mind:

1. Is the Prayer of St. Francis in particular still a meaningful text?
2. If not, has it been dulled by repetition, its "obviousness," or something else?
3. In any case, what are the implications for weekly repetition of the liturgy or hymns? Does such repetition ultimately reinforce or undermine the message?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

St. Olaf Review, Part 2

Last week's concert is still on my mind in many ways. I'm still humming the tunes and thinking about the concert. It's one sign of a superior performance, in my opinion, that it benefits from further reflection over time.

I think Dr. Armstrong summed up the mission of the St. Olaf Choir (and church music in general) when he talked about his decision not to become a minister. He said that the choir and his work as a musician do more to spread the Gospel message than any words he could preach. Their section titled "Global expressions of peace" was especially poignant in its expression of the universality of faith.

I know that the choir's movement annoys some people visually because it's unexpected. However, it's just the physical manifestation of their commitment to the music and the text. We'd never ask a solo performer to stand perfectly still; in fact, today we seem much to prefer that they dance! Does the choir move too much? I'll admit that they push the envelope, but I don't need them to stand perfectly still either.

Finally, the choir's precision always amazes me, while singing in five different languages and in styles that ranged from Bach and Tallis to Abbie Betinis, who was in my class at St. Olaf. They sang chorales and spirituals, chant and siren sound effects - an amazing level of variety and always with commitment and excellence.

Ultimately, the music was all about communication, as all the best music is.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Bowl Sunday

People watch the Super Bowl for a multitude of reasons - the ads, the halftime show, the parties, oh, and the game too, I suppose. Personally, I never miss "America, the Beautiful" and the National Anthem. They always bring in some big name star, and I'm always curious to hear them.

I think Queen Latifah is great - and it did look like she might have had some technical difficulties with an ear piece - but why on earth did she need to breathe after every single note? She started "Oh, beau-" (BREATH) "-ti-ful." (BREATH) "For spa-" (BREATH) "-cious skies." That's three breaths in what should be one musical phrase! And so it continued, for the whole piece.

Of course, Carrie Underwood followed it up with my favorite breath-interrupted phrase in all music (almost everyone does it): "O say, does that Star Spangled" (BREATH) "ban----ner yet wave." It just proves that people are paying almost no attention the text. Can you imagine saying that sentence with a big breath in the middle of it?

Sometimes it seems like we've just quit holding musicians (and ourselves) to high standards of performance and participation. I'm going to blame American Idol in part for the declining musical standards. It's now accetpable just to shut your eyes and have an intensely personal experience singing a song. No true performer would make such a mistake. Music is about sharing a message with an audience. You need to open your eyes, prounounce your words, and be fully involved to make it a performance worth listening to.

I was just glad that both ladies sang decently in tune and with good tone and with most of their consonants in place. I know I must sound a bit like a cantankerous old organist today. But music is communication, and it's always a pity to see it cheapened. I hope you heard a message in this morning's music. What did you think of the opening hymn and the hymn of the day? I know at least one choir member who thinks it was a great change of pace. I'm always curious to hear more feedback about new hymns (ELW 525 for my non-Bethany readers).

Friday, February 5, 2010

From Purcell to Handel

It has been a busy week. It's amazing how one deadline and one night out can quickly send the week into a tailspin. I also seem to be just on the verge of picking up the virus that is making its rounds at work. Throw in a coming snowstorm, a pile of laundry, and all I want to do is get to a keyboard and make some music!

Music in general is a personal sanctuary for me. Time spent at the piano can be as good as a nap or a jog to recharge my day. My hope is always that church music provides the same effect. After all, stress relief is one of the scientifically measured benefits of church attendance.

This week my prelude and postlude come from a book titled "From Purcell to Handel." Purcell is an English composer of the late 17th century, while Handel is a German who spent a great deal of his professional career in England in the early 18th century. So for a musical compilation to have that title is a bit like saying from Herman's Hermits to the Beatles. This will be an opportunity to hear several pieces from the same era. The choir will be singing a Bach chorale, who lived during the same period, of course. After last week's plethora of modern music, this week will balance it out with a classical sound. I hope it inspires and refreshes you, so that we can all have a fresh start to the new week.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

St. Olaf Review, Part 1

The St. Olaf Choir concert at Severance Hall last night was an evening of beautiful and meaningful music. I hope that some of the people who were there will join me in sharing some thoughts about the concert for the next few days.

My first comment is a bit of a confession. Despite all my praise of Bach here lately and the recent discussion on the blog, my least favorite piece of the whole concert would have to be the Bach cantata. It's not that it wasn't beautiful. It simply couldn't compare to the rest of the music, in my opinion. It reminded me that not every piece of music can reach every person.

At the other extreme, one of the high moments of the night, I felt, was the composition by Jeffrey Ames titled "For the Sake of Our Children." Because I had watched part of the Grammy Awards ceremony the night before, I immediately noticed the stark contrast between this piece and Michael Jackson's "Earth Song," despite their similar themes. It's like comparing Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga National Park to Niagara Falls - they are both beautiful, but one holds only a fraction of the power and depth of the other.

The choir sang the beautiful lyrics of this intercessory prayer so bravely that the music is still in mind today:

O Lord, we pray for Your justice and peace.
People rise up, pour out your hearts unto the Lord.
May He send His wondrous love o'er all the earth,
And grant us peace that this world cannot give.
Let there be peace, never-ending peace.

O God, save the children.
Shelter them with Your loving arms.
May Your angels guard and protect them we pray.
O Lord, we pray!

Overall, the most wonderful thing about the group in general is their deep musicality and unity. Their consonants are crisp, their vowels perfectly formed, and their dynamic contrasts and phrasing give amazing vitality to the music. That total commitment to quality and to their message is what elevates the choir's music to the sublime level of beautiful prayer that we experienced last night.