“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” (J. S. Bach)

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

.

.

.

I had a couple of problems this morning.

First, I wanted to look at my copy of the piano-vocal score in (a stultified) English translation of the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio. I can’t find it. It’s on a shelf or in a box or in some other place I put it for safe keeping when I moved to this apartment 11 years ago. I probably have not looked at it since then.

I wanted the English words of the 5th movement of the first section. I could reconstruct them from memory except the 5th and 6th lines. I must have looked at 20 websites before I found the words. I found one recording of a (not professional) choir singing it in English, but I can’t make out the words as they sing.

Searching for the score did accomplish one thing for me. I put a whole bunch (more) CDs and DVDs of operas, extended musical works, and movies (the complete Godfather, for example) into boxes to take out of here. Any such recording I have not listened to or watched since I moved here 11 years ago is going! I obviously don’t need them.

The words of that chorus of the Christmas Oratorio are warm-fuzzy words about Christmas, particularly about the faithful’s response to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

How shall I fitly meet Thee
And give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee,
And I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly
And know Thee as Thou art.

Lovely Christmas sentiment, No? Yes, of course. The words have been sung from the 17th century onward to a lovely and sweetly introspective tune by Johann Crüger. Similar to “Away in the Manger.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say.

Bach used a different tune. The tune everyone in America who uses a church hymnal knows as “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Hans Leo Hassler, contemporaneous with Crüger.

Black Friday, greeting him

Black Friday, meeting him?

These words traditionally go with that tune—or some similar translation.

O sacred head, now wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

My guess is 99% of the people who attend a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in the next two or three weeks will think the tune is just lovely, a nice way to sing about the Baby Jesus. Even those who recognize the tune will not be jarred by it. How could J.S. Bach compose anything other than grandeur and elegance?

So it’s not jarring to sing about meeting the baby to the tune most of us know for words about the baby’s eventual murder?

Let’s not belittle Bach’s power as thinker and composer. I don’t know if he was the first composer to marry those sentimental words with that gruesome tune, but I know that to anyone listening with anything other than their most uncritical and unconscious ears and mind, that movement of the Christmas Oratorio is shocking. Just shocking.

Who sings songs about an unjust execution as a lullaby to their children?

The other problem I had earlier today was the news that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby. Who gives a (insert your own word here) that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby? Well, there, I’ve cheapened whatever argument I was making. And what does it say about us that anyone other than her family even knows her blessed news?

And now I wish I were a philosopher or a great preacher or theology professor or even one of those people who gets to speak ad infinitum helping PBS raise money. Or perhaps a TED speaker. I want to preach. If I had standing to do so, I’d say something like this.

Isn’t it sad that—taken as a whole—we as a people are more interested in how we should fitly meet the Baby Kardashian than how we should meet anything related to truth, goodness, beauty, or other noble pursuits. I won’t speak about theology or religion because I frankly can no longer get my head around those kinds of ideas.

Old Sebastian Bach knew a thing or two about us. We have this elaborate ritual of warm-fuzziness and camaraderie (“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together”) that makes us feel more generous than we have any right to feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we actually believe in the [original] “reason for the season.” We all participate in the orgy of “spending and pretending.” Pretending we love everyone, when what we really want is to keep our economy on track. I don’t need to say all of this.

Everyone who has more than 30 seconds to be reflective knows it.

So Old Sebastian Bach stuck this hymn into his Christmas Oratorio, right in the first section. The choir (and presumably the congregation at St. Thomas, Leipzig) sang these heart-warming, goose-bumpy words about meeting the Baby Jesus (or the Baby Kardashian).

But if you’re paying attention, you realize he’s tricking you into singing also about police brutality in Ferguson, MO, about our desire to change the law so we can carry murder weapons openly in Texas, about the estimated 300,000 kids in North Texas who live in food insecurity. And I won’t mention (because most people—even those who might agree we need to sing about murder and hunger—absolutely do not want to think about it) the racism that so pervades our culture that we who are in charge of things can’t even see it.

In place of the words to the Christmas Oratorio I find news of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby—at least partly because those words are lost in piles of stuff I don’t need. Stuff that makes me feel warm-fuzzy, protected, successful, while I ignore the homeless black man sitting yesterday a couple of yards from the gate to my apartment complex.

“O sacred head. . .”
BigHeartMinistries

“. . . mordere means to take a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.”

Christmas Eve 1970 (give or take a year). The faithful of Christ Church Parish (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, were making their communions during the Midnight Mass.

One more chorus of "Happy Christians"

One more chorus of “Happy Christians”

In the tiny choir loft, our choir of about a dozen or so, accompanied by a string quartet, a couple of oboes, a French horn—and not many other instruments, with me playing the rest of the accompaniment on the organ—performed the opening chorus from the Bach Christmas Oratorio.

The motley crew of the congregation ranged from single mothers on welfare to professors at the Claremont Colleges, to Miss Ruth Milliken (Google Milliken Avenue in Ontario to discover her family’s importance—I mention it only to indicate the bizarre mixture of folks at the Parish). One of those was a curmudgeonly old guy who attended services only to make his old girlfriend (I mean, they were even older then than I am now) happy because he was an atheist. After Mass, he said to me, “One more chorus of ‘Happy Christians,’ and I would have had to get in the communion line!” Our performance was—in reality—pretty strange and rag-tag, but the music came through.

I’ve been meaning for quite a while to look up Debra Nystrom to find out the background to her poem “Floater.” I assume Dan is her husband, and it’s a (sad) poem about his going blind (it’s also a personal, erotic poem). But it has everything to do with “Happy Christians.”

. . . listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Playing a mordent is taking a bite out of the music. Only a bite. It is not “to die.” One of the best-known mordents in music is on the first note of the first variation on the “Aria” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

A motley crew of communicants

A motley crew of communicants

I cannot play Bach. Really. I’m no good at it. My personality and mind and body are much more suited to Mendelssohn or Reger or Widor. More suited, but often I don’t have the technique in my hands to play those hefty works. But I want to play Bach. Because Bach knew when to take a bite out of the music and when to give the aesthetic, the compositional technique, the mystery of it all over to thoughts of dying. “Happy Christians” (Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage) translates:

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Bach was 48 when he composed the Christmas Oratorio. (He would be 329 today, were he alive in any form other than his music.) But already he knew about the difference between dying and taking a bite out of something. The glue that holds the six sections of the Oratorio is the hymn tune most modern Christians sing with the words “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” But the tune was first sung to the hymn “My heart is filled with longing for blessed death’s release.” Bach has the congregation sing texts asking how we are to greet the one who came to die.

“. . . praise these days . . . sound forth full of delight and happiness . . .” Take a bite out of the apple, but remember, it’s a good mistake. Mordere is precariously close to morire.

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!
_______
“Floater,” by Debra Nystrom
—to Dan

Maddening shadow across your line of vision—

Debra Nystrom gets it

Debra Nystrom gets it


what might be there, then isn’t, making it

hard to be on the lookout, concentrate, even
hear—well, enough of the story I’ve

given you, at least—you’ve had your fill, never
asked for this, though you were the one

to put a hand out, catch hold, not about to let me
vanish the way of the two you lost already

to grief’s lure.  I’m here; close your eyes,
listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Not to die, to take a bite—what you asked
of me—and then pleasure

in the taking. Close your eyes now,
listen. No one is leaving.

Three (piano) pieces in the shape of a what!!??

Everyone (I’d mark as unacceptable a student essay beginning with “everyone,” but I happen to know this is true of everyone) knows that experience of getting an idea in mind that will

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

not go away.

I’ve been wondering why Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands way back in the ‘60s, with whom I was lucky to study organ, chose The Mass of the Poor by Erik Satie for me to learn. Odd. But then, most of the music he chose for me was—as far as the standard repertoire for a college organ major goes—strange. He loved strange music himself. He had studied organ with Joseph Bonnet in Paris (I know he was there in 1934 because I have music of his inscribed “Paris, 1934”).

I have forgotten the details of the stories he told. He did not, of course, know Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), but he knew and studied with musicians who did (perhaps Bonnet himself). At any rate, the Satie Mass was in Dr. Spelman’s repertoire. He assigned it to me, he said, because it would give me a somewhat uncomplicated introduction to training a small choir and then playing and conducting from the organ console.

He also told me (as he quite often did when he assigned me an “out-of-the-mainstream” work) that someday I would understand.

The fact is, I’ve performed the Satie perhaps ten times since then. I love it.

I woke up this morning with the Mass of the PoorMesse des pauvres (orgue ou piano)—firmly in my mind, and it would not go away until I found the score and played a bit of it. Of course that made it worse. Now I believe I shall have the Kyrie in my mind until the day I die.

Satie was a wonderfully eccentric man, to all accounts. He lived in the pre-World War I Paris of artists and musicians such as Debussy, Braque, Picasso – and so on. He was somewhat older than that generation of innovators, so his music was seen (heard) mainly as strange. The (true) story is well-known that when critics complained his music had no form, he immediately composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” for two pianos.

I intended to record a couple of movements of the Messe this morning, but it would have taken longer than I have time for to work out how to make it sound well on the Steuart Goodwin Opus 1 in my living room. Here’s the first recording made of it, by Marilyn Mason. I was going to record the 4th and 5th movements.

A few days ago I went with a friend to Houston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition of paintings of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Braque was a close associate of Picasso at the time the two of them were “inventing” cubism. I have loved his work for many years. I don’t remember where I first saw a work of his. But I have been fascinated by the paintings in which he included words. My favorite, of course, are those with the name “Bach” inhem. None of them is in the Houston show. It would be hard to say which of the paintings is my favorite. One of those is certainly “Violin and Pitcher.”

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

But the painting which haunts me still is his last. A painting of a piece of farm machinery, “The Cultivator.” He painted it in the year before he died. It is stark, dark, and hopeful. Don’t ask why I describe it as “hopeful.” I don’t know. But that’s the way I experienced it.

Satie wrote the Messe des Pauvres about 25 years before he died. It was not, however published until after his death. I don’t know why.

I seem to be saying “I don’t know” more often than usual. I don’t know why.

Except that I am finding I don’t know much about anything. Dr. Spelman used to tell me that someday I would understand. I think I am beginning to understand the Messe des Pauvres (as a matter of fact, I’m looking for a church where I can give a small recital and play it).

A wondrous mystery surrounds the last work of many artists and composers. Brahms, for example. His last work is unlike anything else he composed. Opus 122 is a collection of eleven chorale preludes for organ—about half of which are settings of hymn tunes having to do with death. Or Mozart. His last two works are The Magic Flute—an opera unlike any other he wrote, either in subject matter or in the style of the music. And his unfinished Requiem is his last work.

Bach’s last composition is an unfinished chorale prelude the title of which can be translated into English. “I am standing before God’s throne.”

The last four Beethoven String Quartettes have an intensity and a musical language more advanced than anything before them. And Verdi came out of retirement to compose Falstaff, his only comic opera.

I am not saying I think these artists had a premonition they would die soon. The mystery is far greater than that. I think it’s what Dr. Spelman meant when he kept telling me I would understand some day. I don’t understand yet. I’m only just beginning to understand what needs to be understood. Those artists and musicians understood. Ask me in a few years if I can explain what they understood.

Braque. The cultivator.

Braque. The cultivator.

“. . . But down the ages rings the cry. . . “

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars . . .
  (from A Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Christ doesn’t have a bare tree to climb down from at my house this year.

He was, however, everywhere present at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, TX, where I had the pleasure of playing the magnificent little organ for the service yesterday. It was the First Sunday in Christmas, and the congregation were joyful and at one with each other, and they expressed great gratitude that I was able to substitute for their organist.

The service was easy. The liturgy music except for traditional ELCA settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, was carols—great fun. The pastor changed the Gospel lesson from the one appointed, so we heard the story of Jesus’  presentation in the temple, with the Song of Simeon—instead of the story of King Herod killing baby boys.

I played a prelude (a schmaltzy setting of “Silent Night,” by Gordon Young), an offertory (a clever setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Mark Sedio) and postlude (“God Rest Ye Merry” variations by Samuel Walter, a jolly, quirky piece). I might have played Bach’s setting of Mit Freid und Freud, Luther’s hymn based on the Song of Simeon, but my shoulder isn’t working that smoothly yet. The Bach would have sounded spectacular on the Schudi.

But I had fun. My, oh my, did I have fun!

The closest my house comes to a bare tree for Christ to climb down from is a jumble of furniture and some decorations I got out so when I make a little video to post here, there’s something to look at besides the blank side of the organ case. I’m certainly not going to put my face here for the world to see for a lifetime of lifetimes, in saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Showing my face in juxtaposition to a Christmas carol would be (in addition to countering the rules of physical attractiveness our society lives by—you can never be too thin, too white, too young, or too smooth-skinned) something of a visual/auditory oxymoron. The one would cancel out the other. It would ruin the effect of the carol and be disingenuous on my part since I don’t really believe any of the words. Lovely mythology that certainly would make the world a better place if it were true, and if everyone who believes they believe it acted on the principles of love the baby in the manger would grow up to teach.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Massacre of the Holy Innocents"

Peter Paul Rubens, “Massacre of the Holy Innocents”

I’m just enough too smart to fall into the trap of thinking mythology is reality. On the other hand, I’m just enough too stupid to figure out what to put in mythology’s place as I try to maneuver through this vale of years. I use “years” rather than “tears.” It’s Shakespearean, from Othello. Poor Othello, having had the wool pulled over his eyes and coming to believe his (loyal) wife is having an affair says,

. . . for I am declined into the vale of years. . . ‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death (Othello, Act III, scene 3).

“Vale” is “valley,” whether it’s “years” or “tears.” I’m in the dual valley of years and tears. Forgive my corny use of the metaphor. It’s all I’m able to do. I am not a poet or philosopher. But the valley of my years keeps getting narrower and narrower, and as I go along, the grief and sadness I see all around me seems more like Herod killing the boy children than old Simeon seeing salvation just before he dies. I’m not as old as Simeon, so perhaps there’s yet a chance.

I didn’t provide a tree for Christ to climb down from in my apartment this year. It’s not that I don’t want the fun and the loveliness and the conviviality of Christmas.

You see, I don’t get it, that’s all.

Othello and I are pretty much alike. We don’t know what’s real and what’s not, whom to trust and whom not to trust. I’ve been recording Christmas carols for weeks now, and loving every note I’ve played (sometime soon I will write about the absurdity and patheticalness of my recordings—part of my not knowing what’s real and what’s not). But I “believe” none of stories of angels and shepherds and wise men and . . .

My version of Christ's bare tree.

My version of Christ’s bare tree.

Is it all a giant metaphor for something? I don’t think so. I don’t have a clue what it is. I love the music. And the glass balls and the candles and the amaryllis plants and the Fontanini figures and . . .

And then there’s yesterday morning. I was having a jolly time (my shoulder was hurting and I was nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but having a jolly time). The good Lutherans came to a part of the service I could lead from memory either there or in an Episcopal church—the prayers of the people—if I believed in prayer. I burst into tears. I wanted them to pray for me.

And for the children of Gaza. And more.

My guess is not ten Episcopal congregations in the country know the hymn from their Hymnal 1982 written especially for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28). Who’d want to sing this smack in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas? Not me.

“In Bethlehem a Newborn Boy”
Words: Rosamond E. Herklots, 1969
Music: Wilbur Held, 1983

In Bethlehem a newborn boy
Was hailed with songs of praise and joy.
Then warning came of danger near:
King Herod’s troops would soon appear.

The soldiers sought the child in vain:
Not yet was he to share our pain;
But down the ages rings the cry
Of those who saw their children die.

Still rage the fires of hate today,
And innocents the price must pay,
While aching hearts in every land
Cry out, “We cannot understand!”

Lord Jesus, through our night of loss
Shines out the wonder of your cross,
The love that cannot cease to bear
Our human anguish everywhere.

May that great love our lives control
And conquer hate in every soul,
Till, pledged to build and not destroy,
We share your pain and find your joy.

“So as not to be the martyred slaves of time. . . “

howtheuniverseworks_artheadA funny story.

Twenty-ish years ago my psychiatrist in the Neurology Department of Harvard University Medical School decided he and several patients could benefit from a seminar on ending procrastination. One of those “life-changing” seminars such as play interminably on PBS during pledge campaigns. The psychiatrist intended to make reservations. Finally at about 5 PM the day before the seminar, he called and apologized for waiting until the last minute and asked if they had room for three or four more participants.

The woman in charge of reservations, he told me later, laughed and said, “Of course we do. We have almost no reservations. This IS a seminar in procrastination, after all.” Of course.

I forgot to go.

My psychiatrist’s patients were exclusively Temporal Lobe Epilepsy patients . . .

[If you read my blog, you’re tired of hearing about it. But, please, my writing yesterday was the beginning of writing about the gift I now understand TLE to be.]

. . .  which I have known at some level, since Dr. Donald Schomer gave me a name for it, is more a blessing than a curse.

I love “How the Universe Works” on the Discovery Chanel. 16,000,000,000 years ago. Physicists talk about quantum physics or parallel universes, ideas that boggle the mind. The Swiss Institute for Particle Physics and its atom-smashing machine. But my understanding of creation is stuck at laughing at Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.”

But there’s something about thinking about time. Is time real? How do we know we’re not going backwards? Or that everything in the universe is happening at once in a zillionth of a second and it will be over before you read the next word?

TLEptics experience dissociation on a grand scale. Lasting for days. Weeks. We also have astonishing déjà vu experiences. I’ve lived entire days over in a second or two. And no one else has a clue what’s going on unless the TLEptic tells them. Most of us never do because it would seem we were frankly crazy.

Perhaps we were (are).

Or perhaps we have momentary flashes of experience of the passage of time the rest of you don’t get to have. What does it mean to

First Methodist Church, Omaha

First Methodist Church, Omaha

live a day again in a second? My neurologist says he can touch a certain place in my temporal lobe with an electrode (assuming I let him poke a hole in my skull) and give me as long a déjà vu experience as I want.

So what is time? Experience stored physically in the brain? And what time is it now? Who knows?

When I was in high school (we say “when” as if we are measuring “time” and some has passed since the experience we’re talking about—perhaps it hasn’t happened yet and I’m imagining it’s going to happen, or perhaps everything we know is happening all at once), I was a darling of the little old ladies (mostly younger than I am now), members of the American Guild of Organists in Omaha, NE.

The Guild met monthly at yet another church with some organist playing to show the capabilities of the organ. After a meeting at the First Methodist Church, I found a copy of J.S Bach’s The Little Organ Book on the organ bench. I brashly sat at the organ and played number 45, Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig!

Ah how fleeting,
ah how insubstantial is man’s life!
As a mist soon arises
and soon also vanishes again,
so is our life: see!

I played the little piece to the oohs-and-ahs! of the little old ladies. I’ve played it countless times [“times”] since, mostly at funerals with those congregations totally unaware of the appropriateness of the music.

A student in one of my classes would, by this point in her essay, have a comment from me to the effect, “What’s your point?” I would point out to her that she had not begun with a clear thesis, so her writing seems to have no point. So I’ll create a thesis right now [“now”]—or tell you what my point has been all along although you’d never guess it.

The passage of time may be a figment of our collective imagination. We have clocks, both analog and digital, to measure a “reality” that we cannot prove is real. I know this is one of those sophomoric twists college kids like to ponder and argue well into the night (as long as they have enough beer). I admit to being sophomoric.

Or. . .

I still play the Bach Ach wie flüchtig! I play it much more slowly than is normal (or than I played it to show off for the little old ladies). I like to hear all the notes in my old age. [You can listen to the Dutch organist Ton Koopman play it in the standard fashion here.]

Or perhaps I play much more slowly now because I think this is beginning to be the end of my life when in reality it’s the beginning. Or this very moment is eternity. Or we don’t exist at all. Or, if we do, we should be getting ready to die. Is that too startling, depressing for you? You should be a TLEptic. You’d have had a lifetime [“time”] to think about these things.

“Be Drunk,” by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
(translated by Louis Simpson)

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

“. . . In a stable, dark and dreary, who will be the first to kneel . . .”

Who will be the first to kneel?

Who will be the first to kneel?

Among the contradictions, inconsistencies, and dissimilitudes in our celebration of Christmas [or the Winter Solstice or whatever you celebrate at the end of December] is a misconception about the definition of the word “humble.”  Dictionary.com first defines it as “not proud.” Then come the interesting meanings. “Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience . . . low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful . . .”

Who in America (or any other Western country) wants to have a “feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience?” Not movie stars. Not professional athletes. Not recording artists. Not Rachael Maddow. Or Ted Cruz. Or Alice Walton.

NOT YOU OR ME, EITHER.

You’re educated enough to understand the word “dissimilitude,” and you have a computer of some sort. You probably drive a nice car and know the best restaurant in your city. (Stephan Pyles in Dallas. I’ve eaten there.)

Given all of that, whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Humanist, or none of the above, you would not be caught dead kneeling in a pile of cow shit. Might ruin your Gap jeans.

But, with the best of them—even you non-Christian folks—we sing, in the holiday spirit,

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

(16th-century Polish carol, “In a manger He Is lying”). Never mind if you don’t know that exact one. You likely know “What Child

Vierne "Final." All those notes!

Vierne “Final.” All those notes!

Is this,” sung to “Greensleeves.” I have Muslim friends who, of course, don’t know those carols. But, believe me, there’s plenty of Ramadan sentimentality to go around. And, my goodness, Chanukah? So we all get ooey-gooey feelings about holidays based loosely on our religion.

Back to my original assertion—you wouldn’t be caught dead with your knees in a pile of horse manure. But you’d sing a song about it and feel ever-so-spiritual (or at least cuddly).

ME, TOO.

Here’s this baby in a place no self-respecting mother would give birth—a manger. Have you ever been in a barn where cows and other such filthy animals live? I’ve helped shoo the cows in from the fields to the dairy barn and sprayed the floor with water to keep the cow shit washed away so it doesn’t get mixed in with the milk. Nebraska, 1959 or so.

That’s as far from the windows of Neiman Marcus on Main Street in Dallas sporting their Alexander McQueen fashions as you can get. But I’ll bet everyone who buys one of those dresses either as a Christmas gift for his wife (do men do that?) or for herself to wear to the Christmas party she simply has to attend would sing

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?
At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?

BUT DON’T GET SELF-RIGHTEOUS.

Those of us who buy our underwear at Target because we can’t afford McQueen will sing it, too. While we all refuse to kneel in the cow dung.

I’m not getting all holier-than-thou here. One of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, said,

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

I’m grateful people like her keep things moving in (at least now and then) the right direction. But frankly, I’m more grateful I was born with weakness, fear, and timidity instead of courage. Epilepsy and bipolar disorder. And self-centered fear. I’m grateful I’m a wimp. Otherwise I never would have discovered that it’s OK to kneel in cow dung. In fact, it’s sort of a natural place to be. For all of us.

Not because I’m a piece of it—don’t get me wrong, I’m not groveling.

No, I’m (I think by this age I can be confident that I am) moving into the real meaning of “humility.” That is, “low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful.”

When I play the organ, it’s usually not very fast. I’m neither physically nor mentally adroit enough to play all those notes. (My “normal” temperature is 97.5.) Nothing about me is athletic—not even my fingers. I used to hate that my organ playing is best when it’s slowest.

Once when I was practicing at the University of Iowa on the Clapp Hall organ (destroyed by a flood) a friend—a real organist (played at the Mother Church in Boston)—wandered up to the loft. I was playing the Bach chorale prelude on Allein Gott (BWV 662), a languid work with the melody ornamented and strung out over a long introspective accompaniment. When I finished she said she was glad someone in the department could make sense out of that kind of slow music.

I resented it. I wanted to play the Vierne “Final” she was working on. No way could I then, or now.

And now I know. Or am beginning to understand. “Low in rank, importance, status, quality” is where I belong. That’s not self-hatred or any of those things your therapist or AA group warn you about. At least for me, it’s where I can pay attention. Where those mysterious tones we call music fit together so I can comprehend them. Where I’m most likely to understand anything. Anything at all.

In a manger He is lying
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Baby Jesus, infant Christ-child,
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Wake, ye shepherds, and as ye play
Gladsome songs and carols gay,
Seek the Babe ere break of day;
Seek the Babe ere break of day.

Angel hosts have sung their story,
Who will follow the bright star?
Told of Christ in all his glory,
Who will follow the bright star?
Wake, ye shepherds, and sing Noel,
Help the angel chorus swell,
To the earth glad tidings tell;
To the earth glad tidings tell.

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?
Wake, ye shepherds, Seek out your King!
Play your songs and loudly sing,
Till the air with echoes ring;
Till the air with echoes ring.

“Like as the hart desireth. . .”

I would be grateful if you would visit http://palestineinsight.net/
my new blog of news and opinion from Palestine from the internet,
and a growing anthology of work by Palestinian poets.

A Palestinian Gazelle in The Galilee

A Palestinian Gazelle in The Galilee

This morning, I awoke with a musical phrase in my mind, the opening of Herbert Howells’ setting of Psalm 42 (the English Prayer Book translation). It’s a melody that hangs in the back of my mind, ready to pounce on my consciousness at appropriate (or inappropriate) moments.  My favorite recording of the anthem is by the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

In the summer of 1979 I tagged along with the choir of men and boys from Boston’s St. Paul Episcopal Cathedral, directed by Thomas Murray, on their concert tour of England. My partner was one of the men of the choir. I had no responsibilities, and while the choir rehearsed (and even more often if I chose), I could wander off and see the various cities on my own. The best of all possible worlds—time to see the country without having to plan any of my accommodations, and opportunity to hear glorious music sung in famous churches all over England.

Whether or not the Howells was in their repertory that summer I don’t recall. I heard them sing it often enough in other venues. However, I knew the work before I met any of them. The University of Redlands choir sang it when I was a member.

Howells set only the first three verses of the Psalm.

LIKE as the hart desireth the water-brooks,
so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God:
when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

My tears have been my meat day and night,
while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God? (1).

The late afternoon we spent in St. Paul’s London was the most memorable of the trip. Years ago our Music History professor at Redlands used pictures of St. Paul’s as examples of Baroque architecture. The cathedral was consecrated in 1697 (J. S. Bach was 12 years old at the time) at the early edge of the great Baroque period in the arts. The architectural style is overwhelming and ornate—shapes and swirls and colors that seem to have no beginning and no end.

Flannery O’Connor, in her story “Parker’s Back” (inadvertently, I’m sure) wrote a description of the baroque when Parker sees “. . . a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man. . .  moved about on the platform . . . so that the arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own” (2).  The baroque is not far from the grotesque in art.

Creators of both styles of art expect their works to have the same effect: Parker was filled with emotion. . .

As the Boston St. Paul’s choir rehearsed at St. Paul’s London, I wandered around the cathedral. I saw it as almost no one ever does. The

Miraculously not destroyed

Miraculously not destroyed

rehearsal began as the tourists were shooed away and the doors closed at the end of the day. Except for the music, the cathedral was covered in awesome silence, and the lights had been turned off. I saw the cathedral as Christopher Wren meant for us to see it—with light only from the sun through opaque, not stained, glass windows. Real light, real silence—except for music. Wren’s architecture is not Gothic. This is not Chartres. For all of its awesome size and grandeur, St. Paul’s has a feeling of light because it is lighted by the sun.

Very few tourists ever see it in that light.

I don’t remember if the choir sang the Howells that day, but Howells was intimately associated with St. Paul’s. He wrote a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in 1951 for the cathedral as it was being reopened after the blitz—which it miraculously survived when the bomb intended to destroy it did not detonate and was removed to be exploded elsewhere.

Very few tourists ever see a “hart” in the Galilee in Occupied Palestine.

The “hart” of the Bible may be the Persian Fallow Deer. “Hart” is Old English, usually used for “red deer.” However, the fallow deer is historically the more prevalent deer in Palestine. The deer was extinct for many years. It has been reintroduced in the Occupied Territory , and is thriving.

A few years ago I was with a group in Palestine. We were returning by bus from Capernaum (on the Sea of Galilee) to Bethlehem. Our bus driver suddenly stopped and told us to look into the hills to the left to see a deer (hart?). He was excited. He had traveled that highway for years and had never seen a deer. I must admit I caught only a glimpse disappearing into the brush. I would not say I “saw” a hart, but many of our group did.

When I first learned the Howells “Like as a Hart,” I believed in God. The anthem was a comfort to me, both for its delicious music and for the text. Now when I hear it, I am “filled with emotion” as Parker is in O’Connor’s story. But the emotion is, I fear, grief.

Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul. . .

Imbued with sunlight and faith

Imbued with sunlight and faith

The hart desiring water in the dry hillside of Palestine is perfectly understandable to me. I am filled with wonder whenever I remember St. Paul’s bathed in sunlight. My mind holds the Howells “Like as a heart” with a sense of beauty (yes, beauty is still, even in these post-post-post-modern times, a legitimate idea).

Howells set the opening three lines of the Psalm as a lovely wandering melody. The first moment of intensity—it’s almost shrill, a cry for, for what? help? a cry of anguish?—comes at the word When.

When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

I know that anguish.

Neither music, light, nor nature has yet answered the question for me.
__________
(1)The text  Psalm 42. Quemadmodum (“In the manner of”) is below. (2) O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965.

LIKE as the hart desireth the water-brooks, * so longeth my soul after thee, O God.
2 My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God: * when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
3 My tears have been my meat day and night,* while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?

4 Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself; * for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God;
5 In the voice of praise and thanksgiving, * among such as keep holy-day.
6 Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul? * and why art thou so disquieted within me?
7 O put thy trust in God; * for I will yet thank him, which is the help of my countenance, and my God.
8 My soul is vexed within me; * therefore will I remember thee from the land of Jordan, from Hermon and the little hill.
9 One deep calleth another, because of the noise of thy water-floods; * all thy waves and storms are gone over me.
10 The LORD will grant his loving-kindness in the daytime; * and in the night season will I sing of him, and make my prayer unto the God of my life.
11 I will say unto the God of my strength, Why hast thou forgotten me? * why go I thus heavily, while the enemy oppresseth me?
12 My bones are smitten asunder as with a sword, * while mine enemies that trouble me cast me in the teeth;
13 Namely, while they say daily unto me, * Where is now thy God?
14 Why art thou so vexed, O my soul? * and why art thou so disquieted within me?
15 O put thy trust in God; * for I will yet thank him, which is the help of my countenance, and my God.