The Epiphany Season
You can now access the Music at St. Paul's podcast through the iTunes Music Store
If you ever need to find it fast, just search the iTunes Music Store for "Music at St. Paul's", and it should pop up under the podcasts.
Confused by all the podcast talk? Just listen directly to the file here: Episode 1: Ash Wednesday
Lord, bless me this Lent. Lord, let me fast most truly and profitably, by feeding in prayer on this Spriit: reveal me to myself in the light of thy holiness. Suffer me never to think that I have knowledge enough to need no teaching, wisdom enough to need no correction, talents enough to need no grace, goodness enough to need no progress, humility enough to need no repentance, devotion enough to need no quickening, strength sufficient without thy Spirit; lest, standing still, I fall back for evermore. Show me the desires that should be disciplined, and sloths to be slain. show me the omissions to be made up and the habits to be mended. And behind these, weaken, humble and annihilate in me self-will, self-righteousness, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, self-assertion, vainglory. May my whole effort be to return to thee; O make it serious and sincere persevering and fruitful in result, by the help of thy Holy Spirit and to thy glory, my Lord and my God.
It's time again for an annual podcast on the music at the Lenten Preaching Services at St. Paul's Church. The first episode is ready:
The feed for this podcast is http://feeds.feedburner.com/MusicAtStPaulsChurchRichmondVirginia
And we should be up and running on iTunes shortly.
We're a week away from the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday, the date when the church begins its season of Lent (the 40 days before Easter).
Our Prayer Book offers a lot of commentary on this day and the season within the Ash Wednesday liturgy itself.
And that's just it.
I keep hearing of more places that are offering "ashes to go" or priests (and lay people?) who are willing to just head out into the street and offer ashes to those who want them.
It's all very well and good to say the words "remember you are dust . . ." as you apply these ashes to someone on the street, but what have you lost in taking the Imposition of Ashes out of its full liturgical context?
Many things. Just running down the liturgy: preparation, prayer, readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, litany of penitence, Eucharist, etc.
But more than this, I think we've lost perspective on what worship is. Who we are. Who we are called to be.
The litany of repentance offers confession of "our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us", and this is for people who are already in the church!
How much more me-centric can it get than, "oh, thanks for coming out here as I do my own very important things so that I can quickly, and tangentially be reminded of God's presence and my own mortality"?
This fosters the impression, as my rector put it recently, "that our lives are our own".
In fact, I think carrying the ashes outside the church building itself and away from any sense of liturgical connection implies exactly the opposite meaning that this Imposition is meant to have.
In his A Priests Handbook Dennis Michno opines:
It is inappropriate to distribute or impose ashes outside of the above [Ash Wednesday] liturgy. For serious pastoral reasons, ashes may be imposed at other times in a setting of penitence and confession. The act of receiving ashes must not become a focal point of this day but rather a sign of the day, a sign that is part of the penitential beginning of the season of Lent.
When we try to evangelize with our ashes, or simply make them more available, we don't offer people much and we deny them everything about the liturgy.
Liturgy is not evangelism (see Aidan Kavanaugh Elements of Rite), nor is it convenient (see the wonderful title of Marva Dawn's A Royal "Waste" of Time).
It's really too bad that more and more of the Episcopal Church seems so eager to take Ashes to the streets without thinking through the theological implications of what they are doing.
This brings to mind a phrase of Percy Dearmer who, writing in 1919 about his frustration with churches carrying out rituals without understanding their meaning, said
That is the condition of most of our churches all over the world at the present day ; that is the impression they make, both in service-time and when they are empty. The ashes of a little fire that has gone out.
I love the music Sibelius, so read on knowing that this is far from unbiased.
And it's not often that one has profound conceptual experiences while sorting through email listening to public radio, but WCVE was playing a performance of Symphony No. 5 by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by James Levine. I hadn't heard this recording before.
The Fifth is a great work, and a great place to start if you're unfamiliar with the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. (NPR agrees.)
Throughout much of my musical education Sibelius had been pigeonholed as a "nationalist" and not given his due. Fortunately, this perspective seems to be changing and I noted with great pleasure that Alex Ross devoted an entire chapter to Sibelius in his delightful The Rest Is Noise.
The Fifth is most memorable for two features of it's third and final movement. First is the introduction of the "swan song", an ostinato pattern, heard first in the horns, that is a musical recreation of one of Sibelius's experiences near his home 21 April 1915.
Just before ten-to-eleven saw sixteen swans. One of the greatest experiences in life. Oh God, what beauty: they circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the hazy sun like a silver ribbon, which glittered from time to time. Their cries were of the same woodwind timbre as the cranes but without any tremolo. The swans are closer to trumpets, though there is an element of the sarrusophone. A low suppressed memory of a small child's cry. Nature's mystery and life's melancholy. The Fifth Symphony's final theme.
That phrases "memory of a small child's cry" and "life's melancholy" may be in reference to the death his infant daughter Kristi.
The other galvanizing element of the Symphony is its unusual ending, which, after a prolonged period of sustained modernist counterpoint leaves off with a series of chords -- six in all -- surrounded by silence.
This contrast, the rich density of the "swan song" (some have called it "movie music", but keep in mind that this is 1915 & 19, not the John Williams 1980s) leading to a hallmark Sibelian syncopated sway that abruptly leaves off is remarkable. It's a curiosity. It's a little absurd. It's possibly profound.
And this week, for the first time, listening to the Levine recording, I thought I glimpsed what he might be about here.
I sensed that the silence was not an end to the crescendo, but rather that the music became too intense for its own good, somehow. The only human thing to do with this earthbound reality was to let it go, to set it free.
The six separate chords briefly keep us anchored to this transcendent un-hearable music, that which is beyond our sphere of knowing, whatever that was for Sibelius and whatever that might be for us who hear his music now. But it's only that: a shadow of another realm, another reality.
(There are of course parallels between this concept and the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen: see birds as messengers of the Divine, music of heaven, etc.)
Also of note, Sibelius didn't have the guts to do precisely this gesture in the original 1915 version of the symphony. The strings maintain the underlying chords while the rest of the orchestra punctuates. I have to say that I find stark revision of this final gesture in the 1919 revision to be utterly profound.
Obviously the Fifth Symphony is a work of its time, but it was certainly ahead of its time. And with sympathetic ears, and trust in the goals of the composer, I found this week that this music can lift us to the very door of heaven.
". . . disappeared into the hazy sun like a silver ribbon . . ."
". . . on another shore and in a greater light . . ."
". . . Nature's mystery and life's melancholy . . ."
Listen to the Fifth.
Labels: Jean Sibelius
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