Poets of the Cross

Many describe the Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas as a “poet of the cross,” and his poems often include the stark image of an empty cross – or an “untenanted” one, in his words.  His untenanted cross no longer bears death, however, but witnesses life.

There is nothing kind or warm about a cross.  Its power lies in its austerity, like the angular harshness of R.S. Thomas’ poetry, or the Four Motets for a Time of Penitence by Francis Poulenc. Both were reacting to the bleakness of their surrounding landscapes – one evoking the forbidding, lonely existence of Welsh farmers, and the other writing his motets soon after the death of his dearest friend and during the ugliness of European war in the late 1930’s. With an economy of texture and a sense of desperation, Poulenc (uncharacteristically so) and Thomas (inseparably so) cause us to confront those difficult places where the silent cross stands, untenanted and unflinching, waiting until we are ready to receive its strength.

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.  – R.S. Thomas, In a Country Church

Timor et tremor by Francis Poulenc

Fear and trembling have come upon me and darkness has fallen
upon me. Have pity on me, Lord, have pity; because in thee my
soul trusts. Hear, O God, my prayer, because thou art my refuge
and my strong helper. Lord, I have called on thee, I will not
be confounded. (words from the Psalms)

The strange fruit in the poem’s final line is as unsettling as Poulenc’s music in this first of his Lenten motets. Both express passion – a word which we use so freely for our hobbies and loves, but which finds its roots in the Latin for suffering. I feel an emptiness in this music and in these words.  The kind of emptiness that is cleansing.  The kind of emptiness that invites rebirth.


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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 new connections between old and new.

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My plan for this week was to record one of Francis Poulenc’s Improvisations for piano, and write about the study of improvisation’s effects on the brain. There was quite a splash a few years ago around this topic, and indeed there is a TED talk and several articles available online that describe the effect on certain parts of the brain when someone is musically improvising. All kinds of music can involve improvisation, including jazz, of course, as well as the world’s folk traditions. Some of the most involved improvisations are created by organists, where that instrument’s vast array of tonal possibilities are thrown into the mix.

As you must realize, musical improvisation involves the use of musical building blocks in spontaneous ways, and those building blocks of scales, chord progressions, rhythms and melodic lines are practiced by a musician for years, to the point that they become second nature. These building blocks are then called up as needed during the process of improvising, as skill is transformed into art.

It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to realize that we all improvise on a daily basis. Every verbal exchange is an improvised reaction to someone or something and we use the building blocks of vocabulary and grammar and tone to improvise our comments and conversations.  Some are better than others at being able to speak “off the cuff,” but there is no doubt that practicing builds skill, and in some, even art.


My plan for this week was also to avoid writing about anything connected to the recent Presidential election, but I simply can’t sweep that under the carpet. In the last few days I have twice been brought to tears by fallout from this election. A friend from Delaware visiting me over the weekend told me about his friends, an older gay couple who have lived in a wealthy Wilmington suburb for years. They came home this past week to a note on their door. “Dear Homos…” it began, and from there became even more hateful, with threats of what a Trump presidency means for all of the LGBTQ community.

In another incident, a woman working at the church where I have been playing this fall shared something with the staff. Her son works at Towson University in Maryland and was walking with three other young African-Americans when they were accosted and taunted by a group of young white men with the words “Hey n…go back to Africa.”  His cooler head kept violence at bay, but what those tormenters didn’t know is that this woman’s son had emigrated from Africa with his parents in 2008, and he is an African-American in the most literal sense.  He and his family were thrilled to have voted for the first time in their new country just last week, and this incident shook them up in ways that are heartbreaking to think about.

The perpetrators of those incidents were improvising, using the building blocks that came most naturally to them I guess – hate, fear, divisiveness, cruelty, ignorance.  We’ve read and heard about many of these kinds of anecdotes recently, but these particular incidents were just two degrees of separation from me, which seems so very close.

I heard another story from a different staff member at this same church.  She was shopping a few days ago in a part of Washington, D.C. that I would have thought to be the epicenter of liberal elitism, in a high-end grocery store near Washington National Cathedral. A group behind a young Muslim woman wearing a headscarf quietly repeated, “go back to where you came from.” The person telling this story said she went over and stood next to the Muslim woman, putting herself in between the ugliness and its intended victim. Without saying anything, she improvised her own response, and it spoke plainly of solidarity.

We have a choice of building blocks with which to improvise, just as musicians can decide what harmonies and rhythms to use in their improvisations. Mean-spiritedness or an acceptance of differences? Ignorance or a desire to understand? Walls or reconciliation? The cowardice of hate or the courage to love?

No one just sits down and starts improvising on an instrument without practicing the various elements of music’s language. In the same way, we all need to practice the building blocks of civil discourse right now, because we don’t know when we’ll be called upon to improvise a response to incivility.

I did make a recording of Poulenc’s lovely little Improvisation No. 7 after all, because music will always be the right response to any situation. (Poulenc, Improvisation No. 7)


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Where I’ll be:

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical. (www.chevychasepc.org)

November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (www.christchurchrockville.org)

December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (http://www.zemerchai.org/upcoming-performances-cr3j)

December 12, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m.  (www.wbimfchorus.org/news)

December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (https://cathedral.org/event/bethlehem-prayer-service)

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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 new connections between old and new.