Armistice

A century of human existence and memories since the end of the war to end all wars. Sigh…if only World War I could have reached that implausible goal. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month in 1918 marked the armistice that was really only a temporary end to the fighting. As history showed, an actual treaty wasn’t signed for another seven months and unresolved anger smoldered for nearly twenty years more before erupting into another world war. A somber world does mark this centenary, however, and my mind went to an unlikely musical commemoration of World War I – Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.

This is an elegant set of six pieces which takes its cue from Baroque keyboard suites, with many of the movements based on archaic folk dances. It was written between 1914-1917, published in 1918 and premiered in 1919, with each movement dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who had died in the war. Ravel himself served as a driver in support of the troops near Verdun and was eyewitness to war’s harrowing brutality, an experience which unsurprisingly left him ill and depressed.

But this is not music of war. It’s charming and dance-like. A suite of piano pieces, later orchestrated, based on the ideals of an earlier time, ideals of gentility and gracefulness. Ravel’s musical response to horror might seem incongruous, more escape than commemoration. Where is the anguish or anger heard in other composer’s works? Vaughan Williams captured such a sense of aching loss in his post-war music, others such as Elgar and Parry sought to inspire and console their broken countrymen.  Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, begun in 1914, reveals the absurdity and doom of a pointless war.

So how does Le Tombeau de Couperin, a composition inspired by music from two centuries earlier, speak to the pain of living through the destruction and death he was seeing all around him? This is music of color and even of joy. When asked about this seeming paradox, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Everyone mourns in their own way, and grief takes many forms. Much of Ravel’s music could be considered somewhat emotionally detached. Perhaps he found solace in approaching grief from some distance, and there was so much to mourn. Deaths of young friends, destruction of the French countryside turned into battlefields, and what may have seemed at the time like the end of French culture and civility.  And so he wrote a tombeau for all of those things – for his friends as much as for the elegance and order that the music of Couperin represented. He would leave it to other composers to express their grief and loss in more graphic terms.

Ravel instead chose to write music of memory. Perhaps he had moved beyond the stages of denial and anger and depression to a place of acceptance. Perhaps he needed to counter inexplicable ugliness and cruelty with the light and beauty of ancient dances. Perhaps he knew that an armistice is, like everything, only temporary, and chose not to dwell in hopelessness.

Peace,
Sonya

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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.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

The Pieta of Music

Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings has been called by one author the “Pieta of Music.” It is music which has become our national anthem for mourning, music that expresses collective grief. In his 2010 book, The Saddest Music Ever Written, devoted solely to exploring Barber’s Adagio, author Thomas Larson goes on to say that the music captures for him the “sorrow and pity of tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary come alive – holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages.”   The author places this mission on the piece: “to plumb its listeners’ capacity for grief,” describing it as “music to accompany loss.” Compositionally, as liner notes for a recording by the Emerson String Quartet point out, the sense of “slowed-down time creates an impression of deep feeling that can scarcely be borne, like inexpressible grief.”

Adagio for Strings

And that is music’s role in our lives – to search out feelings in us which cannot be expressed in words alone.  Oscar Wilde wrote:  “music creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” He suggested that music allows us to encounter things, and our emotional reactions to those things, that we didn’t even know about ourselves.

The first time I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta I was travelling alone, wandering through St. Peter’s in Rome, and quite unprepared when I turned a corner and came upon the grieving Mary. I burst into tears. Barber’s Adagio communicates pain as clearly as Michelangelo’s stone.

With the reading of the Passion narrative moved to the end of the Palm Sunday service, there is a thread created which pulls us towards the Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and connects us to those places of loss and pain that are not expressible in words. Pairing Barber’s music with the reading of the Passion, as we’ll do at St. John’s, will, I hope, help people hear the words in a new and deeper way, giving them access to feelings they have no words for. Perhaps hearing the narrative in a way which makes an Easter resurrection all the more possible.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

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.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful

Taize: A Community of Prayer

A service of music and prayers in the style of Taizé, this Sunday, November 5 at
6:30 pm at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish.

Born out of wartime suffering in 1940, a Reformed Protestant from Switzerland, Brother Roger, founded a small community of men committed to a life of service and prayer among the poverty and fear of occupied France.  He hoped the monks of this community would become “signs of the presence of Christ” and “bearers of joy.” In later years Catholics and Anglicans joined the Reformed members, and Taizé now lives into Brother Roger’s ecumenical vision in their home in the Burgundy region of France, and in their satellite communities around the world.

Since the mid-1960’s the community of Taizé (pronounced teh-ZAY) has become a pilgrimage site for mostly young people, with nearly 100,000 visitors each year now.  The music of Taizé sprang from a desire to welcome these pilgrims during worship with a simple form of chanted prayer which could reach across the many languages and religions represented by the pilgrims. Simple phrases and harmonies, repeated, sometimes in canon, became another way to pray and connect with God.

As with chanting in any spiritual tradition, the sound of the human voice sends vibrations through the body, permeating all of our cells, becoming a practice which calms the mind and frees us to listen more closely for God’s voice. The chants can be sung in many languages, but are often set with words in Latin.  As a language which belongs to no one, Latin can be a language which is available to everyone. Simply knowing that the words are holy, that they often come from the psalms or recall the life and works of Jesus, can be enough sometimes. Singing in Latin can take our focus off the text, allowing our voice to be more fully in communion with God’s voice.

In the context of an evening service which is, in part, a commemoration of All Saints and All Souls, singing the contemplative chants of Taizé can sometimes take us to a  place of darkness and grief. I hope you will allow the darkness of an evening service to create a feeling of being cocooned by God’s love. Like the healing power of sleep, change, growth, and beauty can emerge from the darkness of a cocoon. And perhaps there will be a moment during the singing when someone finds that they are drawn from their cocoon, into the radiant light of God’s healing touch.

Find five minutes, if you can, to watch this video of photos and music from the Taizé community.  Sit quietly, breathe, be present with God.

Taize-Let nothing disturb you

Peace,
Sonya