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

Traditional

There is such beauty to be found in the traditions that connect us to other times and places, and as people who worship in a traditional setting, there can be an energy which comes from being rooted in the past – rooted in sound theology, and in liturgy and music that soars and take us along to a more glorious understanding of God. When done well, we can be nourished by the traditions our forebears created to worship God within the framework of a liturgy which speaks for a community rather than individuals.

When we care enough, we aspire to live into those traditions, whether that means decorating for Christmas or saying “The Lord’s Prayer.” The acolytes learn to carry the cross and torches with care and dignity.  Lay readers demonstrate that they’ve rehearsed their readings at home, often bringing a real sense of drama and wonder to the lessons.  And hearing and singing the great hymns and anthems of the Anglican tradition, as well as music from other traditions, will be something that stays with children throughout their lives. I’ve seen proof of that in talking to former Choristers.  Junk food can be fun, and temporarily tasty, but nourishment comes from real food, and if you’ve read anything about nutrition lately, you know that traditional grains and ways of cooking are back!

I subscribe to a listserv for choral directors on which there is periodic chatter around the appropriate use of spirituals in “white” churches. I used to follow the talk with some bemusement as I wondered how people could still worry about this in 21st century America, but recent events and political discourse have changed bemusement to concern. In one instance, a minister had emailed his musician (you see the problem already – email is never the way to discuss a problem) to say that he was disturbed by the published anthem schedule, which included a spiritual.  The minister didn’t believe a “white” church choir could sing African-American music in an authentic way, and seemed to be skeptical of singing in African-American dialect – Ain’a dat good news, for example.

There is a tradition to uphold, however, in the dialect which grew out of slavery. We honor something good that came out of the darkest part of American history, when we sing in dialect, which, by the way, is an integral part of the music, servings the music’s rhythms so beautifully. I can’t imagine wanting to iron out the dialect of spirituals to make it more acceptable to modern ears. I believe singing spirituals in dialect provides a sense of the historical and cultural context from which these songs spring, and a profound respect for the suffering and inequalities they represent.

And yet, I too have experienced the quick judgements of singers and congregations who suggest that largely white choirs shouldn’t sing music from the African-American tradition. I find that embarrassing. Not to be “white” (well, I’m actually kind of beige), but to think that somehow people believe that this music doesn’t belong to us.  In that case I would have to question whether or not a “black” church should ever sing Handel or Mozart. Spirituals and Gospel music are good. Bach and Tallis are good.  And all good things belong to everybody. We won’t excel at every tradition, but there is joy in trying.

The printed words of Ain’t got time to die , sung this Sunday at St. John’s, will embarrass some folks, but in singing them we are honoring a tradition. It is a tradition of strength and resilience, of indomitable spirit and creativity. We sing and hear the words of African-American spirituals, and we are more deeply connected to another time and place, as we are when we sing the hymns of Martin Luther, the motets of Palestrina, the folk tunes of the Shakers and the resistance songs of South Africans.

Peace,
Sonya

No Mud, No Lotus

No mud, no lotus.  This thought from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh should be the mantra for anyone going through difficult times.  God doesn’t purposely put us in the mud, I don’t think, but if we can observe, or even encourage, the lotus to emerge from it, then we have the possibility of happiness. I don’t really expect you to make the connection, but this is the thought that came to me while practicing the accompaniment for a piece that is new to me, Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice.  It’s a substantial and difficult piece for choir and organ, and the accompaniment was feeling muddy indeed.

I am still not quite hearing all of the beauty and power that this work promises, but there is one moment – one beautiful lotus – that emerged from the mud as I practiced.  It comes near the end, a few measures of such poignancy which spoke to me as clearly as any words could about longing for God’s presence. Beginning around 10:40 in this recording by the Truro Cathedral Choir, at the words come away (sweetly reminiscent, incidentally or not, of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night song, “Come away death”):

Lo, the full, final sacrifice – Gerald Finzi

Finzi was avowedly agnostic and a pacifist.  Working in 1946, he set words of St. Thomas Aquinas, as translated by metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw (text is below). With its references to a ransomed Isaac (from the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac) and the mythical assertion that pelicans would wound themselves in order to feed their own blood to their young, it is a text rich with the imagery of sacrifice. You might well imagine the potency of these images of sacrifice in post-war England. Traditional images of Christ as Paschal Lamb and Shepherd and simple references to food, bread and manna are woven together as well in this ode to the mystery of the Eucharist.  Agnostic?  Really?

Two different things came to mind as I was practicing the Finzi this week.  They might be related, but you would have to peek into my brain to help me figure out how. First, I heard a sermon this past Sunday which asked us to more fully embrace the line from The Lord’s Prayer, our daily bread.  The preacher spoke about our daily need for new bread.  Yesterday’s bread may have been good for that time, but might not be nourishing us anymore.  It was a suggestion to live more comfortably with change.  Second, I was reminded how a great ending can fully redeem even a mediocre story. Lo, the full, final sacrifice is a story of goodness coming from pain, of triumph over bleakness (though this is far from being a mediocre work, even if still muddy for me). It is the power of those final few minutes, I think, which redeems the jagged dissonances of the first 10 minutes.

A glorious ending.  Is that the connection?  Living comfortably with change so that we can move towards a glorious ending?  Living in the mud sometimes, so that the beauty of the lotus is all the more eloquent?

Lo, the full, final Sacrifice
On which all figures fix’t their eyes.
The ransomed Isaac, and his ram;
The Manna, and the Paschal Lamb.

Jesu Master, just and true!
Our Food, and faithful Shepherd too!

O let that love which thus makes thee
Mix with our low Mortality,
Lift our lean Souls, and set us up
Convictors of thine own full cup,
Coheirs of Saints. That so all may
Drink the same wine; and the same Way.
Nor change the Pasture, but the Place
To feed of Thee in thine own Face.

O dear Memorial of that Death
Which lives still, and allows us breath!
Rich, Royal food! Bountiful Bread!
Whose use denies us to the dead!

Live ever Bread of loves and be
My life, my soul, my surer self to me.

Help Lord, my Faith, my Hope increase;
And fill my portion in thy peace.
Give love for life; nor let my days
Grow, but in new powers to thy name and praise.

Rise, Royal Sion! rise and sing
Thy soul’s kind shepherd, thy heart’s King.
Stretch all thy powers; call if you can
Harps of heaven to hands of man.
This sovereign subject sits above
The best ambition of thy love.

Lo the Bread of Life, this day’s
Triumphant Text provokes thy praise.
The living and life-giving bread,
To the great Twelve distributed
When Life, himself, at point to die
Of love, was his own Legacy.

O soft self-wounding Pelican!
Whose breast weeps Balm for wounded man.
All this way bend thy benign flood
To a bleeding Heart that gasps for blood.
That blood, whose least drops sovereign be
To wash my worlds of sins from me.
Come love! Come Lord! and that long day
For which I languish, come away.
When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unseal’d source of thee.
When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase,
And for thy veil give me thy Face. Amen.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

Where I’ll be:
July 31 and August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s (Norwood), 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Maybe you’d like to come and sing with the Summer Choir there? 9:15 a.m. rehearsal.

July 31-August 12 – organist for Christ Church, Glendale (Ohio) during their residency at Canterbury Cathedral (U.K.)

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.

Save the Date: Friday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m., Let’s Dance! Music for Two Pianos (no actual dancing is involved). Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton play music of Manual Infante, Witold Lutoslawski, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Contact me directly if you would like to receive an invitation.

* * * * *

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 to be grateful for.