Reflections on the Music at Trinity
Director of Music, Christian Hendricks
Thoughts on the music featured in our services are pulled from the Sunday bulletins.
“Never was the shade of a plant dearer, lovelier, or sweeter,” sings the Persian king Xerxes as he admires a plane tree at the beginning of Händel’s opera Serses. It will be about the only peace he experiences in the opera as a typical and knotty opera seria love triangle ensues. Now more commonly known as “Händel’s Largo,” the music is an aural epitome of repose tinged with ecstasy and melancholy. Unlike the barren fig tree of Jesus’ parable, this one bears good fruit of comfort. When our “weary soul needs rest,” where shall we find it? When, like the deer in Psalm 42, we pant for living streams, where shall our thirst be slaked? If it is to be found in “the Rock of Ages,” then a further question is asked: what do we thirst for?
The broken heart was a prime topic for Romantic composers, and few seemed to understand it better than Franz Schubert. Unfruitful romantic entanglements dotted his life; depression (likely cyclothymia) constantly plagued him; and his life was over before he could barely begin, having been ill from his mid-20s to his death at 31. Despite that, he wrote some 1500 compositions, many of them art songs (lieder in German). Lyricism was his main gift, as the two pieces here demonstrate. The song cycle genre began with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, but it would Schubert (an admirer of Beethoven) who would create two of its most important works, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, both set to poems by Wilhelm Müller. Winterreise (Winter’s Journey), is a dramatic monologue of a man who, his love rejected, takes to wandering and musing on his situation, with many images and objects around him inspiring contemplation. The first lieder of the cycle, “Gute Nacht,” is him initiating his journey as he says farewell.
Although for piano alone, Schubert’s Impromptus are no less lyrical, and the third from his first set of them is one his most beautifully melodic. This and Winterreise were both written at the end of his life, when his illness was clearly terminal. Though melancholic, his musical abilities and imagination remained strong as ever.
That said, the afflictions Schubert faced can overwhelm many, if not most, others. How does one carry on when heartbroken? When the rivers of dreams one has paddled down have run dry, when the cities of our hopes seek to dash them? For Schubert, there wasn’t much more to do but to keep writing—what about us?
The question of identity is one of the major ones not just of now, but of all time. It can be used for liberation, and it can be used for containment. It can be used to express who we are, and it can be used to express who others aren’t. Tchaikovsky’s music was considered by many of his compatriots as not Russian enough—he was trained in the style of Western European music—and by Western auditors as just enough as their own, interesting beyond an exotic delight. Tchaikovsky himself loved the music from both worlds, but living in both brought him unease.
Mykola Lysenko had less qualms about his identity, which perhaps brought him as much, if not more, trouble. Born and living in Ukraine during the second half of the 19th century, he strove to stake out a Ukrainian voice in the broader classical music world. This was not acceptable to Tsarist Russia and the Imperial Music Society, and Lysenko would have to publish some of his music abroad, especially anything in Ukrainian, which was not a permissible language to print in. Like Bartòk and Janáček, Lysenko did ethnomusicological research into the songs and instruments of his nation, and helped found a national school for Ukraine. But people have identities beyond states and their statutes: like Tchaikovsky, who admired Lysenko’s opera Taras Bulba enough to try to get it staged, Lysenko’s style encompassed more than just one place, as the influence of Chopin on his piano music attests.
This is music of different places, and we are people of different places. Who gets to define?
Nostalgia is the temptation of the past. Long have we sought to return to some edenic situation, whether an actual Garden of Eden, a supposed time when the country was great, or something more personal, more immediate. But we can never go back. Nor, when we remember correctly, should we want to. The music today focuses less on Eden and more on a garden whose center is Christ, a man who was tempted but unlike Adam and Eve resisted, forgoing the easy delights of this world for the difficult pleasures of His father’s realm. In this garden will we find true rest, and as in Psalm 32, we will then sing a new song.
There is an ebb and flow, falling and rising, like the sunken cathedral Debussy envisions in “La cathédral engloutie,” which seems to occur throughout the church year. It starts in waning light with Advent before Jesus is born, and then grows with increasing light until today, the feast of the Transfiguration. We start immediately emphasizing the extremes here, declaring “You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd.” We are to listen to this paradox, proclaims the voice from the cloud, who in claiming Jesus as his beloved son, commands us to “hear ye Him.” When “Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory” which have said this, we are left, like Peter, James, and John, to marvel at Jesus’ exalted state. If we are to ever emulate Jesus, how can we be so transfigured? To be “transfigured” is not necessarily to be changed thoroughly, but to be made more beautiful or exalted; we are to become better versions of ourselves. Again, how? These past many weeks have held the answer: “Is not this the fast I have chosen?”; “With what shall I come before the Lord?”; and likewise; and the answer is: justice, kindness, love. When the Lord transfigures Jesus, He transfigures Himself. When we bring light unto others through justice, kindness, and love, we bring light unto ourselves. When we do this, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, […] for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” As we reach a summit of light before the darkening of Lent, let us proclaim “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” and whose righteousness brings morning to our souls. And should we find ourselves transfigured, perhaps we’ll find “The Angles Changed My Name.”
NB: This month has featured music by a few African-American composers, namely Scott Joplin, Harry T. Burleigh, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. There are of course many others who, for various reasons, couldn’t be featured, such as William Grant Still, Florence Price, Nathaniel Dett, Undine Smith Moore, and Jessie Montgomery, but to name a few. One way you could show justice, kindness, and love is to give these and other black composers a listen.
“Be Thou My Vision,” we begin to implore, as we seek to set out on the path the Lord asks us to take. Or is it paths? How many roads lead to Heaven? The light of the Lord surely shows us the one and steady path? Or does it light the destination, and the means by which one can get there? “God is calling through the whisper,” and He is calling to us each—“can you hear?” His light speaks, His voice illumines. It is not the essentially just whom are spoken to, but those who, in doing what is just because justice is their faith, are the ones who can hear and see the way, and are led “along paths of righteousness” and shown Heaven. If we “want to walk as a child of the light,” to follow Jesus, we must be like Jesus, and likewise the Heaven we are shown must be emulated in our lives. It is not good to wait till death to seek Heaven; it is goodness to make a Heaven while we live. And thus, “let us build a house where love can dwell,” where “all are welcome.”
Last week we asked what we should bring before the Lord, and we implore again the Lord to “speak to me that I may speak in living echoes of your tone.” The Lord replies again, more emphatically, that “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” and states plainly “the fast I have chosen,” which is to bring justice, service, and love to those who need it. For “faith begins by letting go,” and what the Lord commands us to let go are showy displays of superficial humility. The strongest light will only come from this fasting, this letting go of vanity, and when we truly follow God, our souls will be satisfied. In hope of such a time, we sing “Alleluia! Laud and Blessing.”
The light of the Lord calls us stronger this week to carry His light into the world, and unto those whose lives seem filled with darkness, or who may not seek power: the meek, the peacemakers, the soul-starved, and, as our prelude (“Blessed are they who mourn”) reminds us, those who are sorrowful. With constant emphasis, we aver today our calling to bless each other with justice, service, and most important of all, love. In both our opening hymn (“Come! Live in the Light”) and the anthem (“Lead Me, Lord”), we are enjoined to follow the Lord in doing so. This is what the Lord asks most of us to bring before Him (“With What Shall I Come Before the Lord?”). When we do so, we may join those whom Jesus calls blessed, and dwell in the house of the Lord (“Lord, Who May Dwell in Your House”).
Water and light: both are refreshing, both are necessary for life, and both have been symbols present for the last few weeks. While we start in darkness (“Moonlight Sonata”), our faith that “God is My Strong Salvation” means that soon we will see a great light. And surely, soon enough Jesus comes a-knockin’, meeting us where we are, as he met his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee (“You Walk Along Our Shoreline”). As he is our light and salvation, breaking the night of our lives, in him is gladness, “sunshine of my heart.” Water and light meet again in our closing hymn, where we implore “Shine, Jesus, shine” and “flow, river, flow” and are refreshed by the love of God. Let us feel the light shine through the cool shimmer of leaves as we leave to the music of Sibelius and “The Birch,” resting up for the mission Jesus has in store for us.
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,[a]
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Desdemona’s desperate prayer from Otello echoes the attitude of many of the Psalms, and the lines above, from Psalm 40:1-11, begins with the desperate situation of the psalmist. Immediately he finds deliverance through the Lord, and finds also a new song. The music today is about receiving from the Lord both the strength to follow Him, and the deliverance such service will bring. Through Christ, the Lamb of God, do we receive such salvation, and so “O Jesus, I Have Promised to serve thee to the end” we sing. Bringing “true courage,” Jesus, like the Lord for the psalmist, comes to each of us as he did the disciples (“Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore”), and as he takes us, he takes our sins (“Lamb of God”). As we Americans also honor Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, let us remember that liberation is deliverance, and one way to serve the Lord is to end oppression; so we sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Water brings many of us respite, whether directly through its touch, or indirectly through its presence. It brings our bodies calm. Of course, it can bring us distress, as in great storms or floods. God is above all this, however, as Psalm 29 proclaims: “the voice of God calls us above the waters”; and while the waters nourish our bodies, God seeks to nourish our souls. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is both baptized by water and anointed by the Holy Spirit, as God’s voice above the waters proclaims his son, who will share the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace. To share with each other love, joy, and peace is to baptize each other in the Spirit.
“Love came down at Christmas”
Christina Rossetti wrote, and in another poem, remarks how it came during a time of darkness, whether in literal midwinter or a figurative time of difficulty. Rossetti remarks that the heavenly host may have gathered, but it was Mary who first reciprocated the love by kissing her child. Motherly and fatherly love are prominent in the music for today; what other forms of love might have come down at Jesus’ birth?
Hope, peace, and joy join love as we await their arrival with the birth of the Savior, and “as the heavens start to whisper,” we implore Christ to come and “fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” But just as Christ is born to save, the device for our salvation—the cross—is growing as well.
For now, though, let us remember that love should begin at home, and for those who are traveling for Christmas to other homes or will be gone from theirs, we keep in our hearts that we’ll all be home for Christmas, even if only our dreams.
“What, said she, is this word? What is thy joy?”
Last week we contemplated peace, and there’s a kind of joy which is peace, the kind we might experience sitting in front of the fireplace in winter (Largo from Vivaldi’s “Winter”).
Joy may be adoration, as we sing in “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”; the original words for Beethoven’s melody, by Schiller, call joy the “daughter of Elysium.”
Joy may be great expectations, as we await the resurrection of those who have gone already (“At the round earth’s imagin’d corners”) and entreat the coming of “long-expected Jesus.”Joy may also be someone, whether a lover or a friend or a family member, as we exclaim in the offertory “thou art my joy.” Like hope and peace, joy can be multi-faceted, and all are aspects of love. And with whomever you find joy, let us sing “wassail” and enjoy this penultimate Sunday of Advent.
Peace be with you.
What kind of peace? The prelude reminds us to keep merry — is merriness peace? The first hymn asks our souls to find calm — is calmness peace? The anthem tells us to prepare the way of the Lord — is preparedness, the restlessness of expectation, peace? Isaiah the Prophet reminds us also of peace between and amongst people and peoples. Peace, like love, has many aspects to it: whatever form it takes in the moment we praise those who spread it, for “How lovely are the messengers that preach us the gospel of peace.” And as the shepherds on Christmas spread the birth of Jesus, they were also such messengers, for Christ is also peace, who, “amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night,” came to dispel the darkness and “lighten every load.”
Hope is born from darkness.
“Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart,” Beethoven wrote at top of the third movement of his String Quartet in A minor, “Holy song of thanksgiving from a convalescent to the Godhead, in the Lydian mode.” He had recovered from an illness which he had thought would kill him. In lighting the first Advent candle, we join the light of hope with the “Light of light” (“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”) as we move from our personal darkness.
Hope is ever restless.
To the Lord we lift our soul as we sing the first chant from the Liber Usualis, “Ad te levavi.” In stillness it waits, and as anyone who waits for something momentous knows, the time is not calm, but anxious. But again we affirm the light to come, the creator of the stars of night (Conditor alme siderum).
Hope is ever expectant.
“People, look east. The time is near” we exclaim. We can barely contain our wishes as we look towards the end of Advent in expectation of Love. But for now, we must ever be ready, we must be awake, for the voice calls to us (“Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”).
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We are all criminals – not necessarily against the laws of our state, but as we are all in some form of exile, we all are transgressors, whether against ourselves, against our families, or perhaps yet against the state (one need only think of the desperate people some have called “illegals”). But what if we are not merely in exile, but making a procession? And what if we are not just processing, but making a dance of it, sometimes a jig, sometimes a pavane, sometimes a courtly march? And the direction of our procession is to a coronation not of an earthly monarch, but of Christ the King? Our first instinct is to make a courtly fanfare of it (Rondeau from Abdelazer) – “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus; his the scepter, his the throne;” – but we are criminals, not lords, and Christ is on the cross. When we, like the one who was saved, confess our transgressions, that is when Jesus ends our exile: “today.in Paradise.” Now we can begin to celebrate appropriately: “Let all the world in every corner sing” (Let All the World) as Christ “[comes] down from heaven and […] [dances] on the earth” and leads all in the dance. Our hope is in Christ coming again, singing as we do “soon and very soon.”
Edmund Spenser in “Epithalamion,” his ode to his bride and one of the most beautiful poems in English, envisioned the whole of nature coming together, slowly converging out of the wilderness and darkness to greet his bride as she awakens for their wedding day. For the last two months, the music has focused on themes of exile and home, sorrow and comfort, fear and justice, and the universality of our human emotions, thoughts, and desires. Today it all comes together in Christ the King, but as we will remember during Advent, Jesus was born not in a palace, but in greatest humility. As we in the U.S. remember to give thanks this coming week, today “Let All Things Now Living” give thanks in simple ways, first in a setting of an English folk melody, and then for our “Simple Gifts”, in a setting of a Shaker melody which the handbells ring out.
If I may get personal for a moment, I would like to thank you for taking me into this community during my own time in the wilderness. It has been a fulfilling pleasure to be your pianist, organist, and now also music director. I look forward to continuing the dance with you all, and I hope December will provide some music for your Christmas wishes.