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.

sonyafirst004

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

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

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.

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.