Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The weekly cantata

Classes begin again today! I am enrolled in my final semester of course work, to be followed - God willing - by a thesis to be written in the summer and defended in the fall. One step at a time.

And those "one steps" over the past week have had something to do with the thesis. And with an independent study I am undertaking this semester. Which, itself, has something to do with the thesis.

So, the week before classes was a reading week, with lots to enjoy about it and I am happy to say that it really has me eager for the weeks ahead. I anticipate a good deal of my writing this semester to contribute - directly or preparatorily (no, not a word) - to the thesis. These days that has meant reading about Bach, and the Lutheran worship services of the 17th and 18th centuries.

More on that another time. What struck me last week, though, was the following comparison/analogy. Which, you know, I would never make about myself and so I make it about the kind of work I do. That is to say, even in jest I would never compare myself to J. S. Bach, in any regard. (Though, if I got that powdered wig I've always coveted . . . ) And one could hardly confuse the kind of worship services I have planned with those of Leipzig's churches in the 18th century. But I think they do have this in common:

Built around the sermon scripture, they seek to weave instrumental music, choral music, and congregational song into a theme for the day. Everyone and every thing in the service has its part. And ideally, when the hour is done, there is a lingering impression, an understanding of the scripture that is rooted in the sermon but expressed complementarily (also, not a word?) in all that has been said and sung, whether by congregation, choir or instruments.

In an ideal service plan, it seems to me, there is a weekly "cantata." Now, Herr Bach produced a pretty impressive cycle of services, and they sound like . . . well, like Bach! In my case (and in most cases today) the music comes from a variety of sources. My services are less durable than the Bach cantatas, but their structure and purpose are similar.

Except that our sermons are not an hour long, and we don't have another 20 - 30 minutes of music on each side of the sermon.

Well, anyway, just a little musing as I begin this semester and wonder about the future. I'd never considered that I've been preparing "weekly cantatas" for years now. With my above disclaimer about comparisons (i.e., there are no valid comparisons to Bach nor to Leipzig nor to the 18th century), this idea shapes my thinking about worship planning.

And it also suggests that as the music of that cantata-meister will figure into my thesis, I must begin to soak it up by listening to weekly cantatas by himself.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Twelve of One, a Dozen of the Other

The Twelve Days of Christmas have passed, and tonight the Christmas tree goes down, among the last of the seasonal items to be packed away. It has been an unusual season for me - the first December in 28 years in which I have not prepared and conducted Christmas music for worship and programs. I missed it a great deal, which is instructive for me as I press on in my theology studies and discern what is next in my vocation.

Reading Walter Wangerin, Preparing for Jesus, grounded my season, Advent through Christmas. When December began I had no idea that I would be "making music" vicariously through this blog and Facebook posts. The nice personal benefit that came out of that was a rich sense of occasion in the season. I've never really "observed" the Twelve Days of Christmas, in any personal sense. The readings, and the fun challenge of proposing music for each day from December 17 through January 6, helped "keep me in the game." At the Sixth Day of Christmas I recapped a Facebook series of musical offerings, so here today is my re-cap of Days 7 through 12.

As earlier, I add some notes, some alternate recordings, and the occasional optional selection. Enjoy!

Seventh day of Christmas, January 1, 2013
I confessed (a) my ignorance about why there are different ways to count the 12 days, and (b) my laziness that kept me from doing the research about it. Thanks to a couple of rather more interested and energetic friends (friends in real life and on Facebook), I relaxed into the count proffered by Pastor Wangerin. It gave me an extra day of "Christmas" music; and yet, as both ways of counting still end with January 6, Epiphany, in a sense it didn't really matter!
In any case, both methods of counting also mark January 1 as the observation of the Circumcision, the Name Day of Jesus. The gospel song, "What You Gonna Name that Pretty Little Baby" is a family favorite, especially from a recording of the Penumbra Theatre (Saint Paul, MN) production of "Black Nativity." There is a professional recording from a Broadway production of this Langston Hughes stage work. It is, of course, excellent. But for our family taste, the gentler Midwestern version - which we attended several years running - is unmatched. 

Eighth day of Christmas, January 2
A favorite of choirs, congregations, and audiences, Benjamin Britten's This Little Babe, from his Ceremony of Carols simply had to show up somewhere in the 12 Days. I put it here following the "naming" on January 1, because - to my mind - "this little babe, so few days old, has come to rifle Satan's fold" is a natural next statement following, "you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." (Jesus means Yahweh saves.)

Ninth day of Christmas, January 3
I just had to get in one of my favorite carols, The Wexford Carol, and this recording by conductor and arranger, Dale Warland. Of course, this is a folk tune and traditional carol, so here is another setting:

Tenth day of Christmas, January 4
I began the turn from Christmas proper, to the Epiphany. I like this selection because it bridges the season so well: Jesus, the Light of the World points back to the angels' announcement of the birth ("Hark! the herald angels sing") and ahead to the theme of Epiphany ("Jesus, the light of the world"). The selection posted on Facebook is nice because the performers and the audience are racially diverse - a great picture of Epiphany and the gospel. But this was a very tight second choice. Its merits are many and obvious, among them the unbridled gospel choir, the excellent lead singer, the totally engaged congregation (this is church), and the Chicago connection - Trinity UCC. Don't let the timing of this video keep you from starting it. The featured song is first in a string of songs. If you have time, treat yourself to the full medley!

Eleventh day of Christmas, January 5. By one reckoning (and, I gather, the more common), this would be the Twelfth Day. By either reckoning, January 5 is Twelfth Night. Time to get your Shakespeare out. Children, Go Where I Send Thee is commonly included in Christmas programs, and is also included in the Black Nativity production in Saint Paul. But, in a strictly liturgical sense, the whole sending/going motif properly belongs to Epiphany. So, another transitional item. As a folk song, it comes in many variants. Some more obscure than others. All of them fun. I stand by my posting of that from the Johnny Cash Christmas special (1977), because . . . well, just because. I might have picked this video there because it is a group that bears mention:

Twelfth day of Christmas, January 6
I may be delusional, but I believe a congregation does not want to be rushed away from Christmas. Preachers outside the liturgical calendar, on the other hand, for any number of reasons, may be all too ready to press on to whatever is next. One way to serve both sides of this post-Christmas dilemma is to sing As of Gladness, Men of Old. Here again, often sung during Advent or on Christmas Eve; but the text screams "later!"
     As of gladness men of old
     Did the guiding star behold,
     As with joy they hailed its light
     Beaming onward, beaming bright;
     So, most gracious Lord, may we
     Evermore be led to Thee.
And again, to be strictly calendrical (?) here is where we could finally program, We Three Kings!
Before I go "back to the beginning," I'd want to offer this setting by . . . the Beach Boys! Go on, listen to it. You know you want to! And it is surprisingly reverent. Enjoy.

But, to come full circle on the season, I really must end back at King's College, Cambridge, Choir in that Chapel:

Christmas Music: I look forward to a much more personal engagement in 2013!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

Popular outrage against film critics who panned the Christmas Day release of “Les Miserables” highlights a challenge facing many churches. The Chicago Tribune critic, Michael Phillips, spent the week following his 1-½ star review dealing with incensed moviegoers questioning his fitness to be a critic, his motivation for trashing a great film, even his humanness. As I read Phillips’s article detailing the firestorm  (“Do you hear the people sting?” Chicago Tribune, 28 December 2012) I thought of the state of the modern church in its continuing evaluation of liturgy and music.  

Phillips is just one of several prominent film critics who found fault with this blockbuster adaptation of the perennially popular stage musical based on the 19th century novel (which, one suspects, is being read with less frequency these days). Acknowledging his love for the musical, Phillips primarily faulted the direction and cinematography, feeling that the film didn’t breathe. In short, he criticized not the story but the craft of film-making which failed, in his opinion, to do justice to a great story already well told in two other media. Granted, by quoting his critics Phillips may have painted a caricature. But the quotations have the ring of truth, and sounded to me very much like what one hears in discourse about what is right – or wrong – about a church’s worship life. “People just kept applauding and would not leave until the credits were over. How can you put down one of the greatest movies of all time?” “I was enthralled . . . The packed theater, the sound of sniffles and noses being blown . . . the sound of patrons clapping after the final song is sung is a sound that just isn’t experienced all too often.” “Much applause  . . . and buckets of tears.” Whether any of his correspondents commented on the quality of the acting or singing, we are left to wonder. Phillips, however, commented on (and complimented) both, in print and on a radio interview focused on the backlash from his review. 

Questions of editing and caricature aside, when I read these critiques of the critic I was struck with their similarity to what one often hears in appraisal and evaluation of public worship. Response to Phillips suggested that a critic’s job is to be “objective” and “neutral,” and noted with some satisfaction that public response to this and other panned films disproved the critic’s assessment. After all, if “The Hobbit” has been the #1 film for two weeks running, how dare a film critic find fault with it? If people cry and clap for “Les Miz,” it must be good. The same college professor who introduced me to the novel, Les Miserables, also taught us how to distinguish good poetry from bad. “You are welcome to like bad poetry,” she said, “I just want you to be able to tell the difference.” That, it seems to me, is the role of the film critic; it is also the role of the church leader with responsibility for a congregation’s music and liturgy.

The modern church suffers from a persistent romanticism that places final aesthetic authority in the feelings of individuals. The self is the only arbiter of taste. If it makes me feel good, it is good art. If I weep and clap, it must be good. How can you say that [fill in the blank] is not good? Generally, those who teach and preach are able kindly but firmly to reply: “No, but thus says the Lord, and so we will teach and preach, and so we will learn to live.” And in this way a people’s life is shaped; the will, the feelings, the responses and actions are transformed over time by the renewal of the mind. But when it comes to those other life-shaping aspects of public church life – liturgy and music – we are often in danger of allowing the spirit of the age to inform our evaluation. If it feels good, it is good. If it is difficult to engage, could you kindly make it appealing? It is much easier to pay for a $12 movie than an $80 Broadway ticket. The book is practically free, but who has time for that?

The role of film criticism is to introduce, contextualize, provide insight, and yes, finally to recommend whether readers should spend their money on a particular movie. The critic who does all this well will hear from a public that only wants to know, “will this movie make me feel good?” It is not unlike the function of preaching, liturgy, and music, which each have a role in shaping the lives of Christian believers. In an environment that rejects the expectations and values of nineteenth century romanticism in the arena of preaching and teaching, shouldn’t we be cautious of embracing the same standards of evaluation in our liturgy and music?