Monday, November 30, 2015

For All the Saints: St. Andrew

In many churches, both West and East, today is the feast day of St. Andrew. The Orthodox saints site has this to say about Andrew:

"He was the brother of the Apostle Peter, from Bethsaida on the shore of Lake Gennesaret. Andrew left his fisherman's trade to become a disciple of St John the Baptist. Soon after the Forerunner had baptized Jesus, he said to Andrew and his other disciple John the Theologian, 'Behold the Lamb of God!' At this, both disciples followed after Jesus. After conversing with Christ, Andrew hurried home and told his brother Simon Peter, 'We have found the Messiah.' For being the first to recognize Jesus as the Christ, St Andrew is called the First-Called.

"After Pentecost, Andrew was appointed to preach the Gospel around the Black Sea and in Thrace and Macedonia, traveling as far as Lazica in the Caucasus. According to Slavic tradition his travels took him even further, into the land that was later to be called Russia.

"In later travels the Apostle preached throughout Asia Minor with St John the Theologian, then traveled to Mesopotamia, then back to Sinope on the Black Sea, and finally to Patras in the Peloponnese, where he soon established a large community of Christians. One of his converts was Maximilla, the wife of Aegeates, the Proconsul of that region. Aegeates was so angered by his wife's conversion that he had the Apostle arrested and crucified head downwards on a cross in the shape of an 'X.' The holy Apostle rejoiced to be allowed to suffer the same death as his Master.

"The holy relics of St Andrew, after various travels, were returned to Patras in 1964, where they are now venerated.

"In the West, St Andrew is venerated as the patron of Scotland: in the Middle Ages, more than eight hundred churches in Scotland were dedicated to him."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Interfaith Days: Advent Sunday

On the Christian calendars, today is the first Sunday of the Advent season, the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and also the Sunday following the Feast of Christ the King. It is the first day of the liturgical year.

Advent, in turn is the Western Christian season of waiting for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. "Advent" comes from adventus, a Latin translation of the Greek parousia, all referring to the arrival of Christ, both as a baby at Christmas and as the returned Messiah in the future. The Advent season implies expectation both for the Christmas incarnation and for Christ's eventual return.

In the Eastern Church, the season does not begin the liturgical calendar in the same way, and in many Eastern churches, the Nativity Fast has already begin.

I love to observe Advent Sunday as the beginning of the Christian year. I've written about it several times on this blog, for instance:

Thursday, November 26, 2015

For All the Saints: Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was honored yesterday by the Lutheran Church and today by the Anglican and Episcopal Churches. An English theologian and hymn author, he wrote about 750 hymns. Although churches of his time used biblical poetry in worship services, Watts developed a style of original hymns (poetry) noted both for theological appropriateness and genuineness of emotions. He also set the biblical Psalms into meter that could be sung by congregations. Some of his many hymns still hung include "Joy to the World," "Come Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove," "O God, Our Help in Ages past," "When I survey the wondrous cross," "Alas! and did my Saviour bleed," "I sing the mighty power of God," and others.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Year's Music: Rachmaninoff's Vespers (All-Night Vigil)

What a lovely piece! Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye in only two weeks in January-February, 1915. With the Russian Revolution two years later, the piece became a line drawn between an earlier and later era of Russian religious life. The title means All-Night Vigil but has also been translated Vespers and Vesper Mass. In Russian churches, all-night services are held on the evening of holy days, and (from my reading about this piece) although Rachmaninoff was not a church attender, he was influenced by church music and considered this piece one of his best compositions. Largely based on chant, a notable aspect of the piece is the fifth section, "Nunc dimittis," where the basses descend to the low B-flat two octaves below middle C.

I don't remember how I learned of this piece, but now I listen to it frequently---the music is so lovely and evocative! I am listening to the Telarc CD with a performance by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers conducted by Robert Shaw himself. Here is another performance, from YouTube:

Here is the Russian text and English translation:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

For All the Saints: St. Cecilia

Saint Cecilia, the saint of musicians, is honored today in the churches like the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox. Historical information about her is less abundant than legends, but she was probably martyred, in either the 2nd or 3rd century. It was said of her that she "sang in her heart to the Lord." Because of her association with music, musical events have traditionally happened on November 22, her feast day, and composers like Purcell, Gounod, Britten, and Finzi, among others, have written music to St. Cecelia. Here, for instance, is a piece by Handel:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

For All the Saints: John Merbecke, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis

On the Episcopal calendar, three musicians are honored today. John Merbecke (c. 1510- c. 1585) is known as the writer and musician who provided musical uniformity for the first Book of Common Prayer. His work was rediscovered and published in the 1840s, and again in the 20th century.

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 1585), was another English composer. His choral music has been widely anthologized. Although Roman Catholic, he was able to find favor among succeeding 16th century monarchs because of his stylistic adaptability. One of his melodies was made famous by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his piece Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Tallis worked with the younger composer William Byrd (c. 1539 or 40 - 1623). Byrd wrote Catholic as well as Anglican sacred music. Among other pieces, his three masses are available on contemporary recordings.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Year's Music: Michael Tippett's "A Child of Our Time"

News of terrorism in Paris, debates concerning international help for Syrian refugees, and concerns about justice for African Americans in this country, reminded me recently of the oratorio A Child of Our Time, composed by the British composer Michael Tippett (1905-1998). I haven't listened to it for several years and wanted to again.

Tippett wrote the piece in 1939-1941 in response to Kristallnacht, the anniversary of which was earlier this month. Tippett was a pacifist who went to prison during World War II, and some of his message of non-violence and reconciliation are part of this work, which also expresses solidarity with oppressed and homeless peoples of the world.

The title, which Tippett borrowed from a novel Ein Kind unserer Zeit, refers to the refugee boy Hershel Grynszpan, whose shooting of a German diplomat precipitated Kristallnacht, that 1938 Nazi persecution and destruction of Jewish communities. In the oratorio, the boy symbolizes Grynszpan as well as victims of inhumanity generally. Interestingly, Tippett uses American spirituals in sections where a composer like Bach or Handel would have used chorales. The spirituals further convey the themes of oppression and liberation. Tippett, who wrote the libretto as well as the music, also incorporated Jungian themes of shadow and light into the piece, notably in the third section where conclusions are explored; the other two sections had dealt with the sad state of the world and the plight of persecuted peoples, and the attempts at achieving justice. The final piece is a spiritual, looking to a final redemption:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
I want to cross over into camp-ground, Lord!

The Wikipedia page, from which I found much of this information, details the oratorio's composition and performance histories, as well as providing a list of the individual numbers.

I've been listening to the recording (on the Chandos label) by Richard Hickox conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with black soloists. There are classic recordings by Sir Colin Davis as well. Here is a performance by the BBC Choral Society on YouTube: