Thursday, January 19, 2017

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Thursday

Photo by Mikeal Kristenson

1.  Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps 1:1) The seat of the scornful is an awfully tempting place to sit, higher than all the other seats and boasting the softest cushions. I seem to prefer it.

2. I wonder if those who work in doctor's offices realize the extent to which their friendliness is a ministry? I am thankful for my doctor's staff.

3. When the student is ready, the right spiritual formation group appears.

4. I often wonder why God chose the first century to send his Son to earth. Why not send him when 24-hour news and social media would have given him a bigger platform? Maybe sound bites and 40-character twitter blasts aren't nearly as nuanced and loving as parables and face-to-face dialogue complete with tone of voice and body language. (So asserts the one writing on the internet...)

5. The blogging world needs more age 50+ female voices that write with a positive slant on maturity. The vast majority of online material specifically for women my age exists to tell me how to exercise or eat so I can look/feel younger or how to dress to look/feel younger. What's wrong with the age I am?

6. The world of the arts needs more writers, musicians, and other artists who are honest about how prohibitive this world is for anyone without a good bit of disposable income. (Here's one.) If we want more genuinely well-crafted music, literature, visual art, etc. in our faith communities, there has to be financial support for it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Words On Wednesday: What Breathes Us

What Breathes Us
 by Barry Spacks

Regards to the day, the great long day
that can't be hoarded, good or ill.
What breathes us likely means us well.
We rise up from an earthly root
to seek the blossom of the heart.
What breathes us likely means us well.
We are a voice impelled to tell
where the joining of sound and silence is.
We are the tides, and their witnesses.
What breathes us likely means us well.

Photo by Andrew Branch

Monday, January 16, 2017

Music on Monday: All Nature Sings

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music.

To all of my friends living in the frozen north, I'm sorry to gloat, but this is what Saturday looked like for hubby and me here in Georgia. Or better, this is what it sounded like. Paddles dipping in the water, turtles sliding off logs with a splop, and birds calling across the branch. Turn up your sound! I'll try to take my good camera and get a better video next time we're out.

I think that when the time comes for my funeral one of these days, I'd prefer for everyone to gather outside somewhere. Just take a chair outside and sit. No music, no eulogy. Just listen.

Composer Olivier Messiaen was a fascinating figure (do read more about him), and he was himself fascinated with birdsong. He composed a number of works incorporating the sounds of birds as accurately as possible. In 1958, he wrote a monumental work for solo piano called Catalogue d'Oiseaux, or Catalogue of Birds. Each of the 13 pieces depicts the song of a specific bird from a specific region of France.
My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none. ~Olivier Messiaen
Here is the short-toed lark.

Photo by Benjamin Balázs


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Words on Wednesday: Choose Something Like A Star

Choose Something Like a Star

by Robert Frost
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Here is Randall Thompson's choral setting, performed by the Harvard University Choir.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Music on Monday: The Exile Edition

Photo by Ryan McGuire
Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music.

My exile ended today, the one I imposed on myself through the holidays, as well as one that's been going on for much longer. I enjoyed a sort of retreat when my piano students took off for Christmas holidays until my studio reopened today. I didn't have to travel this year, so I did my shopping online, stayed at home and did pretty much what I pleased. That included a lot of reading and more piano playing than I've done in a long time. As tends to happen in extended periods of reflection, some insights surfaced, and not all of them were pleasant. What started as a relaxing retreat began to feel like exile as God and I dealt with those things. The good news is that if you're willing to spend a little time in exile, you give God the opportunity to show you the depths of his love.

I obsessed a little over a piano arrangement of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." It was tricky enough to keep me working on it over a solid three weeks to have the satisfaction of playing it well. Because the words I know best from memory are those of the first verse and chorus, I ended up meditating through all of that repetitive practicing, lectio divina style, on this:  O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appear. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel will come to thee, O Israel.

"Rejoice" was set to glass-breaking dissonance. Makes sense. How do you rejoice in exile? The piece ended with a build-up to an exquisitely painful 9-8 suspension before closing off, still in the original minor key. No hopeful Picardy third on the end. Since we lost two family members who would not be at our Christmas table this year, a minor key felt more appropriate than fa-la-la-la-la. Advent's themes of waiting for a resolution when all would be made right felt comforting. As depressing as all of this sounds, there were quite a few moments of spontaneous joy. They'd appear out of nowhere, as though they'd been airdropped in a sort of humanitarian aid program.

So, I grieved and reflected on exile and dissonance. A memory surfaced of a career decision made at age 19 when I stood at a 3-way fork in the road and eliminated the fork that looked the most fascinating as well as the scariest, but also had all the hallmarks of a divine call. All of them. Everything short of words written across the sky. I have vacillated over whether there's more pride in thinking I was called to something or thinking I wasn't. Of course, there's no answer to the question, but without a doubt, it was fear rooted in pride that prevented me from what would have been a good choice. I've come up with a ton of other very rational-sounding reasons to justify taking a different road, but they aren't very convincing. Some of the vocational roadblocks that I've slammed into at full speed now look, well, logical.

I felt appropriate remorse, not so much for the decision I made as an immature young adult, but for the fear that prompted it, and the degree to which that same fear/pride still sometimes drowns out God's voice. The truth dawned that this is often what keeps me in exile. The good news is that God hears the prayers of the dejected, and he is in the business of making crooked paths straight. As I returned to work, I realized that God had already redeemed my decision before I understood that it needed redeeming. I've ended up where he wanted me, arriving by a ridiculously convoluted and maybe unnecessarily painful road, but doing the work he intended all the same. Naturally, it's work I love. I kept remembering a line from a beautiful hymn: "well our feeble frame he knows." The profession through which I live out my vocation turns out to have been a minor detail. It's a happy discovery as I begin the last 35% of my life and as I consider how to talk to my teenage daughter or my students about career choices.

We don't understand the fullness of the word "epiphany." An epiphany is not an insight about the nature of things; it doesn't reveal us to ourselves, though those may be prerequisites. An epiphany always reveals the Savior. What security to realize that I am incapable of thwarting redemption.

To close my exile/retreat off, I watched an opera last Saturday. The Metropolitan Opera Company broadcasts live transmissions of full-length productions in HD to movie theatres all over the world. I convinced my 14-year-old daughter to go along. She allowed that she didn't hate it. And what did the Met perform last Saturday? God has a sense of humor. The opera was Nabucco, a love story set amidst the exile of the Hebrews after being overrun by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco). At least, I finally got a Picardy third of sorts at the end. Read on.

Today's music on Monday video is the aria sung by Nabucco, "Dio di Guida." Having declared himself not merely king, but God, he has become mentally unstable and a prisoner of his illegitimate daughter who has assumed the throne. She is about to execute all of the Hebrews, including Nabucco's legitimate daughter who has converted to Judaism. From his own exile of sorts, he kneels and pledges his faith and loyalty to the Hebrew God. I chose this video because it has subtitles, but I wish I could post a video of Placido Domingo's performance last Saturday which was one of the more moving operatic performances I've seen. He didn't merely kneel; he sang it prostrate on the floor. His senses return, he reclaims the throne, and frees the Israelites.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Words on Wednesday: The Burning Babe

The liturgical season of Christmas continues until Jan. 6, so here's another Christmas-related poem.

English poet Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest serving as a surreptitious Catholic missionary in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. She had passed an act asserting that any English priest of the Catholic church was not to remain on English soil for more than 40 days. He was arrested in 1592 and spent an month enduring torture by Richard Topcliffe and the privy council before being moved to the Tower of London for another two years. In 1595, he was found guilty of treason and executed by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Southwell wrote "The Burning Babe" shortly before his death. It was part of a collection of poetry he wrote while in prison, and the volume was dedicated to his cousin, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare uses imagery that reflects the poem in Scene 7, Act 1 of Macbeth when he casts Pity as a naked, newborn babe crying out at the injustice of Macbeth's murder of Duncan.

The Burning Babe
     by Robert Southwell
AS I in hoary winter’s night
Stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat
Which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye
To view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright
Did in the air appear;
Who, scorchèd with excessive heat,
Such floods of tears did shed,
As though His floods should quench His flames,
Which with His tears were bred:
‘Alas!’ quoth He, ‘but newly born
In fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts
Or feel my fire but I!
‘My faultless breast the furnace is;
The fuel, wounding thorns;
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke;
The ashes, shames and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on,
And Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought
Are men’s defilèd souls:
For which, as now on fire I am
To work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath,
To wash them in my blood.’
With this He vanish’d out of sight
And swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callèd unto mind
That it was Christmas Day.
Photo by Ian Britton

Monday, January 2, 2017

Music on Monday: Pachelbel Was NOT A One-Hit Wonder

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music.

My family knows that every Christmas, they're going to hear me rant about Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D. They steel themselves for it the same way I steel myself against hearing or playing this infernal piece one. more. time. The only thing worse than being locked in a room with it playing on a loop would be if the loop were "Mary Did You Know." She knows, okay? She knows! Every singer in the world has told her a million times.

What really gets my goat is that the whole world now thinks the Canon in D is a Christmas piece, thanks to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Whenever it comes on Holly in the car, my daughter lunges for the station dial to avoid hearing me screech "NOT CHRISTMAS MUSIC!"

The only redeeming thing is that when my piano students ask to play it (at Christmas, of course), I get to teach them the musical term "canon," which is not to be confused with artillery. A canon is a piece that follows a rule. In this case, the rule is that the bass line, played by the cello, repeats the same 8 notes (the ones in the cartoon below) for the entire piece while the violins play variations. Thank God I'm not a cellist.

Every cellist in the world hopes this was Pachelbel's purgatory experience.

The thing that bothers me the most is that so few people know Pachelbel's other works. He only became a one-hit wonder sometime in the last 40 years. Considering that he composed over 500 pieces of music, it's not fair that we reduce him to one now.

Pachelbel lived way back in the late 17th / early 18th century and was a friend of the Bach family and a teacher to Johann Sebastian Bach's older brother, Johann Christoph. He was influenced by Italian and South German styles, and he helped develop both chorale prelude literature and the pairing of preludes with fugues. One of his sons, Charles Theodore Pachelbel, emigrated to the New World, living in Boston and Charleston, and was a significant influence on music in the colonies. One of Charles Theodore's few extant compositions is an aria called "God of sleep for whom I languish." I NEED a copy of this!

Johann composed music for the organ and harpsichord, vocal music, and a few chamber pieces which include the infamous Canon. His works are staples of an organist's repertoire, and since we organists know that he is worth so much more than his one contemporary hit, we'd love for the rest of the world to get to know him better!

Some of Pachelbel's famous pieces for organ or harpsichord are the Fugues on the Magnificat, or as I like to call them, Fugues Related Loosely To The Magnificat since their only connection to the chant is found in the title. The thematic material in the fugues is free-composed and not based on any of the Magnificat tones. He wrote 95 of these short pieces using all of the 8 church modes. Many of them do not include a pedal part, so these are useful as piano literature, too. We believe these would have been played immediately prior to the cantor's singing of the Magnificat chant, and would serve to establish the key. Ultimately, we don't know exactly how many ways Pachelbel might have used these pieces. Improvisation and flexibility were the order of the day, and music used in one context on one day might be used in another the next.

Since we are still in the 12 Days of Christmas, this is a good time to listen or play these Magnificat-related fugues, but keep in mind that the Magnificat is used year-round in choral evensong and vespers. You can play these pieces any time.

I like this group of 8 fugues based on the fourth mode.

Just for fun...