Thursday, July 28, 2011

Commemoration of Bach, Handel and Purcell - July 28

Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts:

praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:

praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance:

praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals:

praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD.

Praise ye the LORD.

-- Psalm 150 (KJV)

There may be other psalms that reference music, praise and worship, but for this particular day, this one tops the list. The day commemorates Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel and Henry Purcell, two Germans and an Englishman. Anyone with any familiarity with church music will almost genuflect at the name of any of the three, me included. Of course, to this day I would add Tallis, Byrd, Monteverdi (gotta have one Italian for good measure) and Palestrina (ok, two Italians). All were composers par excellence and worthy of our thought and commemoration.

I confess that my musical taste runs to the period when these gentlemen composed, performed and conducted. The interplay of words and music, of many voices weaving in and around, the power of trumpets and pipe and tracker organs played like organs should be played, heck, for me there's no greater spiritual experience --- unless it is participating rather than just listening.

Some of the happiest days I have spent in church have been with a choir where music such as Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Handel and Bach were unabashedly done as well as more modern stuff like Rutter ("I can't believe it's not Rutter!"), Duruflé or Vaughn Williams. Something about church music that has texture, depth and just enough dissonance to keep things interesting just gives me shivers. Sitting in a building where the acoustics are beautifully balanced and not muted by excess soft furnishings and carpeting, listening to music like theirs is almost worth trading my hope of heaven to hear. Having sung quite a bit of it, I can identify what quite a few of the pieces in Latin are about, even if I have never had a course in Latin. But it isn't so much about what the words say, it's how beautifully they are said. The German, however, is another story. I have no idea what is being said, but the harmonies and counterpoints are more than enough to make up for the lack of familiarity with the libretto.

While they all wrote things other than church music, and much of what church music they wrote was at the behest (and commission) of members of the aristocracy, unlike painters who made figures from scripture look like the patrons who commissioned the work, musicians don't throw in "This music composed for ..." into the composition although the names of the patrons appear in the dedication or even the title. That leaves the music to speak for itself, to speak to the listener.

I believe that scripture was inspired by God even if not dictated by God. I also believe that the music of Bach, Handel, Purcell, Byrd, Tallis, Monteverdi, Palestrina and their contemporaries and successors were divinely touched by God, and first performed by angelic choirs and musicians. Somehow I don't think an eternity of "Holy, Holy, Holy" won't be boring; there are too many wonderful pieces with just those words for it to be boring. I'm also sure God won't mind a few interludes between versions of "Holy, Holy, Holy" that might include other pieces -- chorales, masses, canticles, hymns, doxologies, prayers, and the like. I don't think God will get bored, nor will the company of saints who will join the heavenly choirs, even if they couldn't carry a note in a bucket on earth.

To me, that will be heaven indeed.

Commemoration from Holy Women, Holy Men, authorized provisionally by General Convention 2009, Traditional language:

Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness, who dost teach us in Holy Scripture to sing thy praises and who gavest thy musicians Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel and Henry Purcell grace to show forth thy glory in their music: Be with all those who write or make music for thy people, that we on earth may glimpse thy beauty and know the inexhaustible riches of thy new creation in Jesus Christ our Savior; who livest and reignest with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Collect for Church Musicians and Artists

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. -- BCP , p 819.

No comments:

Post a Comment