Easter 2024

21 October 2010
Ives, Grayston - revelations on the incarnational nature of church music

Grayston Ives's Edington service makes an appearance on two Evensong webcasts this week: St. George's Chapel, Windsor (as webcast by the BBC -- hurry! You have three days left to listen), and St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue.

Neither performance is perfect.

This should go without saying. Music after all is a very human endeavor, and though Ives in his position as composer can theoretically approach perfection, the performance side of music often leaves something to be desired.

But, there are also those times where a performance is successfully, even inexplicably so. Great performances move us beyond the printed score. In some cases, such performers probably meet or exceed the composer's expectation of how his or her work should be performed. In others, truly great performances move members of the holy triangle of composer-performer-performer beyond the realm of their common experience and expectation.

"Perfection" is undesirable in church music. An overly-accurate, but lifeless rendering is not faithful to the composer and does a disservice to the listener.

A good rehearsal process can leave the listener out of the triangle. Sometimes the piece goes swimmingly in rehearsal only to have something go awry in the service. A certain understanding of what the discipline of church music is might recognize God as the listener and acknowledge that God was in fact present in the rehearsal and was indeed worshipped. But I suspect this is more a "monastic" or "isolationist" understanding of the discipline of music that doesn't take contemporary Anglican realities into account.

So where does this leave us?

Music is incarnational, and things that become incarnate are frighteningly specific. Jesus didn't become all of humankind, but he did become fully human. When we perform music, we don't become the piece of music (this is a comforting thought!) but we do our best to fulfill the sacred duty of offering an "incarnation" of that piece.

No two things brought into being are the same. And with respect to Grayston Ives's rather difficult organ accompaniment to the Edington service, this means that different approaches to the organ part will be employed by different organists. And different mistakes will be made.

This kind of unintentional specificity is terrifying for the organist. Believe me; I've been there. Your blood turns cold, and the whole idea of getting on with your life, let alone the rest of the piece, seems utterly pointless.

And yet, there's something beautiful about this kind of specificity. I'm not saying that the mistakes are inherently beautiful or that they are to be condoned. I think everyone (organists included) would prefer that the mistakes not be made. And in a perfect world they wouldn't be, but that's not the world we live in.

The beauty is that life does go on. No matter how much horror the assistant organist experiences, the lector proceeds to read the second lesson after the Magnificat.

And of course, there's our frame of reference to consider. The Ives Edington service hasn't been around for very long; I think anything composed in the last 50 years can be considered relatively new. And Stanford in C hasn't really been around for much longer than that. And the Anglican choral tradition hasn't really been around for too much longer than that. And then, if you wander back just a bit further, you find that we're already at that ultimate moment of incarnation, the birth of Jesus Christ.

These particular ways of singing our prayer are just as specific as Jesus' birth. Even the name of Ives's service belies a certain incarnation at a certain time that cannot be accessed again (this service was the commissioned work for the 1975 Edington Festival of Music in the Liturgy). But part of the reward and risk of being a composer is releasing one's work to all different times and places. Though we cannot hear the original performance at the Edington festival, we will continue to hear echoes of this event and of Grayston Ives creativity for many years to come.

Though we cannot be present in that stable in Bethlehem, we will continue to hear echoes of those incarnational cries.

And as we do, in life and in music, we will strive for perfection and ask forgiveness when we fail.

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