Archive for the Music Category

God as Choirmaster

Posted in Homilies, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2018 by timtrue

Geoff Ward

Job 38:4-7

1.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Why?

According to one well-known evangelical leader, “God created the world for His glory”;[i] yet another answers, God created the heavens and the earth out of love.[ii]

I suppose either answer sounds reasonable enough, especially to modern evangelical Christian ears, which have been taught that God is perfect, immutable, and sovereign. We lowly humans can’t understand God’s purposes; so, I suppose, we just shrug our shoulders and get on with life.

But are these two the only possible answers? Could it be that God created the heavens and the earth for another reason?

According to the Jewish mind, the answer is yes.

A creation myth from the Midrash relates that, before creating our heavens and earth, God created a thousand other worlds, one at a time; yet none pleased God. God would make a world, decide it wasn’t right somehow, destroy it, and—clean slate—try again; until, with ours, at last, God got it right.

God did not create the world to glorify God’s self; nor did God create for love. Instead, according to this Jewish account, God created the heavens and the earth for the sheer pleasure of it.[iii]

Does this make God an artist? Did God create the heavens and the earth as an artist creates a composition, as an expression of beauty?

It’s an intriguing idea.

To explore it, we know from Genesis that one of God’s art forms is voice: the word of God goes forth from God’s mouth, “Let there be light,” and there is light.

Moreover, in the book of the prophet Zephaniah (3:17), God’s voice sings over Israel. It’s not the heavenly angels; and it’s not the people. It’s actually God who sings, who makes music.

Thus God is an artist; more specifically, God is a musician.

Maybe the creation account ought to go something more like this: “And God composed and sang, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

But the picture is not yet complete, not quite. For over in Job God mentions a celestial choir. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth,” God asks; “when the morning stars sang together?” (Job 38:4-7).

When God sang, “Let there be light,” right there alongside God, the morning stars sang too.

It’s not enough, then, to say God is a musician; or even that God is a singer and composer. The full image here is God as choirmaster.

2.

I wonder what those pre-creation choir rehearsals looked like—before that first day. I mean, when the celestial choir sang the earth into being, I’m sure they didn’t just take the stage, decked in their heavenly gowns and tuxedos, without first rehearsing—lots and lots of rehearsing.

After all, this wasn’t going to be just any old performance, just another Sunday. No! This was to be the first performance ever, the world premiere!

Not to mention, the choirmaster was, is, and will be only the greatest choirmaster ever, world without end, amen! (Don’t be nervous!)

What would the morale have been like in these rehearsals?

Maybe some of the morning stars only recently joined the celestial choir. Understandably, they’re insecure. Regardless of how inherently gifted and talented they may be, they come to their first rehearsals lacking the confidence necessary to perform as their choirmaster desires.

Other morning stars come to these rehearsals with the necessary confidence but—let’s face it—they just aren’t the best musicians. They regularly sing sharp or flat; they can’t seem to get the tune even after the umpteenth time through, even after the choirmaster places them next to someone who can sing; they clap on one and three.

Still other morning stars—not too many but there always seem to be a few in every choir—let me just say the word: ego. They’re here in God’s celestial choir too, thinking they’re God’s gift to this choir, singing out louder than everyone else around them, wanting to be heard, too confident in their abilities. Divas!

And then there’s the grumbling. The choir has failed a thousand times already! How in the world will they get it right this time? It’s the choirmaster’s fault, some of them whisper; he’s too much of a perfectionist!

But these grumblers keep it very quiet, for fear of losing their cherished places in the choir—like that guy Lucifer and the others, who lost theirs.

Anyway, first and foremost, as you can see, the choirmaster must concern himself with establishing and maintaining community. Somehow he must bring all these diverse individuals together as a team that will sound as a single instrument. This is the choirmaster’s primary goal: community.[iv]

Making music is secondary.

3.

So, let’s turn now to consider this aspect of the choirmaster’s task: making beautiful music—in other words, performance. What goes into a good performance?

First, as has already been mentioned, is lots of rehearsal time. The choirmaster and choir work, work, work until the individual choristers sound together as one—musical elements such as rhythm, timbre, and dynamics have to be precise—all must clap on two and four.

Also important is individual pitch. For a choir to be a true musical community, harmonies—even discordant harmonies—are necessary. But woe to the individual who can’t hold a pitch, who sinks flat or rises sharp even a little bit! That’s the quickest and most sure-fire way for a morning star to lose its luster.

How does the choirmaster accomplish all this—tight musical elements and precise pitches?

I recently had a conversation over coffee with Geoffrey Ward, the University Choirmaster at Sewanee. He tells me about a warm-up he does with his choir.

At his signal, his hands cupped together, the choir sings “ah” in unison. Again, at his signal—he moves his hands apart—each chorister goes to a pitch of his or her own choosing and holds it. Of course, every note of the scale, and maybe even every accidental, sounds; dissonance dominates. But it is purposeful; and it works. Finally, again at his signal—hands come back together—the choristers return to the unison.

“At first the students had trouble with this,” he explains. “They wanted to stay on the original pitch or go to the third or fifth, thus making a major triad. And they had a difficult time returning to the unison. But in time they learned to find the tri-tone, the fourth, the sixth, the minor third, or even the major seventh—and come back to the unison successfully.”[v]

Tight musical elements and precise pitches, achieved through many rehearsals.

4.

And then, maybe most important of all, a choirmaster must teach his choir to improvise. And here I don’t mean jazz!

Improvisation has been part and parcel to music for its entire history. We tend not to associate improvisation, however, with the western classical tradition because so much of its music is written down. But improvisation is there; especially when it comes to performance.

Countless decisions must be made before and during every performance—the level of dynamics at any particular point, how long to hold a fermata, when to breathe, which voice to bring out above the others, and so on. Listen to recordings; or do a YouTube search. Each ensemble performs the same piece quite differently.

What is the source of this diversity but improvisation?

In fact, prior to western notation, it was normal for court choirs largely to improvise. Polyphonic performances were based on a melody line called a cantus firmus. The choirmaster would sing this melody while the other singers would improvise their own lines from it.[vi]

This is how I imagine God the choirmaster singing with the morning stars as they set the foundations of the earth into place: God singing the cantus firmus and the morning stars improvising around it.

C. S. Lewis imagined it this way too, in The Magician’s Nephew. As Aslan sang at the founding of Narnia, one morning star improvised and an elephant rose out of the earth; another sang and a small shoot grew up rapidly to become a towering cedar; and so on.[vii]

5.

Now, here’s the best part: God’s celestial choir continues today; and we are members of it.

Creation wasn’t just a one-time, seven-day event; but is ongoing. We know this. God continues to be at work reconciling all the cosmos to God’s self through God’s people—through us, the members of God’s celestial choir.

And so, what does the image of God as choirmaster mean for us?

Two things.

One: we live in community.

Some of us are new at this, maybe lacking confidence, maybe insecure. Others of us may be surer of ourselves than we should be. Still others act like we’re God’s gift to the church—divas! Some of us might even grumble now and then. Nevertheless, God calls us to work as a team. We each keep our individual voices, but use them together, for the common good.

And two: we improvise.

The Bible is our cantus firmus, the melody from which we generate our harmonies and dissonances; just as many other voices before us have generated theirs.

We have great freedom here—to improvise and create. But, likewise, there are constraints. We don’t have the liberty to compose a new cantus firmus, or to deviate from the established rhythms, dynamics, and other musical elements we’ve been practicing together in our many rehearsals, Sunday after Sunday.

Our job is simply to sing: with each other; with the morning stars; with God. Sing.

_____________________________________________________________

[i] John Piper, “Why Did God Create the World?” last modified September 22, 2012. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/why-did-god-create-the-world

[ii] Dawson McAllister, “Why Did God Create Us? He Doesn’t Really Need Us, so Why Did He Create Anything?” no date given, accessed June 24, 2018. https://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/advice/faithdoubt/why-did-god-create-man.html

[iii] Cf. Howard Schwartz, “From Book Two, Myths of Creation: 90. Prior Worlds” no date given, accessed June 24, 2018. http://www.umsl.edu/~schwartzh/samplemyths_2.htm. Schwartz retells this story in modern English. He lists the Midrash sources from which he draws at the end of the retelling.

[iv] Cf. Lynn A. Corbin, “Building a Positive Choral Attitude,” Music Educators Journal Vol. 81, No, 4 (Jan., 1995): 24-26+49; Mary L. Cohen, “Writing between Rehearsals: A Tool for Assessment and Building Camaraderie,” Music Educators Journal Vol. 98, No. 3 (March, 2012): 43-48; Elizabeth Cassidy Parker, “The Process of Social Identity Development in Adolescent High School Choral Singers: A Grounded Theory,” Journal of Research in Music Education Vol. 62, No. 1 (April, 2014): 18-32.

[v] Geoffrey Ward (University Choirmaster) in discussion with author, June 18, 2018.

[vi] Bruce Ellis Benson, “Improvising Texts, Improvising Communities: Jazz, Interpretation, Heterophany, and the Ekklēsia” in Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 295-319.

[vii] C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1955), chapter nine.

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Music to Shut Out Pundits

Posted in Music, Musings with tags , , , , on August 22, 2014 by timtrue

Beethoven

Sometimes I am overcome with the level of truth, beauty, and goodness that humanity produces.

Just viewed this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ljq4MwzAbo

If you’ve got the time and patience, it’s definitely worth a hearing: a recording of Claudio Arrau performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in Bonn, Germany in 1977.

Watching Arrau is impressive enough.  He’s definitely a master of masters.  His interpretation is perhaps the best there is to date.  And the technical difficulty!  The music critics of 1820s Vienna said this sonata was unplayable after it was first published–if that gives you any idea.

But Arrau can play it.  So could some other pianists who lived closer to Beethoven’s time.  People who didn’t listen to the critics.  People who continued to believe in the aging Beethoven.

For an example of what I’m talking about, close your eyes right at about 25:20 into the recording.  After a few seconds it will sound like Arrau has three hands.  For there are three distinct voices, in three registers, sounding together!  It’s positively trinitarian.  But then you open your eyes and see that, no, no one has joined Arrau; nor has any Wizard enabled Arrau to grow a third hand.  But close your eyes and there it is again!  Truly genius!  Truly the ancient triad of truth, beauty, and goodness come to life!

Then you remember.  Here, now, already moved to tears, you remember that Beethoven was completely deaf at the time he composed this sonata.

How?

. . .

Moved beyond material existence, you decide then and there to be like Beethoven.  You decide that you’ll be deaf to the critics, to the naysayers, and to the news reports all around you that try to force you into desperation regarding humanity.  Where is the truth, they say?  Where is the goodness?  Where is the beauty?

You can’t answer.  Beethoven has rendered you temporarily speechless.  Instead, you act.  You shut off the TV and those wagging pundits, click on that link I gave you above, and settle into hearing nothing for a half hour but this heavenly music brought to earth.

Finally, then, you recover.  And you say, “Right here, O pundits of pessimism.  Truth, beauty, and goodness–humanity’s splendor–are all right here.  You go ahead and tell your stories.  As for me, I’ll listen to Beethoven.”

First-rate English Music

Posted in Music with tags , , , on June 25, 2013 by timtrue

tallis and byrd

Print by Gerhard van der Gucht, 18th c.

Gustav Holst’s The Planets is first-rate music.

Here is a curious thing: the piece is characteristically Holst, yet it is at the same time characteristically English.  That is, suppose you had some musicologist who knew a lot about early twentieth century music yet who had (impossible, I know, but for the sake of argument) never heard this piece of music.  Not only would the musicologist say “English” after hearing only a few bars, he or she would also almost certainly say “Holst!”

Now take the musicologist out of the picture.  What about The Planets makes it distinctly English?  And what makes it Holst’s?

I think the questions are really one and the same; don’t let the layers persuade you otherwise.  One deals with England on a societal level, as a culture.  The other perceives the effects of that culture upon an individual Englishman.  But it’s really the same issue: English music of the early twentieth century—and the English people who composed it—is distinct from contemporaneous music from the Continent, or from America, or from South America, Africa, or Asia.  Holst shares a bond with Vaughan Williams that he does not share with Mahler, Copland, Ginastera, or any other first-rate, non-British composer of his time.

So English music is somehow its own beast, different from the musics of the Old World and the New.  Why?  An answer is difficult to articulate, no doubt because the question is so large.  Still, I think we can begin to scratch the surface.

If we go back a few centuries, to the sixteenth, we run into a remarkable English court musician by the name of Thomas Tallis.  He began his sixty-year career during the reign of Henry VIII and completed it during Elizabeth’s, working until his death in 1585.  Now if you don’t find that significant then you need to brush up on your history.  For Henry initiated a religious split from the Roman Church, declaring himself and not the Pope as the English Church’s supreme Head.  Following his death, Edward VI came to the throne, as thoroughly Protestant as any English monarch ever was.  Next, Jane Grey jumped (or was she pushed?) in as monarch for nine days before Mary, a. k. a. Bloody Mary, came to the throne in 1553.  Mary was as Roman Catholic in word as Edward VI was Protestant; in deed she is remembered for the public executions of nearly 400 Protestants in five years.  Finally, Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and settled the religious drama by solidifying the Anglican Church, an institution not Catholic enough for the Romans and certainly not Protestant enough for the Lutherans and Calvinists.  As for Tallis, he navigated these rough religious waters admirably, the only court employee to endure these four (or five, if you count Grey) monarchies.

When Tallis began serving as a Court Musician, polyphony was all the rage on the Continent.  Think Palestrina, if you know the name.  But then Luther got people thinking.  And that John Calvin character!  One voice would leap over another, three beats behind it, only to be overrun by another, and yet another, and all of it sung on a single syllable of that dead language Latin—how could anyone even grasp what the message is!  Protestants called for musical simplicity, one syllable per note.  Polyphony was too complex, like the devil.  But for Tallis—whether because he found the melodies and simple harmonies too bland for his musical sensibilities or because he was a Catholic at heart, I don’t know—something a bit more complex, but not so complex as polyphony, resulted, and apparently Henry and Edward were okay with it.  Under Mary, Tallis produced some complex polyphony (listen to Puer natus est nobis if you ever get the chance), persuading me at any rate that he remained Catholic through all the hubbub.  And under Elizabeth, while leaving behind polyphony for the most part, we still see awe-inspiring complexity.  His famous forty-voice motet Spem in alium comes from this period.

The point in all this is that by the time Elizabeth acceded to the throne, Tallis had come into his own musically; and his own was nothing like the Protestant or Catholic music on the Continent.  Like the Anglican Church, Tallis’s music was unique.  For that matter, Tallis the man was unique.

Tallis forged a new road musically then.  Is it difficult to see that Holst still travels that same, unique British road in the early twentieth century?  Could we say the same for the Beatles? Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Sting? Adele?