Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Six services in eight days

If you needed proof that Easter is more important in the church calendar than Christmas, I think the count of services alone can provide some evidence! It's definitely the busy time of year for church musicians (as well as clergy, volunteers, and congregations, of course).

The interesting thing, however, is that while I spend more time in the church and play more hymns, I actually end up playing less organ repertoire. For one thing, guest musicians get put to work on Palm Sunday and Easter, but we also observe the continuity of the story by not having a postlude on Maundy Thursday and by having neither a prelude nor postlude on Good Friday.

During this week, we spend more time in silence. Our Wednesday evening services have also represented this meditative mood of Lent. At several points in the service, we observe a moment of silence. Typically, I'm a bit preoccupied with thinking about the next moment in the service, because it is often a hymn.

I appreciate the silence as the necessary canvas for the art of music, and I savor the change in pace from the noise of our lives. But I also wonder about the liturgical intention of those moments. Whereas the ELW sometimes notes very specifically the purpose of silence ("Silence for self-reflection," for example), at other places it simply notes, "A moment of silence follows." Is that a moment for prayer? For meditation? To listen? Or just to rest and take a moment to "be" rather than "do"? Maybe it can be all of those things, dependent on many factors.

I heard the host of "Radio Lab" preach on the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and he noted that even though Abraham often spoke and even argued with God that when given such a strange order, the story progresses without recording any dialogue, simply an implied silence. Silence can be obedient or rebellious, empty or full of meaning. In the silence of this week's services, perhaps take a meta-moment to reflect on the very topic of silence.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

All alone, as it shouldn't be

Tonight, we watched the film The Soloist, the inspiring and disturbing story of the friendship between a mentally ill cellist (Denzel Washington) and a newspaper columnist (Robert Downey, Jr.). The music was beautiful, of course, but these particular lines caught my ear:

"We're all alone."
"Just like it should be."

At this point in the film, the two characters are the sole attendees at a rehearsal of the LA Philharmonic. How many of us have had a similar feeling at a concert, movie, musical, or other public event? The experience would be perfect, if not for all those other people around - the cougher, the early clapper, the talker, the cell phone user, the list of complaints could be endless.

But on further reflection, I thought that the most magical moments in a concert hall are actually times when we transcend the status of individuals and become a group. I hope everyone has experienced sitting in a concert hall in total silence, savoring the final chords of a symphony, or waiting in anticipation for a Beethoven Symphony to crash into existence.

We should not be all alone, and the modern world too often allows us to nest in our homes, thereby avoiding those group experiences. The church should be part of restoring community to our neighborhoods. Those same thoughts were with me as I read about the potential, perhaps likely, destruction of a Brooklyn, New York church. (The NYTimes article at this link has some beautiful pictures.) Of course, the Cleveland area has churches of its own in disuse and disrepair. Is it partly a reflection of our great desire to be alone, rather than come together in community?

This week, Holy Week, I will spend many hours in the church, and among my prayers will be the hope that the church (meaning the universal church) will reinvigorate its role in outreach and community. Indeed, all alone is not how we should be in such a setting.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Palm Sunday music

I think of Palm Sunday as a holiday of hope and expectation. It's not quite a celebration - we'll save that for Easter - but the kids and the choir will symbolically reenact the procession, and we'll sing optimistic hymns of faith, most notably "All Glory, Laud, and Honor."

Musically, it will be an exciting day at Bethany. The Rainbow Ringers will play along on our opening hymn. As far as I know, it's the first time that they will play along with a congregational hymn, and I hope you enjoy the experiment. (Thanks in advance to Sue and the kids for all their work!) We'll also have two guest trumpet players from Baldwin Wallace, who will accompany our hymns and liturgy.

I hope that some of you will stick around to hear the postlude, as well. One of the trumpet players and I will be playing a cutting from the fourth movement of Eben's trumpet sonata, titled Golden Window. It's a modern piece that few people are familiar with, but David is an exceptional player and I think you'll enjoy the unique opportunity to hear this piece played.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Making space

I heard Krista Tippett, host of NPR's "Speaking of Faith," describe Lent not as a time of "giving up" but of "making space." My personal feelings toward the idea of giving something up for Lent have likely become clear to my readers. I don't see self-abnegation as a proper act of thanksgiving and praise of a loving God.

But I do see the wisdom of making space. The busier life gets, the more I can come to appreciate time taken to go for a run, to make music, or simply to relax and enjoy the company of friends and family. Ironically, taking a break can make us more productive. Adding another item to our weekly schedule can make the rest seem easier and better. That's why giving up an hour of life for a Lenten service can be a joy, rather than a burden. That's even why I think giving up candy to replace it with a vegetable can be a wise choice. We aren't simply giving up something we like; we are replacing it with something better for us.

There aren't many days of Lent remaining, of course, but the idea of making space in our lives for prayer, music, and church should be with us all year. Can you give up an evening for choir rehearsal? Or can you simply give up 10 minutes of sleeping in on Sunday morning for fellowship before church, and prayer during the offering? That would be the kind of giving up and making space that I can understand!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How did a week go by so quickly?

I don't suppose I can blame the way time has sped up this week entirely on Daylight Saving Time. But if you throw in our upcoming spring break and midterms, a little bit of yard work, and all the music of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, there just hasn't been much free time left. I didn't even comment on Bach's recent birthday.

You have been hearing plenty of Bach in church lately, though, with more to come. First, David's solo this past Sunday was a great Lenten meditation during communion. The postlude was a selection titled "Sanctify Us" from Cantata 22. And tonight, the postlude will be a portion of the St. Matthew Passion, titled Wir Setzen Uns. The text is a bit ahead of the Passion narrative, but we've reached our last Wednesday Lenten service, so I think our focus appropriately shifts to the events of Holy Week.

The text of the chorale I'll be playing is translated as follows:
In tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee.
Hearts cry to Thee, O Savior dear.
Lie Thou softly, softly here.

Rest Thy worn and bruised body.
At the grave, O Jesus blest,
May the sinner, worn with weeping
Comfort find in Thy dear keeping,
And the weary soul find rest.
Sleep in peace,
Sleep Thou in the Father's breast.

We've entered a season of contrasts: cold nights and sunny days, bitter rains and blooming crocus flowers, the crucifixion and the resurrection. Tonight we'll sing hymns of trust and confidence: "Restore in Us, O God," "Jesus, Refuge of the Weary," and "Now the Day is Over." The prelude will be based on Wondrous Love, contrasted with the postlude mentioned above. Our prayers and thoughts should be spurred on by this contrast and variety, as we await Easter.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Better than sunshine!

Tonight we'll be singing the hymn "Beneath the Cross of Jesus," and the tune will also feature prominently in the prelude. This hymn is among the most popular in the ELW, I would say, and most of us can sing the first verse from memory. What caught my eye on this sunny spring day, however, is this bit of text from verse 3:

I take, O Cross, they shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face...

The warm weather has provided such a boost to my mood lately, and I see that energy shared among my students and colleagues. Meanwhile, flowers are poking their way up in my garden and the snow is finally gone. I've been gladly running outdoors on roads and trails, and even a simple walk across campus can bring a smile to my face. So this hymn's suggestion that sunshine is less important than the Cross is particularly powerful imagery right now!

I think there's a Sunday school exercise in such thoughts - Lent is better than...sunshine, chocolate, recess, reading, etc. (Feel free to contribute your own in the comments!) Perhaps that's a better motivation for the practice of giving something up - to remind us that there are better and more important things in our time on earth. That's a more hopeful perspective than simply to suffer and recall suffering. My campaign to make Lent cheerful continues, I it a misguided, Quixotic adventure?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Variations on Wondrous Love

We might call this week "Wondrous Love Sunday" at Bethany. For starters, we'll be singing the hymn as a congregation. But we'll be hearing it in two other forms as well. The choir will be singing Paul Christiansen's folk style arrangement of it, with Tim as our featured soloist. A different tune with the same title will also be the Meditative Prelude, this time composed by Paul Manz for a modern sound.

The hymn is a southern folk hymn from the 19th century, which is revealed both in its tune and text. The tune is a lilting, flowing melody that is easily memorable and singable. Meanwhile, the text is simple and repetivie. Rather than conveying doctrine or quoting a Biblical passage, the text simply ponders God's wondrous love. Again, I find that to be a more inspiring image during Lent - it's a season of love, not deprivation!

The spiritual origins of the text are particularly noticeable in the final verse, which I find particularly inspiring from a musical point of view: "And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on, I'll sing on...I'll sing God's love for me, and through eternity I'll sing on." It's a glimpse of the beautiful music of praise that the eternal choir sings and that we will someday join.

The bell choir will also be playing the prelude at both services this week. Their music always provides enjoyable variety to the service, so be sure to say good morning and thank the players who volunteer their time and talents! (And of course, keep in mind that all the musical groups at Bethany would always welcome your participation too.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Does performance intent matter?

Who would have thought that an organ recital could cause a tempest in a teapot? Musicians and clergy in the area have been debating the appropriateness of Cameron Carpenter's performance this week, especially following yesterday's Plain Dealer article. Some members of the American Guild of Organists are giddy at the chance to see him perform live, while others are ambiguous about whether he is all style versus substance. Some clergy are eager for the attention he brings to church music, while others fear his personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof) make his performance inappropriate.

I don't want to delve into the details of this debate. Frankly, I don't know him well enough to make judgements (and I think few of the people embroiled in this debate do either). What I find much more interesting is the question of whether a performer's traits, beliefs, and intent truly matter in a recital or in a worship setting.

Many organists play at churches of denominations other than their own faith. Personally, I've played for many Catholic services, including one year as a music director at a Catholic church, as well LCMS, Methodist, and other denominations. Clearly, I have beliefs and personal characteristics that are not in harmony with some of their doctrine. Does that make my music less effective or less appropriate?

Furthermore, there is a school of thought that interpretation is king in the arts. To take one popular novel as an analogy, consider Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Is the book an indictment of faith? A radical historical theory or revision? Perhaps it's a rollicking thriller? Or do you enjoy reading it for the history, art, and architecture? Could the author possibly have imbued the book with each of these levels with complete intention? Which one does he consider primary - and does it matter? If Dan Brown meant to attack religion, but you simply enjoy the story, then surely your interpretation trumps his intent.

Similarly, there are people who find faith in all kinds of unorthodox places. (This blog alone has mentioned Broadway shows, film and television, poetry and books, though most of them had no intent to preach.) Some people find more religious meaning in a trip to Severance Hall than a church.

Meanwhile, not every piece of church music will hold meaning for every listener. Some members of our congregation love to hear the harpsichord, some love to hear ancient chant music, or the original Latin mass parts. And for each of those styles, there are other members who find no joy or meaning.

So to return to Cameron Carpenter for a moment - should we care about his religious belief (or his outfits)? I say no. He won't be preaching; he'll be performing music. Don't the listeners' reactions to the music (from sublime prayer to indifference) outweigh anything he ever said in a newspaper interview?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Organ concert at Messiah Lutheran, Fairview Park

This week, residents of northeast Ohio have a unique opportunity to hear what promises to be an incredible organ recital. Cameron Carpenter will be performing at Messiah Lutheran in Fairview Park this Thursday night at 8:00 pm. He is an incredibly famous performer in the organ world today. He can perform melodies in the pedal line that some performers would struggle to play with their right hand, and he'll be inaugurating and showing off the church's newly rebuilt pipe organ.

Personally, I have a class on Thursday night and won't be able to attend. (Somehow I seem to have a class every evening all spring, which is a shame when it conflicts with great events like this concert!) But I encourage you to consider attending (call the church for ticket info). At the very least, you should take a look at some of Cameron's performances that are available online. Click here for one fun example from Youtube.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Lenten Gloria

Last week, I wrote about the "missing" Gloria during Lent, but anyone who has worshipped at Bethany on Wednesday lately might have noticed that we're singing a modified Gloria during that service.

The music of our Lenten services is more chant-based. For some people, it conjures up images of medieval monks singing Vespers and Compline at the end of the day. With the darkened windows, black vestments, and Lenten music, we gather to hear and contemplate the Passion story. The service is a soothing, meditative bed-time prayer in these early spring weeks. In the midst of those services, it might be easy to overlook this hymn of praise, so I'd like to draw your attention to the joyous nature of this chant text:

Joyous light of glory:
Of the immortal Father;
Heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ.
We ahve come to the setting of the sun,
And we look to the evening light.
We sing to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
You are worthy of being praised
With pure voices forever.
O Son of God, O giver of life;
The universe proclaims your glory.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bach and poetry during Lent

In my writing and the comments lately, we've discussed how Lent is musically set aside. The penitential season purposely has a different feel and sound from the ordinary church year. For some reason, this season always brings the harpsichord to mind for me. (You might recall my series of Bach's Preludes and Fugues on the harpsichord last year.) This Sunday, the prelude will be a selection from Bach's French Suite in c minor. I hope you enjoy the change of pace from organ music. (For those of you who were at worship this past Wednesday will also be able to appreciate the radical shift from dissonant, modern music to the Baroque harpsichord sound this Sunday!)

Recently I've been rereading the books of Jasper Fforde, working my way through the Thursday Next books, which begins with the great "Eyre Affair." One of the quotes that caught my eye was this:

"It's like a big emotion magnifier. All feelings are exacerbated...You can find things out about yourself that you never knew...You can lose yourself in a book, but you find yourself in Poetry." Of course, music is basically poetry set to melody. Rhythm and meter and rhyme are key to both. And they both help us in our daily life, our prayer, and our worship.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Good-bye to the Gloria

We have entered the season of Lent, which brings with it several changes in worship. While we chose not to change the setting, observant worshippers have no doubt noticed the new or missing pieces of the liturgy. Among the more notable changes is that we no longer sing the Gloria near the beginning of the service. (Alleluias are gone as well, but I'll save that for another day.)

The liturgical calendar is full of such quirks and rules, and some people are fascinated by the many proper things that must be included or excluded in any given service. But there are other people who feel compelled to ponder the status quo and constantly ask questions: Why, exactly, do we not sing the Gloria during Lent?

There seem to be only two answers to this question. The first, and simplistic, is that it is tradition or canon law or some such variation on "That's the way it has always been done." In its simplest version, I can't say that I find this argument particularly compelling. For one thing, an awareness of church history will uncover the many arguments and changes that have taken place in the liturgy over the centuries. It wasn't until the 11th or 12th century that priests were including the Gloria as a regular part of the Mass. Maybe it has been done this way for hundreds of years, but to make decisions based on that argument alone is a sure route to stagnation (and didn't Martin Luther himself work hard to overcome improper traditions?).

Dig a little deeper, and it is sometimes explained that the reason behind this tradition/rule is that Lent (like Advent) is a penitential season. The Gloria is not in keeping with the introspective nature of these Sundays. So it would appear that we are to spend 40 days seeking forgiveness, which will be granted on Easter. I know that most Catholic churches will not perform baptisms during Lent for the same reason.

Personally, I hope that we can always balance supplication with praise, even during Lent. At the same time, I do find comfort and meaning in the regularity and certainty of the liturgy. Like a mantra (or even just the habits and patterns of daily life), we can overcome thoughts about the mundane, arbitrary decisions in life and focus on higher thoughts and prayer. The changes made during Lent can refocus our attention, but I do still miss the tuneful prayer of praise that is the Gloria. Why wouldn't God want us to sing hymns of praise every day of our lives? Do you miss the Gloria or do you find that it creates new meaning in the season of Lent? Is liturgical tradition a comfort or a straightjacket - or something in between?

I won't be playing it again for weeks, but here's the text of the Gloria to hum to yourself in the meantime. Don't you agree it's a sentiment worth expressing every day?

Glory to God in the highest,
And peace to His people on Earth.

Lord, God, heavenly king,
Almighty God and Father.
We worship you; we give you thanks.
We praise you for your glory.

Lord Jesus Christ, only son of the Father.
Lord God, lamb of God,
You take away the sin of the world.
Have mercy on us.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father.
Receive our prayer.
For you alone are the holy one,
You alone are the Lord.
You alone are the most high,
Jesus Christ.

With the Holy Spirit,
In the Glory of God, the Father,