it was terribly cold

That’s the title of one movement from David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical work, the little match girl passion, which will be performed next Tuesday by The Bridge Ensemble on Church of the Epiphany’s noontime concert series. All are welcome and it’s free, but don’t expect to leave emotionally unspent.

The lower case letters are the composer’s and, in fact, a 2017 New York Times article asked in its title: where have classical music’s uppercase letters gone?  My favorite line, by the way, is the first sentence of the second paragraph: “But composers who channel their inner E.E. Cummings…”  Very funny.

Lang explains that he began using lowercase titles as a student, too full of self-doubt and too sure that “classical music is about nobility, about things with capital letters that are big marble busts on pedestals.” He didn’t feel worthy of writing in capital letters – that was for Beethoven, in his mind – but he also saw an intimacy and an invitation to experience his music from the inside by using lowercase titles.

Lang does more than break stylistic rules for the written word. He breaks through the Christian narrative of suffering, taking Jesus out of the story and putting in a character from Hans Christian Anderson’s story. The little match girl passion not only invites us in, but breaks our hearts too. That’s what happens when you allow yourself to witness suffering from the inside.

It was terribly cold outside, and the girl’s cruel father sends her out to sell matches. Her futile efforts lead her to seek refuge under a Christmas tree, and she lights her matches and sees vision of her grandmother, the only person who was ever kind to her. As in Christianity’s passion narrative, she is derided by strangers and left to die. The composer summed up the story’s message, and his work’s appeal across sacred/secular lines: the “message is pretty simple: you need to pay attention to the suffering of people around you.”

The music is at once archaic and universal, the story juxtaposes the horror of her reality and the beauty of her hopeful visions. You are invited in to witness these things in the performance, and to contribute as you’re able to The Welcome Table ministry of feeding the homeless which is sponsored by Church of the Epiphany. It is perhaps one small way to pay attention to the suffering of those right around us.

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Tuesday, January 28 at 12:10 pm
Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G Street, NW  (Metro Center)

The Dark Past

This is the weekend to revisit, with greater understanding and appreciation, one of our country’s finest – and darkest – moments. The Civil Rights movement shaped most of the mid-20th century and has more recently expanded in scope to include differences of sexuality, physical abilities and ethnicities. Standing up to injustice by sitting down at lunch counters…naming systemic inequalities by making those on the winning side of the imbalances uncomfortable…choosing love over hate…when does the work of seeing what is wrong in order to make it right end?

In recognition of the powerful work of reconciliation effected by Dr. Martin Luther King, that great hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing will undoubtedly be sung by millions of voices around the country this weekend.  It was first performed in 1900 as a poem read during a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in a program at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida, an event at which Booker T. Washington was the honored guest that day.  Imagine the power of these words on the ears and hearts of people just 35 years from slavery.

Lift every voice and sing, ‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,  Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet c
ome to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, Til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
 
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand,
True to our God, True to our native land.

There are A LOT of recordings of this song on YouTube, and I spent more time than I should to find just the right one.  I didn’t want a soloist, or something glossy and over-produced. I didn’t want it to be sung by a highly skilled Gospel choir or a staid, perfectly in-tune, yet soulless, choir.  This is a hymn for all people.  True story – I memorized this hymn and we sang it as my husband and I walked down the aisle at the end of our wedding in 1999. A hymn for all people, and all occasions!

There is one line that I ponder each time I play this hymn though, the final line True to our native land.  What is our native land?  Were African-Americans in 1900 thinking about some part of Africa?  About the United States, where everyone in that first audience was mostly likely born?  Or could we claim this song for everyone by thinking about our native land as that heavenly land where we are loved regardless of skin color or political beliefs or “differences” of any kind?  Perhaps a native land where reconciliation is not just a goal, but already complete.

I am reading a biography of Harriet Tubman these days. Her story refuses to allow us to see slavery as anything other than the cruelest institution, one that was damaging in different ways to people of every skin color. If an audience just 35 years away from that dark past can sing about facing a rising sun and marching until victory is won, then we are obligated today to continue rising, continue marching, continue standing, true to what is right, because the past has followed us and demands to be examined.

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20/20 Vision

I was heartened to read in the December 3, 2019 edition of The Washington Post that the world isn’t actually as terrible as we all seem to believe.  The editorialist looked at the many ways that people are actually better off now than they have been before. Starvation-level poverty reduced by 80% since 1970, massive gains in disease prevention,and billions of people living with the freedoms that democracy promises and more prosperous than ever before.  Read it for yourself: The world is doing much better than the bad news makes us think.  And don’t we all need some good news? ¹

I could have looked at a dozen (or more) other places in the same newspaper to find articles which point to a very different interpretation of current life,  with stories about gun violence, environmental degradation, and evidence of racism and hatred  and corruption of every kind. Which version of the world is true? ²

It comes down to a choice of living with hope, or living with hopelessness. The first suggests we avert our gaze from the bleak realities all around us and the second is just, well, depressing. If the goal is to do something, however small, to make the world better, than which of these attitudes – hopefulness or hopelessness – will spur us to action? It’s well-known that depression causes inaction, an inability to move forward or cope with life’s challenges. So that leaves hopefulness, but what to do with this chosen hope? ³

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
(from an essay by Wendall Berry, Poetry and Marriage)

I have this idea that poems, like art, can’t be sought after.  They seem come into my life when I’m not looking. Berry’s words above aren’t a poem exactly, but they did come unbidden into my life at just the right time several years ago, read by a yoga instructor at the end of class. They give us permission to live comfortably in bafflement, to accept uncertainty, to find hope, and maybe even joy, in those things which block us from the easy paths we think we want.

The year ahead promises all of those – bafflement, uncertainty, and hope too. It is Berry’s last line which makes me smile though. High on my list of favorite sounds is water moving through a rocky creek, but I had never thought about the creek’s music coming from the stony impediments along its path. Perhaps your 20/20 vision will see more clearly through the looming 2020 clouds if you sing more. It’s worth a try.

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¹ Yes
² Both
³ I don’t know, but singing will help

Another Lesson from Beethoven

Has anyone ever asked you to do something that is just simply impossible? Let’s fly to the moon kind of impossible? Do you greet that request with a wondering attitude – how could I help make this happen?  Or an immediate reality check – are you crazy?  

Beethoven asks the impossible of pianists with some frequency.  The piano is a percussion instrument – a hammer inside the piano strikes a group of strings which vibrate as long as the dampers are held off the strings by the pedal. Without benefit of a violinist’s bow or an oboist’s breath, once a note is played on the piano, it’s done. Decay is the only option. Or is it?

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Beethoven regularly puts a crescendo sign on a held note or chord – and that is simply impossible to do on the piano. Hmm, how can we make this happen?  One of my teachers years ago suggested that I should hear the note getting louder in my head and by some form of alchemy the crescendo would be communicated to the listener. That works for me. Perhaps there is an element of body language or a long drawn breath that keeps the player involved with the note in a way that at least suggests it is growing in sound and connecting to whatever follows. Sometimes Beethoven even marks a crescendo and a decrescendo on the same note or chord. Okay, that really is just crazy. Or is it?

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I find it best to do as Beethoven commands, or to at least attempt the impossible. Paying attention to the little markings in his music is the way in to his genius. Think of all the things we believe in, but can’t see – love, the mind, friendship, atoms, intuition. Beethoven helps me believe in a crescendo that can’t really exist, and that’s a beautiful first step into a world where all things are possible.

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Listen Up

This probably never happens to you, but sometime I find myself talking to the apparently unlistening. To be honest, sometimes they truly aren’t listening, but there are times when I’m happily surprised to find that my words were in fact heard. And to be really honest, there are certainly times when I’m not always the best listener either. I am reminded this week, as St. Francis of Assisi is celebrated in liturgical churches on October 4, of a charming legend in which Francis famously preached to the birds. Were they listening?

While I’m no St. Francis, I have often felt myself in conversation with nearby birds whenever I’m practicing  with the windows open at home.  I don’t have proof of this, but it really does seem that the birds are listening to the music, and responding in kind.

The 19th century composer Franz Liszt, who was dissuaded by his father from becoming a priest early in his life, and who took minor holy orders late in his life, wrote a piece about St. Francis preaching to the birds.  It obviously captures birdsong in pianistic figures, and seems to also capture the conversation between a gentle monk and his flock…of birds. I made a note in my score some years ago that observed how joyfully the birds sang whenever I practiced this piece.

A lesson in love for the natural world is certainly one of Francis’s best-known gifts to us. In the exuberant words of his Canticle of Brother Sun, with its almost child-like praise of creation, Francis inspires us to appreciate the wonders of our environment, emphasizing our kinship with the world around us.

For Brother Sun, whose brightness makes the light by which we see.
For Sister Moon, whose beams were formed to shine so clear and bright.
For Brother Wind, whose clouds and breezes blow across the land.
For Sister Water, so precious, humble, lowly, chaste and pure.
For Brother Fire, whose flames and light illuminate the night.
For Sister Earth, for grass and plants and flowers and all our food.

Francis went to Egypt in 1219 as part of a Crusade with intentions to convert the Sultan, and found himself instead in dialogue with the Islamic ruler, who himself was surrounded by Coptic Christians as advisors. Seems like more listening than “talking” occurred during that particular Crusade.

It strikes me that an important part of listening includes listening to ourselves – noticing what we say (or do) and its effect on others (or our planet). At the heart of listening there has to be a moment when we are willing to be changed by what we hear. Thanks, Brother Francis, for the reminder.

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Love is the Lesson

An Easter treat in the form of a beautiful work for choir by my friend Gary Davison. I asked him to write a piece in 2004 for an anniversary celebration and he set this text by Edmund Spenser, which ends with the simple petition – So let us love, dear love, like as we ought; Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught. As is so often the case, profundity lies in simplicity. And as human history has too often shown us, we aren’t very good at keeping things simple.

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English poet Edmund Spenser (1552/3-1599) was a contemporary of this week’s birthday boy, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), usually celebrated on April 23 or 24. While Spenser seemed to work within Tudor political machinations, writing in praise of the Queen and to gain favor with the nobility, Shakespeare seems to be more of an outsider, quicker to cast a skeptical eye on the institutions of his time and the people who ran them. But that’s just my unscholarly summary of two of the English language’s greatest writers.

Spenser’s sonnet, and the whole liturgically-based cycle from which it comes, Amoretti, demonstrates his comfort with the Anglican church and its theology. Debates, on the other hand, about Shakespeare’s belief in God, his churchmanship or whatever else might be ascertained about his religious convictions, are less clear, especially considering his acknowledged role as one of the preeminent humanists of all time. Love was often the lesson, but for Shakespeare it was always an arduous one.

What I think has appealed to most of us during these past 400 years is Shakespeare’s ability to write about every aspect of human character – its many frailties, its potential for redemption and forgiveness, its capacity for love and sacrifice. Just as “there lives more faith in honest doubt” (Tennyson), I believe there lives more understanding of God in our evolving and ever-expanding awareness of God’s complicated creation known as humankind. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for giving us so many windows into that perplexing creature, and happy birthday.

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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.

Compassion

I attended a concert recently by a college choir that was performing Handel’s Messiah. The conductor introduced the concert to his likely mostly unchurched audience by telling them that it didn’t matter what they believed, that this was music which told a story of hope in the form of a baby, and which ended with the pain of a mother watching her son die a horrible death. Anyone could feel some connection to those parts of the Christian narrative, he posited, and I have to agree.  Babies do imply hope for the future, and is there anything more harrowing than a grieving mother’s pain?

There is a 13th century Italian poem about one mother’s grief, Mary’s suffering at the foot of the cross.  These words have been set to music by composers some 600 times –Stabat mater dolorosa, “the sorrowful mother was standing” –  and it is a text which has inspired composers from Josquin des Prez to Arvo Pärt, Palestrina to Verdi.

At Church of the Epiphany this Good Friday at 12:10 p.m. a quartet of soloists will sing the Stabat Mater by Emanuele d’Astorga (1680-1757?).  D’Astorga has largely fallen into obscurity, but I can’t imagine why. There are more than 150 known works of his in existence, and his life was operatic in scope – a noble birth, attempted murder of his mother, his father executed for treason, adventures under an assumed name, a wife less than half his age whom he abandoned with three small children.  A 19th century fascination with d’Astorga led one J.J. Abert to compose an opera in 1866 – aptly named Astorga – that further embellished an already colorful story.

All of this is an aside, however, to what is a beautiful setting of the Stabat Mater text. Real life grief takes many forms, of course, and none is ever elegant, as is the music that accompanies Mary’s grief in so many of the Stabat Mater settings I have heard. I am reminded of the equally elegant Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber accompanying the horrifying war scenes in the film Platoon. The disconnect is jarring, but perhaps there is a message for us in those things which seem irreconcilable, I don’t know.

Whatever the musical language, d’Astorga’s work is the story of Good Friday, seen through Mary’s eyes. Would any of us have been able to stand with her at the foot of that cross, knowing that we couldn’t do anything to stop the violence inflicted on her son? All we can do sometimes is bear witness to someone’s pain and hold some part of it in our heart. Compassion – to understand another’s pain – has its roots in the Latin word for suffering, passio. We hear the Passion narrative read on Good Friday, but I believe experiencing the crucifixion through Mary’s eyes in the Stabat Mater, and suffering with Mary, causes us to have even greater compassion, and our world could use more of that.

 

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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.