Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hail thee, festival day

Easter is in less than two weeks, which means that the activities of church music programs are reaching a fever pitch: this Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. It's easy to get overwhelmed by anxiety (the choir will never sing that anthem properly) or self-pity (everyone else gets a four-day weekend, and I'm stuck at the church to play one hundred and seven services), but these liturgies are also among the most rewarding of the year.

There are often fringe benefits, as well. This year, for example, is the first that we'll be using the hymn "Hail thee, festival day" in a service. To the worldwide community of Anglican musicians, this may seem odd, but the hymn doesn't seem to have caught on in Canadian parishes. Of the three hymnals I've used in my career (for those who care: the 1938 Book of Common Praise, the 1965 Anglican Hymn Book, and the 1998 Common Praise), none include any version of the hymn. The only hymnal in common use in Canada which includes it, in fact, is the thirty-five-year-old joint Anglican-United Church hymnal; this, of course, is the same book that gave us such delights as "God of concrete, God of steel / God of piston and of wheel", so most churches leave it on the shelf.

This unfortunate state of affairs, unfortunately, is rather typical in church music. Every new hymnal reveals its true flaws only after a few years of continuous use - some of the once-promising new inclusions become old and tired, and you begin to sorely miss the older selections that were left out. There's no reason, of course, why you can't include materials from older hymnals by printing bulletin inserts, but this takes work and planning; far easier just to pick the second-best choice (or third-best, or eleventh-best) and learn to live with it. Yet, take a look at the words to "Hail thee, festival day" (warning: hideous MIDI soundtrack) - this has more meat to it, theologically, than almost anything else you might sing Easter morning. And the tune, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is superb. I'm looking forward to this enormously.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A footnote

Further to Thursday's post, another angle on Why Music Matters. There's a very real sense in which all of our arguments for the value of music are missing the point: the value of what we do can only be demonstrated ostensively, never proven intellectually. A pleasant wake-up call, then, to read this birthday tribute to William Walton. For me, a piece like "A Litany", written when the composer was only sixteen, banishes any doubts about the value of what I do. Your mileage, as they say, may vary, but you wouldn't be reading an organist's blog unless there was some piece of music that spoke to you in a similar way. Perhaps blogging about this topic misses the point: perhaps I am making a more crucial contribution to the debate simply by playing my services today:

What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Against vague metaphysics

Over at Dial M for Musicology, Jonathan takes aim at the very premise of this blog:
Nothing new there—musicians have known all of this since the beginning of time. But there’s nothing new in golly-times-is-sure-tough, and (frankly) not in you-can-save-the-world either.
More pedestrian minds will no doubt suggest that the TBWCTW reference was accidental - ("it's not even the same verb!") - but I know better, and you'd all better watch out before the conspirators are on your doorstep!

Ahem. The broader context of the section I quoted is a dissection of two Internet state-of-classical-music memes that have been going around - one a jeremiad on the death (what, again?) of the humanities, the other an inspirational speech on the social value of music. Both texts, as Jonathan rightly points out, hit all the right buttons for those who work in the classical music realm - you shake your head sorrowfully as you read the first article, then swell with pride and self-importance as you read the second one. Change the date on either article, and you hardly notice a difference - times are always tough, the humanities always have to justify themselves, and people will always make art against the odds because yes, Art Is Worthwhile. Unlike Jonathan, I'm not convinced that repeating these old platitudes is all bad - they remind us why we do what we do, which is easy to forget - but there's something else here that bothers me more. Here's Karl Paulnack, in the inspirational speech:
Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. . . You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
This writing is a good example of a twentieth-century tradition which in aesthetic circles is known as the Metaphysics Of Nothing In Particular. (In aesthetic circles that consist of this blog, at least). The value of music is expressed using the language of transcendence, of religious doctrine (come unto me, all that labour and are heavy laden . . .); music is given a metaphysical power to transmute us to a Higher Level of Experience, beyond the turmoil of our humdrum lives. Yet, nothing in the speech suggests a theological context; in fact, Paulnack seems to be actively suspicious of religion: "I no longer even expect [peace and harmony] to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace." (Speaking of hoary old clichés. . .)

To me, this is a fatal flaw. It's as though Paulnack sets out to trace a golden thread connecting music to the very essence of what makes us human, but stops following the thread just as it disappears into a hole in the wall. If you think about the vocabulary in the speech for more than two minutes, you realize he's begging the question: how can the concept of music impacting the "soul" be comprehensible outside a theistic context? It's not. If this philosophical model is to move beyond platitudes, it has to take into account the presuppositions that underlie aesthetic arguments:

Ancient Greeks: Music relates to the "harmony of the spheres"; its various tones correspond to the harmonious proportions in astronomy and within the human psyche. This was not a mere metaphor; it was scientific theory. Thus, in Plato's Republic, Socrates suggests that all modes except the Dorian and Phrygian be outlawed by the state, in order to assure that the citizens maintain an agreeable temperament.
Augustine: Music helps to catalyse the moral action of the soul; if the music is of appropriate moral strength, we can convert it into moral power. If the music is of low moral value, it can lead to degeneracy.
The Medieval Church: Essentially, Ancient Greeks redux. The Greek tradition was transferred to the Catholic Church through Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, who turned it to their own purposes; the source of the celestial harmony was now the Christian God. After Copernicus, the science could no longer be taken literally, but the idea had a figurative resonance which was equally enticing: music's harmony reflected the order, balance and beauty of the Divine.
Secular Humanism: Art is a form of human communication, and thus its content is our lives as human beings, including our political milieu, social dynamics, etc.
Steven Pinker Strawman: Music is auditory cheesecake. It offers no evolutionary advantage to the species whatsoever.

This extremely slapdash quasi-summary of aesthetic thought demonstrates the problem: all aesthetic ideas have ideological underpinnings. The Ancient Greek view is no longer acceptable because it relies on too much discredited science (the medical ideas of Galen; the cosmological ideas of Ptolemy). The Augustinian or Boethian views are both derived from a Christian ideology; remove God from the equation, and the theory has to be rebuilt from the ground up. This is what secular humanism does, in proposing a hermeneutic model as the bearer of musical meaning: instead of music reflecting God's image, it reflects our own. If you lose the sense of inherent human dignity retained by humanism, you're ready to reject art entirely, like my strawman. (Pinker's actual views on art, of course, are more complicated, but quoting him illustrates a useful point.)

As a Christian, I can accept the best of the medieval Church's aesthetic of music while making a number of important caveats of my own. As soon as you attempt to secularize that theory, however, it becomes irretrievable. To present a theory using centuries-old religiously charged language at the same time that you deny any particular metaphysical reality is intellectually dishonest. And in the end, this may be why the defenders of art have so much trouble convincing us of their points - because their arguments beg the question. They tell us the true meaning of music is up in the sky somewhere, but they don't point us in any particular direction, and without a telescope we eventually get bored and quit.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Beati quorum scientia magnus est

An unusual request: a friend was looking for the Latin text (and translation) for a choral-orchestral work by Vagn Holmboe - Beatus Parvo, op. 118. Well, I like Latin, and I like liturgy, and I like Holmboe, and besides, how hard could it be? The movement titles in Holmboe's works are quotations from the psalms, so all I have to do is plug them into Google, figure out which psalms they are, and come up with a translation. Especially since the opening lines of the piece are lines familiar to every lover of the Anglican choral tradition: "Beati quorum":

(If you have no clue what I'm talking about, the King's College performance is here.)

Beati quorum via integra est; qui ambulant in lege Domini. (Ps. 119:1)
Blessed are they whose way is pure, who walk in the law of the Lord. (my translation)

So far, so good. All I need to do, then, is go to the Latin Vulgate Bible; remembering that the Catholic Church uses the numbering of the Septuagint, we turn to Psalm 118. Except that the Vulgate translation does not begin with "Beati quorum":

Beati immaculati in via; qui ambulat in lege Domini.
Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. (KJV)

The Stanford setting (and, by extension, the Holmboe), don't match the text of the Vulgate. This is strange, because unlike English Bible translations, the Vulgate of St. Jerome has a privileged status as the only Latin translation permitted in the Roman liturgy. How, then, did these two composers end up with a variant text? First, however, some potted liturgical history. (For what follows, I am indebted to the discussion here.)

The Psalter occupies a different position from the rest of the Latin Bible, because it formed the base of the daily Office. Thus, by the time the fourth century rolled around, a Latin version of the Psalms was already in standard use. Rather than preparing an entirely new version of the Psalter, therefore, St. Jerome used the Hebrew sources to make a revision of the existing Latin psalter. By the end of his lifetime, Jerome had made at least three versions of the Psalms - two revisions of the old psalter, and one original Latin translation directly from the Hebrew. His second revision - the so-called Gallican psalter - was the one that stuck.

All of this, basically, to say that the history of the Latin psalter is extremely complicated. There have been a number of changes to the Psalter since Jerome's time, including revisions to the entire Vulgate following the Council of Trent, an entirely new translation for the new Breviary in 1945, and the so-called "Neo-Vulgate" of 1969. Yet, as far as I can tell, none of them contain the reading "Beati quorum via" that we recognize from Stanford's setting. In fact, if you search Google for "beati quorum via integra est" you won't find a single site that contains the phrase as a part of Psalm 119; almost every reference is to the Stanford setting. So what gives?

I still don't know. I have no idea where Stanford got the version of Psalm 119 that he uses in the motet, but it certainly wasn't from any of the authorized Latin translations of the psalter. Perhaps he simply tweaked the text to make it easier to sing - it's certainly hard to imagine his flowing setting being fit to the Vulgate text. I haven't given up on finding a better answer, but I'll have to find someone who knows a lot more than I do (about Stanford and/or Biblical philology). In any case, as it stands this adds a fascinating mystery to a much-loved piece of music.

And the Holmboe? Well, turns out there's another psalm that begins "Beati quorum". (Idiot.)


A warm welcome to visitors arriving from ChoralNet, where my Eric Whitacre post has attracted a certain amount of controversy. Whatever one might say about the man's music, the fact that a contemporary classical composer can be the subject of such intense controversy is a really terrific sign for the health of the choral community.

Today is March 25th, which is host to the following three musician birthdays:

-Bela Bartok
-Arturo Toscanini
-Elton John

Cleverer minds than mine will have to come up with some sort of musical tribute that will link these three somehow. In life, they had no connection whatsoever: Toscanini is not associated with Bartok's music (certainly his recorded catalogue doesn't include any Bartok), and both men died before Elton John was born. By a strange twist of fate, however, the three of them will remain extricably linked for all eternity, or something.

Regular programming will resume shortly.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spring forward

I am always disoriented and groggy at the beginning of daylight savings time. If you're in the same boat, you might appreciate this cartoon realization of the Second World War, as fought by maps. The image of the Russian-Finnish war of 1940 is in itself worth the price of admission. (Hat-tip to Strange Maps.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Presented without comment

A letter to the editor of the American Organist, taking aim at every value I stand for: inaccessibility, charlatanism, and contempt for the audience!

The letter seems to me so obviously offensive that I can't help wonder if it's actually some sort of satirical parody. Tallying the many problems with its argument is left as an exercise to the reader.
My heartfelt thanks to Lothar Bandermann for his great letter regarding dissonant organ music. My definition of "dissonant" is music that I never want to hear again, and wish I had not heard the first time. I, too, have walked out of organ concerts because of "music" that is totally unpleasant to hear. I have a three-year-old grandson who can press on keys to make the organ do what some call music.
I love great organ music, and never tire of listening to great compositions. We all know what pleasant organ music is, and that is what the vast majority of listeners enjoy. If we can't wait for the piece to end, and can't tell if a wrong note is played, that is a perfect example of "dissonant." Would a non-musical person ever want to return to another organ program after listening to an organ concert where dissonant music is played? I think not. Just because a selection is written by a well-known composer doesn't mean it is good. Some is very unlistenable.
At our facility, we provide weekly pipe organ concerts in the summer, and I request that dissonant music not be played. That is the reason that we have an overflowing attendance at our programs. The listeners really like the music!
If we want to attract the average person to organ concerts, organists need to play what listeners like, not what the organist necessarily likes. If an organist wants to play dissonant selections, then he/she should do it in practice or at home where no one can hear.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know what enjoyable music is. Let's get with the program and play wonderful, fulfilling music, and attract more listeners who will be glad they spent an hour or so at an organ concert!

Friday, March 6, 2009

A gold standard

Just back from my first time accompanying the Duruflé Requiem - the culmination of an insanely busy few weeks of performances and auditions. (The nigh-unmanageable schedule I describe above may or may not be causally connected to the fact that I haven't been blogging for, errrrrrr, almost four weeks).

I've attracted some minor controversy recently for my comments on the state of contemporary choral music; much of the music currently popular in the choral world leaves me feeling annoyed, insulted and thoroughly unsatisfied. To be openly critical of this repertoire, however, places a greater responsibility on me to recognize greatness when I see it. Duruflé's Requiem is unquestionably great. The work is a gem - impeccably written for the choir, rewarding both for the singer and the listener. Even the formidable difficulties of the accompaniment part - organists speak of the Sanctus movement in hushed whispers - are not insurmountable. Rather, the organ accompaniment is a really superior example of how to arrange an orchestral score for organ. Practicing the part is like having a lesson with Duruflé on orchestral transcription - you can practically see him peering over your shoulder, leaning over the keyboard to demonstrate a particular effect, and then waiting patiently while you struggle to master it. I'm glad to have learned the part, even if it took more work than any organ accompaniment I've ever played.

The bottom line is that the Duruflé is a superb piece of writing, and that with works like this in the repertoire there's no excuse for programming bad music. Enough said about that.

How did the performance itself go, you ask? Fine, thank you. Most of the movements went exceptionally well, notwithstanding a horrible moment when the SSL system decided to stop working properly in the middle of the Sanctus. I'm still not sure exactly what happened, but we cleaned the blood off the floor and moved on.

The audience seemed to enjoy the concert very much, and I was particularly delighted to speak to a few people who had never heard organ music before and were amazed by the variety of tone colour in the music. Reaching people like these - often lapsed churchgoers or people who would never step into a church except for a secular concert - is, I think, one of the most important ways to build an audience for organ music. Your congregation hears you play every week for free - can you blame them when they don't come running to hear you give a recital?

In any case, an evening of unalloyed delight.