Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Words (and Music) on Wednesday: Salvete Flores Martyrum

This is an ancient hymn sung as part of the Feast of the Holy Innocents which is celebrated today. Michael Haydn (1737-1806) composed a Mass and Vespers for the feast which includes a setting of this text, posted here in English translation and the original Latin.

Michael was the younger brother of the more famous Joseph Haydn. His works are firmly oriented within the stylistic conventions of the Classical period, which is a sub-period of classical music. (Confusing enough?)

Music during this time conformed to strict rules in its treatment of dissonance. Dissonance was always resolved, and always in prescribed ways. I find it striking that Haydn manages to create an unresolved dissonance between the horror of infants slaughtered and this happy, playful music. It's downright macabre.

All hail! ye infant martyr flowers,
cut off in life’s first dawning hours:
as rosebuds snapt in tempest strife
when Herod sought your Saviour’s life.

Ye, tender flock of Christ, we sing,
first victims slain for Christ your King:
beneath the Altar’s heavenly ray
with martyr-palms and crowns ye play.

All honour, laud and glory be,
O Jesu, Virgin-born, to thee;
whom with the Father we adore,
and Holy Ghost for ever more. Amen.

Salvete, flores martyrum,
quos lucis ipso in limine
Christi insector sustulit
seu turbo nascentes rosas.

Vos prima Christi victima,
grex immolatorum tener,
aram sub ipsum simplices
palma et coronis luditis.

Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
qui natus es de Virgine,
cum Patre et almo Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula. Amen. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Music on Monday: My Christmas 2016 Soundtrack

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.

The most famous composition of American composer Morten Lauridsen, "O Magnum Mysterium" was a staple of my Christmas soundtrack this year. It transcends time-bound stylistic definitions. I love the innocence of boy sopranos on this piece, and there's a beautiful performance on a YouTube video from the 2009 King's College carol service, but this from the Nordic Chamber Choir is a better recording. When the fa-la-la-la-la around you feels false and silly, music like this captures the deep significance of Christmas. I love the way he handles dissonance, often delaying the resolution until the next phrase and sometimes not resolving it at all. The extended friction really captures the mystery of the incarnation as well as the meaning of the text. Animals, animals, were the first to see the baby apart from his parents. On a deeper level, the dissonance reflects our struggle to believe it all.

The music was composed in 1994, but the text is ancient. It's a responsorial chant from the matins for Christmas.

O magnum mysterium, 
et admirabile sacramentum, 
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, 
jacentem in praesepio! 
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera 
meruerunt portare 
Dominum Christum. 

English translation...

O great mystery, 
and wonderful sacrament, 
that animals should see the new-born Lord, 
lying in a manger! 
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb 
was worthy to bear 
Christ the Lord. 

The other piece that I can't stop listening to this year after several years of avoiding it is the David Willcocks setting of "O Come All Ye Faithful." Listening is bittersweet as I may not have the chance to play this in a grand setting on a grand pipe organ again, but I have some good memories of doing so. The pipe organ is a stirring solo instrument, but it is unparalleled as an instrument to support congregational and choral singing, and the experience of playing it with hearty singers is unlike any other. The descant on the next to last verse of this setting is so stirring that it would be fitting as the ending, but the final verse is the one that throws you back in your chair. Choir and congregation sing in mighty unison, and the organ soars into one of the most profound harmonizations I've ever heard to a hymn. It's not just rich harmony, it's rich theology. The organ delivers an entire sermon with the surprise chord on word in the line "Word of the father, now in flesh appearing." It jolts us out of mindless recitation of verses we've heard thousands of times and reminds us of the opening of the gospel of John: 
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

C S Lewis, writing in The Screwtape Letters as a senior devil advising a junior devil on how best to tempt their "patient," says this:
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. 
Matt B Redmond, in his book Echoes and Stars, says,
Music made by Christians should not sound like Clay Aiken singing for a knitting circle. It should sound like the creation of all things, the thundering weight of the fall, empty tombs, horseman of the apocalypse tramping through visions of the exiled, breaking hearts, dreams shattered, redemption birthed through suffering, the blood, sweat and tears of this beautiful and terrible world. Our music should sound like the return of the King of Kings and the making of all things new.
I don't know whether he's talking about electric guitars or pipe organs, but I agree with his words. Great congregation singing evokes an image of that army with banners. We need to be awed by God's holiness, his otherness, and we need musicians daring and disciplined enough to lead it. Yes, God became man, and yes, he is our brother and approachable. Sometimes, we need approachable, comfortable music, but not at the expense of this kind. We need music that draws us up short and reminds us that even the angels veil their faces in his presence. The stunning thing about the incarnation is that he became man and brother - he for whom music of this majesty, intelligence, and skill can't begin to be sufficient praise.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Words on Wednesday: Gloria in Profundis

Gloria in Profundis

by G.K. Chesterton

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is split on the sand.
Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?
For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.
Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

Photo:  "Cradle of Stars" by Scott Cresswell

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Words on Wednesday: Expectans Expectavi

Expectans Expectavi
by Anne Ridler

The candid freezing season again:
Candle and cracker, needles of fir and frost;
Carols that through the night air pass, piercing
The glassy husk of heart and heaven;
Children's faces white in the pane, bright in the tree-light.

And the waiting season again,
That begs a crust and suffers joy vicariously:
In bodily starvation now, in the spirit's exile always.
O might the hilarious reign of love begin, let in
Like carols from the cold
The lost who crowd the pane, numb outcasts into welcome.

Source: Collected Poems, Anne Ridler. Manchester: Carcanet, 1997

Photo by Rachel

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Words on Wednesday: On the Mystery of the Incarnation

Detail of Michaelangelo's Pietà

On the Mystery of the Incarnation 
Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

It's when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Photo by Mary Harrsch

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Words on Wednesday: Advent

by Susan McCaslin

Resist the pace imposed.
Culture (as with malign intent)
fears the boundless.
Something (if unleashed)
might overthrow dominions
and set up a child in the Mercy Seat,
that frowning, burning babe.

Photo by David Patton