Setting a really great poem

Last Wednesday (my birthday!), a friend of mine gave a brilliant and poignant talk on the sacred poetry of George Herbert.  To call it profound and beautiful would be an understatement.  The talk focused around three poems, so we heard a small survey of his work, and (with the help of my friend) got to dig deep into some of Herbert’s enigmatic verbage and introspection.  It was an odd mix of grad students from different departments, housemates, clergy, and professors.  Coupled with decadent desserts and tea served in fine china, it was altogether an awesome way to spend my birthday.

One of the many things that stirred my soul that evening was the idea of God’s upside-down economy.  A kind of economy where one need not pay with works and good deeds to earn God’s blessings and gifts, but receives them in grace simply for being God’s son or daughter.  The story of the prodigal son was discussed, as was this passage from Isaiah:

. . .you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. . .Why spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food. –Isaiah 55:1-2

These two vignettes illustrate the fact that we are incapable of earning God’s favor, gifts, and ultimately, His love.  I won’t attempt to recreate the talk that my friend shared, and instead share one of the poems from the evening: Herbert’s “Love (III)”

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat

I got really excited when I saw this poem on the works discussed because I had sung a setting of this poem by John Tavener with my old church choir  (sorry no youtube recordings).  Though I didn’t care too much for the choral piece, I was puzzled by the poetry and was interested in the other poems of Herbert.  When my friend read the poem aloud during her talk, I realized that the words alone – without musical setting – were so much more powerful than the setting of them by Tavener.  I fell in love with the text in a way that the choral piece had never shown me.  The ambiguity of the speaker of each quotation (especially stanza 3 line 4) is troubling when we read it aloud, and I think that is Herbert’s intention.  Is “Love” telling the speaker that it will serve, or is the speaker requesting to serve “Love”?

In Taverner’s anthem, each stanza is broken into 3 sections, each with expanding vocal range and tonal complexity, starting from a simple unison for the first two lines, then dissonant 2nds and 3rds for lines 3 and 4, and concluding each stanza in a 4-part tonal style.  I think this expanding form works beautifully for the third stanza; beginning with shame, then reassurance, and the ultimately a direct command to sit and eat.  Mapping the same exact music to each verse of this poem, however, doesn’t accurately capture the meaning of each line.  In the second stanza the shame of the reader is illustrated in lines 3 and 4, for example.  Strophic text does not  necessarily call for strophic music.

Yet another setting of Love (III) is by Vaughn Williams.  I love Vaughn Williams’ tonal language, and he treats each stanza differently, complete with triumphant orchestration and unison choir.  Here’s a program note from a performance of the cycle i’m stealing from the internet:

Of the five settings, Love bade me welcome is perhaps the most enigmatic, reflecting both Herbert’s and Vaughan-Williams’ pre-occupations with the inner nature of Man.  The rapt stillness at its centre – the Act – at which point in the traditionally Edenic key of E, wordless voices intone the O Sacrum convivium, is one of the great moments in Vaughan-Williams

But is this glorious concert setting what Taverner had in mind when writing such an intimate poem as Love (III)?  does it accurately capture the inner dialogue between the speaker and the character of “Love”?  Does it adumbrate the question of who is speaking or serving? Does it have to?  I don’t mean to sound negative, but a poems value is not always elevated by the addition of music.  Many texts are brought to new light and given fresh understanding when set to music by a skilled composer, but poetry on its own can have a simple beauty that allows us to intensely focus on language.  Music can obscure or detract from its inherent beauty.  Kudos to Sir Vaughn Williams for setting them though…egads.

Musical irrelevance

Sophisticated music that doesn’t reach out directly to its listeners — that doesn’t depend on their response — bears the seeds of its eventual irrelevance. One reason classical music struggles as it does today lies with the several generations of composers in the last century who demanded that audiences understand them rather than the other way around.

But music written solely for the comfort of its audience is equally irrelevant. Pushing ethnic buttons as a form of quick access to the worshiper’s attention is only advertising. Easy familiarity acts like the door-to-door salesman’s foot in the door, the prelude to making that sale

This short quote is taken from an article in the New York Times from a few years ago.  I forget how I found it, but five bucks says it came up in my “recommended reading” from google reader.  Man that thing is great.

But anyway, I’m talking about music not software and gadgetry…

Should church music be influenced by the culture in which it exists?  Though I long for it, I can’t exctly imagine the opposite.  What is that sweet spot between art for arts’ sake and comfort for comforts’ sake.  Either extreme is wasting our time.  Intrestingly, the article lists two examples of the “ideal” music in the article: Verdi and gospel music.  I don’t see why those two examples reperesent the ideal, but I understand his intension here.  We need to uphold two things, beauty (read: more than 3 chords), and participation.  So how do we have the entire audience participate and make it beautiful?  I think thats why we have pipe organs.

But in all seriousness, the sound of a congregation singing anthems in unison can be incredibly powerful when done correctly, and horribly dissapointing when not.  Composers of church music, should seek to write idiomatically for a congregational voice.  It can be simple and it can be beautiful.  What is done with that simple and beautiful melody is where true art can be made.  Bach did it well (I also think it shameful that he wasn’t mentioned in that NYT article).  He took commonplace melodies of the Lutheran church of his day, written by the previous generation composers such as Praetorius or Schütz, and enriched them with craft, counterpoint, and creativity.

A great example of this, and incidentally a piece that I’m currently obsessed with, is Bach’s Cantata 118, “O Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht.”  |  Boring history.

Why I think its so fantastic for christian worship (this was actually funeral music, but you get the idea), is that the original melodies remain unhindered amidst the complex polyphony.  Its no longer a chunky hymn setting, but a real work of art, and the congregation could still sing along with it.  This has, on numerous occasions, brought tears to my eyes just from listening to it. Joy.

What is our equivalent to Bach today?  Though they pale in intellectual comparison, I’m a fan of folky arrangements of American hymns.  You know, the ones by Issac Watts, Charles Wesley, and the like.  David Crowder Band (yea they’re still around) does some good ones.  I like his because rarely if ever does he change the melody.  We can do hymns with electric guitars, old people are happy, young people are happy.  The congregational voice takes priority over any fancy (and wickedly awesome) face melting synthesized accompaniment.  I can sing along, and so can my grandma.  Joy.

I gave up facebook

Okokok … so its only the 4th post and I’m already straying from the original theme of music and/or theology, but its my blog, so I can do what I want.

A week or two ago, I decided to take the plunge and “deactivate” my facebook account.  It was strangely relieving to “stick-it-to-the-man,” however insignificant it may be.

Why you ask?  Here’s what I told them when they asked me why I was leaving:

While facebook allows me to “stay in touch” with friends, the contact is indirect, and asynchronous.  This dilutes the siginificance of the “friendships” on facebook.  Though I have 1,147 “friends,” the few friends I interact with on facebook I also interact with in real life.  From the rest, I recieve too many invites, page suggestions, group suggestions, application suggestions, and other such spam.  Facebook becomes yet another inbox of junk mail to sort through.  In addition status updates similar to twitter in functionallity have become a virtual soapbox to satiate our attention-seeking culture…myself included.

Though I enjoyed having facebook for 5+ years, and sometimes enjoy reading status updates from old friends, I have decided that maintaining friendships requires more than sitting at a computer screen.

Thank you for all the work you’ve put into this website.  It has truly come a long way over the years and I am sad to go.  Now I’m wondering where I’ll post to the world the fact that I’ve left facebook.

So perhaps there’s some irony in me posting this. Sorry for the rant, I better get back to stuff that matters…

“Special music”

Communal worship, despite my differences in taste, is so valuable to me.  It can be an incredible experience to be surrounded by hundreds of people singing together.  And this is largely the accepted idea, in terms of corporate worship as a church body, but what about music as art?  Music where we ask the congregation to sit and just listen?  Is there a place for that in the reformed church?  I agree, the modern church ought to be communal; we eat the bread and drink the wine together, we sing together, we pray together, but should we also listen to music together in the same way we listen to a sermon together?

In a few weeks we’ll be starting up the choir at Santa Barbara Community Church in preparation for holy week service of Good Friday.  I always look forward to working with this enthusiastic group of singers.  For many, the church choir is the only time they get to make music outside of normal Sunday worship.

In selecting music to share with the congregation at the service, one of the issues that came up is the language.  Simply put, I believe that to limit our repertoire to only our native language would eliminate 90% of choral repertoire.  As wonderful as they are, we must share more than the sounds of Britten, Vaugh Williams, and Billings.  And since choral music stems from a tradition of latin chant and polyphony, it makes sense to begin there.

I selected two of Victorias Tenebrae responsories, as I have sung (read: fallen in love with) them a few times, have a managble range, realistic division (SATB throughout), and not to mention, are BEAUTIFUL.  The first issue that came up with the our worship pastor, is the question of language.  Can the congregation easily connect with this music even though they do not know what the text means?  The simple solution here is to put on our projection the text allongside the translation.  But even so, will the process of reading a text and translation while simultaneously listening to the music create an unneccisary barrier in experiencing the divine?  Or on the contrary, might it actually encourage deeper thought and understanding?

I’m currently in the camp that agrees with the latter.  We ought to give our congregation more intellectual credit.  The latin language is beautiful, and anyone who has studied a latin based language might be able to decipher some of it themselves: Moritur (latin) ~ mourir (french) ~ to die (english).  At the same time the mental process of reading a foreign language works a different part of our brain.  We’re thinking harder, and I think that’s a good thing.  Though congregational music should be easily singable, but that doesn’t mean all music in church should be “easy.”

Then there’s the question of polyphony.  I could explain why I think its great, but why not use the power of the internet to direct you here.  For centuries the church has debated use of polyphony so I’ll refrain from discussing it here, but I sincerely hope that the choir at Santa Barbara Community Church can not only sing their notes beautifully, but also get an idea of the incredible contrapuntal fabric that Victoria has created.  Even if just one person gets it, I’ll have done my job.