Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rejoice, heavenly powers

Today is Holy Saturday, which means that this evening marks the celebration of the Easter Vigil, probably my favourite service of the year. Beginning in the late evening, with the church in total darkness, the service takes us through the entire Biblical narrative in fast forward, from the opening of Genesis to the women's discovery of the empty tomb early on Easter morning. A fire, kindled at the back of the church, is used to light the paschal candle which will last for the rest of the year. Church musicians need to constantly keep on their toes to prevent their work from degenerating into monotonous sameness, but this service is the perfect antidote - a much-needed shot in the arm after the months we've spent scrupulously preparing for Easter morning. Tonight's service is also particularly meaningful on a personal level: a friend is being baptized during the liturgy, and it will be a tremendous pleasure to formally welcome her into the Church.

If you're not planning to attend a Vigil service this year, something of the mysterious and solemn mood of the service is captured in this motet by John Tavener, written especially for Holy Saturday:

Tavener is not a composer I'm wild about; the best of his work is enormously attractive, but I find that a little of it goes a long way. He seems to be best as a miniaturist; his "The Lamb", "Song for Athene" and similar choral works are precisely the right length for their material, but any time I listen to his large-scale compositions I end up bored. Perhaps it's the New Age overtones that weird me out. For instance, the cinematography of this video: why have the singers been photoshopped into the Hagia Sophia? And why have the sound engineers not done something about the strange, artificial reverberation that makes it sound as though the choir is in a fish tank?

I retract my earlier statement. This YouTube video is no substitute; go experience the Easter Vigil liturgy in person. It has all the mystery and wonder of the Easter season without the crowds, screaming children, and over-the-top hymn playing that characterize Easter Sunday services. And if you go to the Right Sort of church, there should be sherry afterwards.

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