“. . . 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.