Thumbing Your Nose

Easter fell on April Fools Day this year, and one of my musical colleagues handed out bulletins to the choir that had Christmas carols listed for the hymns. I’m guessing that chaos and consternation ensued! There were surely plenty of unfortunate jokes told as part of sermons all over the world as well, and so it doesn’t feel quite as unseemly as it might to suggest that we were celebrating Jesus thumbing his nose at death on Easter.

Thumbing his nose? Where on earth did that kooky expression originate? No one really knows, but possibly in 18th century Britain, and really, could it be anything except British? It’s a phrase which implies contempt, but with a good dose of humor, not anger. Someone who does the actual thumbing is expressing a measure of confidence, of resilience, of freedom. To do it literally is childish and disrespectful, I suppose, but metaphorically it can be empowering.

No composer thumbed his nose at authority more beautifully than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whether at the dominance of his father over his career and life decisions, or at the Archbishop of Salzburg who employed him and demanded simplicity and brevity above all from the young composer’s works for the church. Mozart did attempt to comply in the several Missa brevis settings he wrote for Salzburg Cathedral, but you can’t shake off the feeling that he chafed at these restrictions on his creativity.  The Missa brevis, K. 194 that will be sung at St. John’s this Sunday (accompanied by The Artaria Quartet) is short, it’s true, and he sets the long texts of the Gloria and Credo with great economy, simple textures, and spare instrumentation, as the Archbishop demanded, but the drama of opera is lurking just below the surface of those liturgical texts. It is like a barely-contained gremlin bumping against the walls of its sacred box.

When one person protests she is often called a troublemaker or crazy, or, very rarely, a prophet. In Mozart’s case, history calls his protests genius. When many people protest oppression, however, it becomes a movement. Personally, I’d like to avoid being labeled as crazy, and “genius” or “prophet” aren’t attributes I can claim, which leaves being part of a movement for me. The goal for any protest is justice, and that’s the only movement that really matters. What are the goals of justice, after all, except those of truth and love, often defined as the cause of freedom? Maybe Mozart’s music will plant a little seed of protest in your own heart against small-mindedness and the control of conformity.

Perhaps you will find the exuberance in Mozart’s sacred music inappropriate to the words of a usually somber Kyrie eleison or Agnus dei, but I hear an authentic expression of joy in these and all parts of the sung Eucharistic celebration – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Joy is as close to freedom as I can imagine. Thumb your nose at injustice then, because true joy cannot be born out of oppression.


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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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