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.

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