Sunday, July 23, 2006

Geistliches Lied Part 2

The main reason I chose the title “spiritual song” for this series of essays is not that we sang a beautiful, relatively obscure work by Brahms last Thursday night (although that piece is certainly the source of the title). It is that singing is such a spiritual activity for me, always. My attention is constantly drawn to it, and to music in general. My friends can tell you I am rarely without music in my head, and when out in public I will invariably start asking my companions questions about whatever music is in the “background.” In truth, I do not think I am any longer capable of consigning music to the background—I will relate a brief philosophical story about that later.

I can be enrapt by almost any kind of music, as long as it’s of good quality. I enjoy art music from any era; my own collection reaches from the mediaeval period to the last few years, with a heavy bias towards the 20th century. (The recordings I have of Messiaen outnumber those of Mozart by two or three to one.) My collections of jazz and folk music are growing (the latter being helped by a strong folk community in Ithaca). My collection of so-called “world music”—a catch-all which includes Edith Piaf, Bob Marley, and Värttinä, and could also include a great deal of what I call “folk”—is remaining steady; I would welcome suggestions here. I’m weak on rock music; while I would like to develop a taste for classic rock, whatever that means, I haven’t quite succeeded.

A couple of side notes: I was originally going to say that I thought the art music of the past centuries comprises the bulk of music, and I’m astonished how often I hear someone say they like all kinds of music and omit any mention of anything written before 1960 in the list of genres they listen to. But I suspect that art music has always been outweighed by more popular—dare I say populist—and less sophisticated music. (I don’t mean “less sophisticated” as an insult; being more complex doesn’t inherently make something better.) Hence the current world of commercial music is probably the inheritor of a larger legacy than the symphonic concert hall. Still, our best records of past music lie in the scores of art music, and it seems silly to disregard hundreds of years of extant music while claiming to be a music lover.

The other note: I only recently began to appreciate opera, in the sense of listening to more than a handful of pieces from its vast literature. This is another area I’m seeking to expand in my collection. But that’s a whole other story.

Beyond the pleasure I get from listening to music, I love performing it. Not so much for the sake of the audience, though it’s nice to give them something to enjoy. I love engaging the music. Music, to me, is tactile. I've been singing since I was very young. (Becky may have me beat on this point. Her parents say that in her crib she would sing to herself rather than cry when she woke up. My parents say I would look at the books placed in my crib.) The earliest song I wrote was on the playground in kindergarten—although I’ve kept it in my head since then, and I’m not sure I’ve ever shared it with anyone. It’s called “It’s a Beautiful Day,” and it sounds like something from Sesame Street. The earliest I remember singing in public was a duet version of “Lavender Blue,” in first or second grade. I started playing the tuba in the 7th grade, and that was my main instrument for ten years. The tuba carried me to Norway with the St. Olaf Band and to Eastern Europe with the St. Olaf Orchestra. It immersed me in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Holst’s suites for military band. Yet the greatest joys I have had in performance have, I believe, been while singing.

I can recall exactly when I realized how important singing is to me. At St. Olaf, the annual Christmas Festival brings together the orchestra and the five main choirs. I was in a choir every year I attended; I was the tubist for the orchestra starting sophomore year. I remember vividly the first dress rehearsal of Christmas Festival my first year; every moment was charged with a musical intensity I had never known. That’s not the story I’m going to tell. This story occurred in my junior year.

Junior year was the year I sang the least in the Christmas Festival. Those of us who belonged both to the orchestra and to a choir would have to change in and out of our robes behind the choral risers, and run up and down ladders to get in and out of our places among the singers. Each choir had two or three feature numbers, and for those of course we had to be with our choir. We could sing as much of the “massed pieces” as we felt like and our orchestral parts would allow. It so happened that, unlike the previous year, most of the pieces with orchestra included a tuba part, often a quite short one. For the sake of playing eight bars with the orchestra in an adjacent piece, I was unable to join the a cappella performance of F. Melius Christiansen’s setting of the hymn O Day Full of Grace.
O day full of grace which we behold,
Now gently to view ascending;
Thou over the earth thy reign unfold,
Good cheer to all mortals lending,
That children of light in ev’ry clime
May prove that the night is ending.

How blest was that gracious midnight hour,
When God in our flesh was given;
Then flushed the dawn with light and pow’r,
That spread o’er the darkened heaven;
Then rose o’er the world that Sun divine
Which gloom from our hearts hath driven.

Yea, were ev’ry tree endowed with speech
And every leaflet singing,
They never with praise God’s worth could reach,
Though earth with their praise be ringing.
Who fully could praise the Light of life
Who light to our souls is bringing?

With joy we depart for the promised land;
And there we shall walk in endless light.

O Day Full of Grace is one of my favorite songs ever to sing. We had performed it at the Christmas Festival my first year. In the weeks leading up to the Christmas Festival, I attended all the choir rehearsals, even those from which orchestra members were excused. Well, that’s not quite true—at times the orchestra rehearsals overlapped with the massed choir rehearsals. One evening I left the orchestra room and passed Urness Recital Hall, where the choirs rehearsed together, on my way to dinner. I stood at a window, and sang O Day Full of Grace with all my heart as Anton Armstrong conducted those who were “supposed” to be there. I knew then that singing and connecting words to music were far more important to me than being an instrumentalist. I miss playing the tuba from time to time, but I am pained when I go too long without singing with friends.

I could very nearly worship music. She has been the source and expression of much of the exultation and sorrow in my life. Yet I sense my unworthiness to serve at her altar. I do not really know how to sing well. I figure I can sing better than about 95% of the population, which is fine for entertainment, but is not what music deserves. Fortunately, music is also a great democratizer, making art and the expression of a vast range of thoughts and feelings accessible to anyone willing to listen or participate.

As for the philosophical story I mentioned earlier: this comes from one of my choral directors. He observed once during a rehearsal that the word “music” derives from “Muse,” referring to those great Greek goddesses who managed the arts. This connection, he noted, is incongruent with music’s contemporary and prevalant role of a-musement, which he took to be a negation of “musing” or thinking. I’m not sure that’s the correct etymology, since a brief search indicates that “amusement” originates from causing someone to think about something, in a distracting sense. But his point is well-posed. Socrates, according to Plato’s account in The Republic, believed that music could be a powerful force for instilling virtue or vice. He thought it would have to be regulated. Many composers have had to cope with actual regulations by their governments, who knew that music, even without words, could be patriotic or subversive; Shostakovich is well-known to have fallen in and out of favor with the Soviet government over his career. Today, however, we are aurally glutted on music, and it is cheapened by being placed where we are only dimly aware of it—in the “background.” (For contrast, check out Satie’s Musique d’ameublement, literally “furniture music,” which was intended to be remain unnoticed.) As with many other areas of modern life, the music we have available to us at any time would in the past have been beyond the reach of kings. We need to treasure it.

(I’ve become intrigued by a certain fact as I write this essay: we have nearly no synonyms for “music” in our language. We can talk about parts of music—melody, harmony, counterpoint, etc.—but there seems to be no other way to express the totality of music than with this one word.)

Lest the reader think I’m slipping into paganism with my adulation of music, let me close with the following poem by George Herbert—a coda, if you will, to the thoughts above. This comes to mind each time I am tempted to idolize such natural things beyond their eternal worth.

“The Pulley”

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.


Becky said...

It truly is a different experience, playing vs. singing, isn't it? I have entirely different memories of one piece (Battle Hymn of the Republic) done with the same group and the same arrangement because I've played in the band and sung at different times. I don't necessarily rate the experiences; they gave different thrills. Of course, the difference between 3rd trombone and 1st soprano could have something to do with that . . .

Anonymous said...


SWEETEST of sweets, I thank you : when displeasure
Did through my bodie wound my minde,
You took me thence ; and in your house of pleasure
A daintie lodging me assign'd.

Now I in you without a bodie move,
Rising and falling with your wings :
We both together sweetly live and love,
Yet say sometimes, God help poore Kings.

Comfort, 'Ile ; for if you poste from me,
Sure I shall do so, and much more :
But if I travell in your companie,
You know the way to heavens doore.

--George Herbert

(one of my favourites).