Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ned Rorem

Amid the busyness of semester's end, I've been keeping myself happy and motivated via music---and some modest new blog posts about favorite music.  Here is a post from Jan. 2011 about the contemporary composer Ned Rorem. 

Rorem was born in Richmond, IN in 1923. He lived in France from 1949-1958 and wrote about those years in "The Paris Diary" and "The New York Diary." Among his hundreds of works are "Spring Symphony," "Sunday Morning," "Evidence of Things Not Seen," "Eagles," symphonies, concertos, chamber works, and songs. Many artists and conductors have performed his music, including Bernstein, Ormandy, Previn, mezzo Susan Graham, Itzhak Perlman, and others. Time magazine once called him "the world's best composer of art songs," a quote one often sees in any discussion of his music. According to his bio ( he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for "Air Music," and also a Fulbright Fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship. Among many other honors, he won the ASCAP's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the French government named him Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Much of Rorem's music is available. So far I've downloaded some of Rorem's chamber music like "Book of Hours for Flute and Harp," and also the "String Symphony," "Sunday Morning," "Seven Motets for the Church Year," "Three Motets on Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins," "Three Hymn Anthems," the second piano concerto, and the cello concerto. I also have a CD of Susan Graham's lovely recording of several songs.

Rorem is well known for his prose writing. "The Paris Diaries" (1966) made Rorem "a pioneer of modern gay culture, speaking freely and fearlessly of his desires," according to Alex Ross in his appreciative article, "The Gentleman Composer: Eighty Years of Ned Rorem" (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003: Rorem has also written essays, a memoir called "Knowing When to Stop" (which ends at 1951, the year of his first published diary), and a series of diaries, two of which I love to dip into.

I discovered Rorem via a book catalog listing of the diary "Lies" (covering the years 1986-1999). The description introduced the book as a compendium of musical analysis, gossip, cultural observation, and sexual fantasies, a combination which sounded intriguing. There aren't many of the latter (one concerns the sunglass-wearing cop who questions Janet Leigh in "Psycho"). But I've enjoyed Rorem's many comments on music, culture, celebrities whom he knows, and the domestic life of him and his partner, organist James Holmes. The entries for 1995-1999 are heartbreaking as Rorem writes of Holmes' decline and death from cancer and AIDS. As the introductory essay states, a diary may be among the best ways to depict the tragedy of AIDS and its slow, cruel progress.

Not long afterward, I found a copy of "The Nantucket Diary," which covers the years 1973-1985. This longer diary is also very enjoyable to dip into as Rorem similarly makes judgments and observations about the musical world, grumbles about slights and medical problems, and shares aspects of his and Holmes' domestic relations and their lives in both New York City and Nantucket.

Here are a few representative entries---I hope I haven't quoted too much.


"In writing vocal music I have never used special effects--no whines, shrieks, whispers, elongations, nor even world repetitions. My aim toward poetry is, I suppose, to intensify rather than to reinterpret. In a word, my music is expressivity, rather than novelty." (ND, p. 39).

"Alcoholism, like homosexuality, is something outsiders never quite grasp. But whereas alcoholism is by all standards bad, homosexuality is not. Homosexuality is only a problem to those who make it one. Yet even during the sixties, when youth practiced tolerance in the antiwar movement, gayety was never a real part of the scene. Radical liberals have always been more queasy about sexual "deviation" than have capitalists, while tolerating, even encouraging, drugs and drink." (ND, p. 153)

"Sopranos, like cheesecakes, are of two kinds: velvet or satin, vanilla or chocolate, silver or gold. The moist voice of Leontyne Price versus the diamond streak of Judy Collins." (ND, p. 165)

"An artist declares: "I never repeat myself: that way lies sterile boredom," and the public thrills: an artist never repeats himself! Well, you know and I know that they know that the declaration is pure bunk. An artist may consciously try to avoid self-imitation, yet it's not for him to know, finally, whether in fact he succeeds.... The best of us have no more than four or five ideas during our whole life; we spend that life chiseling those ideas into various communicating shapes. that sentence states one of my four or five ideas, and I've said it over and over." (ND, p. 409)

"The startling lack of charm in all of [Elliott] Carter's music, early and late, when he himself possess so much of it. To say that his music "reflects our time" and can't afford charm is to know all times. You who know all times, tell us: What time was ever without anguish? (Tom Prentiss in his latest letter: "Concerning repetition: E. Carter declares his dislike of it, which is just as well; we need listen to his work but once.")" (ND, p. 443)

"Has anyone, even Britten in War Requiem, made music about war that is as harrowing as the bare bones displayed daily in newscasts? The whole question about what should and shouldn't be set to music (and why one chooses this text and another chooses that text, and how their musical--as well as their literary--approaches differ) is settled only by the realization of the mad illegitimacy of any setting of any text." (ND, p. 535)

"Poulenc never penned an original note: every measure can be traced to Chopin, or Mussorgsky, or Ravel, or Stravinsky, or even Faure whom he reviled. Yet every measure can be instantly identified as sheer Poulenc, by that mad touch of personal chutzpah that no critic can define" (Lies, p. 15)

"Debussy looks like Mandy Patinkin" (Lies, p. 56)

"I gave you the best years of my life.
Yes, and it's I who made them the best years" (Lies, p. 107)

"Last night reread Letters to a Young Poet for the first time in 45 years. I never quite bought it in 1943 while a student at Curtis, and I still don't buy it. Humorless biblical clichés about dedication and sacrifice. But Rilke was not that much older (only 27) than the Young Poet when he penned these truths, and still no doubt felt there were formulas for a good life." (Lies, p. 134).

"The Beaux Arts Trio, for whom Spring Music was written as a gift from Carnegie Hall, have had the music for close to a year without giving a sign of its receipt, much less of whether they like it. Since the premiere is tomorrow, I swallowed my pride last week and phoned the Trio. It hadn't occurred to them that the composer might want to hear it. Rehearsal yesterday.
"Spring Music lasts 31 1/2 minutes--seven minutes longer than I'd projected--and I'm glad: Its imminent public failure will carry more weight." (Lies, p. 207)

"Went to Angels in America, from duty and guilt (I never go the theater anymore but am always sounding off about it), and from opportunism and curiosity (maybe Kushner will write me a libretto). Well, you can't laugh it off, and I did sit through till the end. But nothing that long can be all good, and much of it is easily trimmed. Well-acted but unmoving, often vulgar. Not just the endless "fuck you" screams from one and all, but also the pandering to the all-too-willing audience..." (Lies, p. 255)

"I do read. The usual Simeon, including the dud Maigret et le voleur paresseux and the Balzacian masterpiece Le Petit Homme d'Arkhangelsk. The short stories of William Maxwell, which, in their potless New Yorkerish idiom, never quite take the plunge, though they move the non-intellectual heart. To re-examine the last of Flaubert's Trois Contes, called "Hérodias," is to discover how much of a slave the master was to brand names, like Judaic tribes and types of precious stone; how the story, paradoxically, is high camp without humor; and how Wilde's Salomé owes its very existence, if not its superiority, to this narrative." (Lies, p. 336)


To me, living a very artistic and cultural life holds an analogous and perhaps even greater attraction as Thoreau's Walden. But not many of us are going to live a solitary life beside a pond, and fewer of us are going to contribute importantly to art and culture and to share time with famous people. (Rorem shared a cab with John Updike and later regretted his testiness to what seemed like Updike's foolish question about composing.) But how enjoyable to imagine such a life, as one reads Rorem's thoughts about other composers (he was friends with Barber, Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, and others), and his complaints about the acclaim lavished upon certain performers (Itzhak Perlman is a frequent irritant) while many composers are treated indifferently. (In an interview, Rorem notes that "America is the only country in the whole world that is embarrassed by art. The minute art is mentioned, it becomes a conspiracy. Like Mappelthorpe and the NEA. With all of this discouragement, a composer is not even a despised parish, because in order to be despised he has to exist. A composer doesn't even exist in the ken of the intellectual public. The irony is that there are more young composers around than there ever were before." Quoted from:

In the earlier quoted article, Alex Ross notes that "Rorem was among the last American artists to pull of a plausible Parisian exile, and when he came back, in 1957, he found that composers were being hailed not for the excellence of their craft but for the extravagance of their theories. Time passed, and Rorem kept writing. The high-powered modernists who dismissed him as irrelevant became irrelevant themselves."

Ross continues: "A paradox haunts Rorem’s career. He insists that he has no interest in making “Major Statements,” yet he has always longed to be taken seriously—to have major statements made about him. He has grumbled many times in print over the genuflections rendered toward an atonal showman such as Elliott Carter...Indeed, Carter has benefited from a version of the intentional fallacy, according to which any music that is complex in design is automatically held to be complex in effect. Rorem’s scores seem, by comparison, modest and naïve, but this description applies only to their surface, and not to their emotional or psychological import. Rorem resembles such latter-day figurative painters as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, who followed the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism with landscapes and still-lifes. Their deceptively conventional images conceal large, ambiguous worlds of feeling.... "

Ross concludes,"To read Rorem’s writing is to feel the agony and the bravery of composing in America. Anyone who writes music for a living is a hero, and Rorem is more heroic than most, because he has compromised so little of what he holds dear. His prose will outlast the sneering of his critics, and his music is too mysteriously sweet to die away." (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003:

After reading Rorem's many expressions of appreciation of and love for Holmes---and his inability to comprehend how he could live without Holmes' companionship and practical skills---I feel sad that Rorem has had to live without him for twelve years. (Holmes died in January 1999, aged 59.) I plan soon to order Rorem's more recent writings. A quick survey of the internet reveals recent performances of his works, for instance the new Hudson Chorale. And this afternoon I'm listening to the symphonic suite Sunday Morning and the lovely chamber work, Romeo and Juliet for Flute and Guitar.  

Works quoted:

The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, 1973-1985, by Ned Rorem. North Point Press, 1987.

Lies: A Diary, 1986-1999, by Ned Rorem. Da Capo Press, 2002.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alberto Ginastera

Looking around at LPs and CDs on eBay the other day, I spotted a collection of choral music, Oratio: 20th Century Sacred Music from Spain and Latin America on the Guild label.  Among the several pieces by a variety of composers, the first is Lamentations of Jeremiah, a short but moving choral piece by Alberto Ginastera.

I enjoy classical music that employs folk or national themes, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, my first acquaintance with this kind of music (before I knew of Copland and Vaughan Williams), was Ginastera, an Argentinian composer who lived from 1916 till 1983.  The last movement of his 1961 piano concerto was recorded as a prog-rock song on a 1973 Emerson, Lake and Palmer album, and I wanted to hear the whole concerto. Of course, the only way I could find an unusual recording like that concerto (that is, an LP not typically carried in stores) was to order it through a record store, which I did: the LP directed by Erich Leinsdorf with the pianist (also renowned for his Bach interpretations) João Carlos Martins. The other side of the LP was Variaciones concertantes (1953), which I liked just as much. Eventually I ordered LPs of the Concerto for Strings (1966), the second string quartet, and the 1956 Harp Concerto. The record store in the St. Clair Square mall near St. Louis was quite helpful.

A good source that summarizes Ginastera’s life and work is:  Checking out this and a few other online sources, I learned that Ginastera’s music fit into three periods, “Objective Nationalism” (1934-1948), “Subjective Nationalism” (1948-1958), and “Neo-Expressionism” (1958-1983), that latter of which still incorporates Argentine elements but in a more abstract way. Ginastera stands with Villa-Lobos as major 20th century Latin American composers.

Here is Ginastera's Lamentations: Here are the lovely Variaciones concertantes:

Here also is that final movement of the first piano concerto---and I still have the LP after all these years. And finally, here is Emerson, Lake and Palmer's rendition:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

God and Vending Machines

A post from last spring .... Reading the devotions in Augsburg Press' The Word in Season booklet (the January, February, Marcy 2011 issue), I enjoyed the March 7 devotion by Katherine Olson, reflecting upon Psalm 78:18. She writes, "Imagine that you put correct change into a vending machine, pressed the button for the soda you wanted, and ended up getting another kind instead. 'Lousy machine!' you'd grumble."

She continues: "Do we have a temptation to treat our gracious Lord like a faulty vending machine when our prayers are not answered exactly the way we imagined? We might think that by praying a certain way, we are putting in correct change and pressing the right button. When we don't get what we are looking for, we assume the fault lies with God." Olson concludes that we can seek daily to trust God to know what we what we need.

I enjoyed this devotion partly because of a personal experience. During a weekend trip, I tried to get a diet cola from a motel vending machine. Watching calories, and mildly allergic to corn (and thus the corn syrup used in soft drinks), I stick with diet varieties. But on two attempts, mindful that I pushed the correct vending machine button, I got regular rather than diet colas. Three's a charm, I thought.... but I got a regular lemon-lime drink! "Damn machine," I shamefully grumbled. Giving up, I took the sodas home in case my daughter wanted them when she returned home from college.

I hesitate to use myself as a devotional example for anything, but when I read Olson's piece, I thought that my experience might be a good way to think about unanswered prayer. If we don't feel like God is answering our prayers quickly enough, if at all, we might ask: what positive thing can I do with this disappointment? Could someone else be helped by this experience? What positive things can I be doing with my life (including helping other people) amid this situation of unanswered or not-yet-answered prayer?

The answer to your prayer might be found in the things you do while waiting! This may not always be the case, but it's worth being open, flexible, and watchful. God answered some of my prayers in amazing serendipitous events that happened while I was waiting to see why God was taking so long to help me!

Friday, April 20, 2012

LP Boxed Sets

Happy Record Store Day tomorrow, Saturday, April 21st!  I'm fortunate to live near a good store, Euclid Records in Webster Groves, MO.

When we moved across town recently, I brought a quantity of LPs to the new house along with favorite books.  Somewhere in the still unpacked belongings in the basement is more vinyl, some of which I've owned since my 1970s high school days.  Several of the LPs I brought over myself are boxed sets that I've own for a shorter time, but still 25 or 30 years.

I enjoy a book by Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (Da Capo Press, 2001).  Koestenbaum has an ability to connect ideas about opera, sexuality, and art in dazzling ways.  For instance, this quotation on page 60:

 “I loved the idea of opera before I loved opera: and what I love, in this idea of opera, was the boxed set. I saw the gold and silver letters of mysterious words (I masnadieri, Götterdämmerung) engraved on the black spines of albums so thick they seemed books... Records for complete operas, since the advent of the long-playing disc in 1950, have come in boxed sets.  A box is the antithesis of opera--the cult of the huge, the expressive, the uncontained, the grandiose. And yet a box is quintessentially operatic, for opera involves passing air out through the voice box, and because the most privileged patrons sit in an opera box. A box is a sexually suggestive figure: vagina. A boxed-set opera in the long-playing era most frequently holds three discs, and thus has the respectable, familial stability of the traditional three-volume Victorian novel. The boxed set contains and compresses opera’s immensity, and the mythically huge bodies of singers...” In his book, Koestenbaum pursues a remarkable journey of love, opera love, sexuality, language, and critical thought about culture and music. (“The opera queen must choose one diva...only one diva can reign in the opera queen’s heart,” he writes on p. 19, reminding me of my best friend’s passion for Julie Andrews.)

My own love of LP boxed sets seems such a mixture of minor insecurity and sincerity, at least in my original love for the sets.  I had a passion for music and musical discovery; and yet, fearful of seeming pretentious (and thus not being liked), I wouldn’t tell anyone, allowing my boxed sets (broad and readable among the many single LP sleeves) to tacitly announce my passion for anyone who visited my dorm room or my home.  And there were those “mysterious words,” read with a sideways-tilted head---Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Tannhäuser, Peter Grimes, Falstaff, Sämmtliche Cembalokonzerte, Messa da Requiem, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni.  Those sets warmed my heart and, as I discovered this music over a period of time, such words alerted me each day to music to the music I need to spend time.  But so did the words on the spines of beloved one-disc albums.

I also tend to be an eccentric listener to music, in that I get into the mood of listening to genres (organ music, opera, etc.), and I also like to explore big areas of a composer’s output. I loved Wagner and Britten and Mozart so I began to collect several sets until I had the entire Ring of the Niebelung and the rest of Wagner’s operas from Rienzi forward, and nearly all of Britten’s operas recorded on Decca/London (with those sets’ black spines and gold letters). I enjoyed LPs as art-objects, so to speak.   My heart beat a little faster whenever I’d visit the college library and see all these opera sets and LP collections lining a wall. I have several CD boxed sets, and of course love the music. But as an object, the CDs never bring me as much aesthetic joy as LPs.

LPs are heavy en masse and take up space, and over the years I gave away sets because I didn’t listen to the music so much, but later I wished I’d kept as a keepsake.  For instance, during a lonely time of living in the country, I found a dandy small-town used book store that also carried LPs, and I found Verdi’s Luisa Miller on an old gold-and-white boxed set from the Everest label.  Eventually it was passed along to another such store, but I still remember the joy the set brought me, with its gold-and-white box humble in its comparative lack of glitz.

Others I’ve certainly kept. The earlier mentioned Marriage of Figaro, directed by Karl Bohm, is an purchase I can’t imagine giving up.  The same is true with my several Wagner, Bach, Britten, and Mozart sets. Twenty years ago I spotted the colorful cover of a 6-LP collection of Haydn’s London symphonies, conducted by Karajan.  The clerk said they had wondered who might seize that nice set, and I thought: Someone else appreciates the joys and discoveries of music in a box!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Change the World"

Some colleagues asked me to share information about "Change the World" weekend in the United Methodist Church. "CTW weekend is May 19-20, and the goal is to get church members outside of church walls to come together and make a difference across the world, whether in their local communities at a soup kitchen or some service event, or by raising funds to fight death from malaria in Africa.

 "The goal is to show United Methodists that we can come together to make a difference and that serving God goes beyond the church walls and should be a part of everyday life." Several links about the event can be found at:

Reasons to involve your congregation can be found at this link:

Also, registration information can be found at:

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"A Theology of Taxation"

What an interesting piece at Brian McLaren's blog, "A Theology of Taxation" by Jim Burklo.

Burklo's piece dovetails with something else I read, Warren R. Copeland's book Doing Justice in Our Cities (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), where Copeland worries that Christians feel warmer about building a house for Habitat for Humanity because it's somehow more a "good cause" than dealing with federal and local laws about housing. In his city, Springfield, Ohio, Habitat constructed 40 homes but in one year Copeland (serving in local government) voted to support construction of over 200 housing units for low- and medium-income families, and the city government supported nearly 2000 other units.  He writes, "Voluntary organizations provide a human touch and often a spiritual dimension that may be missing from government programs. however, ware are not about to meet the huge needs of our urban communities through voluntarism" (p. 73). "Both [government and voluntary groups] are essential to a democratic society" (p. 124). "I believe that the ethical principles of respect for the integrity of other human beings, recognition of the jut claims of our neighbors, and concern for the common good deserve our commitment [in both voluntary and civic service]" (p. 124).

I also thought of Eric Mount's Covenant, Community, and the Common Good (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1999), where he writes, "The government and voluntary associations should be partners, not adversaries, with respect to poverty programs, family problems, and environmental protection. One of the encouraging outcomes of welfare reform has been the necessity for community employers, community organizations, and voluntary associations to work together with the government offices to help people meet deadlines and to keep them from being plunged deeper into poverty. Rejection of government is not the answer" (p. 104).

What is needed, argues Mount, is a "shared membership in a national community or a global community" in which---through our service, civic participation, taxes, and programs---we have a shared sense of responsibility for one another (p. 156)---which is a God-given, biblical value.

(A lesson series that consider these issues is the curriculum "Faithful Citizen" from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life: )

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bernstein's "Mass"

A few years ago I purchased a humorous, Avanti-brand greeting card. The front of the card depicts a very grouchy cat on a yoga mat, doing stretches. The inside of the card reads, “I meditate, I do yoga, I chant … and I still want to smack someone!”
The other day I played my CD set of Bernstein's "Mass," conducted by Marin Alsop, as I drove to work. I first heard this set a while back during a long trip, In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the XM-radio classical station played this then-brand new recording. 
At that point, I hadn't listened to the piece for many years. I first heard it when our area PBS station broadcast a production of the piece in 1974 or 1975, then I purchased the first LP set of the "Mass," conducted by Bernstein. soon afterward.  I loved it and played those LPs in my college and div school dorm rooms. The vinyl became worse for wear and I never replaced it.

So when the XM station played Alsop's recording, I hadn't listened to the piece for many years.  Listening to an hour-and-a-half piece while driving in one’s car is not exactly an “experience,” but I was quite moved all over again by the Mass. Hearing the entire piece uninterrupted was valuable. Mile after mile, I enjoyed favorite passages: “A Simple Song,” which a friend used at her ordination …the jazzy "In Domine Patris"… the skeptical, honest “I Don’t Know”… the pretty “Gloria Tibi” … the fearful “World Without End”… the hopeful “Our Father”/”I Go On” … the most beautiful and uplifting song, “Sanctus” …the stomping, sarcastic “Agnus Dei” .... the protest march “Dona Nobis Pacem” … the aria “Things Get Broken”… and finally the hushed conclusion.  If I ever see "Mass" performed live, I'm sure I'll bawl my head off the way I do when we see "Les Miz." 

There are other versions of the "Mass" besides Bernstein’s and Alsop's, but Alsop’s is very fresh---she finds "the elusive Bernstein groove," as a Gramophone reviewer put it----and Jubilant Sykes is an emotional, affecting Celebrant. The XM host called attention to the Mass’s early 70s, Vietnam-era origins, but I did not think Mass betrayed much of its Zeitgeist, any more than “West Side Story” sounds like a specifically 50s piece. In fact, allowing for a few “groovy” lyrics, the music and Stephen Schwartz's words sound quite contemporary. When I enjoyed my Bernstein LPs years ago, I didn’t realize I was listening to “music of the future” (the way I didn’t realize the significance of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Dark Side of the Moon” when I heard those records). Bernstein’s intermingling of musical styles seemed distracting and inappropriate to critics at the time but seems entirely appropriate today---and pursued by other composers like John Adams.
What struck me especially was the role of the Celebrant. Mass follows the Tridentine Latin rite, but “street singers” persist in interrupting the service with complaints, faith-struggles, personal regrets, questions about God’s concern for the world, blasphemies ("God said 'Let there be light'... and it was goddamn good!"), and ultimately threats of violence and destruction. I thought of Job and his friends, but in this case, the “friends” complain about God’s supposed goodness rather than defending it. Amid that cacophonous, 6/8 “Dona Nobis Pacem”, the Celebrant has his own crisis of faith and breakdown, smashing the consecrated host. Following a long solo (reminiscent of the mad scene in the last act of Britten’s "Peter Grimes"), the street people return to quiet songs of praises. With a whispered "pax tecum," they bring the Celebrant back into their group  and with a song and a benediction, the mass ends.
The Celebrant had been discouraged and broken by the protests of the street people. Lord knows enough pastors, unintentionally isolated within their calling, become disillusioned and wearied by the endless needs of congregations. But I wonder (considering the way peace is restored to the people following his breakdown) whether his suffering is also intended to be vicarious. He takes the people's struggles and doubts into himself, and sings fragments of their melodies. When he drops the cup, shocking though his “accident” is, Christ’s blood is shed. At the end, we may not have the world peace demanded in the "Dona Nobis Pacem," but we have a "secret song," the peace of fellowship and reconciliation. 
Without a commentary (like the CD’s notes), you might not realize how  Beethoven’s vision of fellowship in the Ninth Symphony is reworked for the Mass---and is a key to the whole piece.  As the CD notes quote Bernstein, “And what about the FInale of Beethoven’s Ninth---that sudden awestruck moment of recognizing the Divine Presence?.... Beethoven suspends all tonal harmony, leaving only harmonic implications; that’s what makes it so suddenly awesome, unrooted in earth, extra-terrestrial---so that when earthly harmony does return the incandescent A major triad does indeed cry ‘Brueder’!---Universal brothers all emerging together from that non-earthly Divinity” (p. 6). Beethoven’s theme is briefly quoted in the section "Meditation No. 2" but those harmonic implications are modeled in the Mass’ opening section, and also the theme is reworked in the Celebrant’s “mad scene,” finally making a bridge to the final song.
I was not raised Roman Catholic, and when I purchased the album, it became the way I learned the classic, beautiful language of the Latin rite. What a way to learn sacred words, you might think! But in the intervening years, I’ve heard those words so many times: baroque pieces, the Vivaldi's Gloria, the requiems of Brahms and and Durufle and Faure, John Rutter's music, and numerous others. Hearing the words as I'd first learned them was startling. 

They are wonderful words. The church, being both divine and human, may sometimes contain politics, empty gestures, and false-seeming pieties. But the liturgical words are not empty. They speak truth.  Set to music, they bring you all the more close to God.
But … faith is a struggle, and although the words are true, we may have no idea how to understand and “live” those truths. A few years ago the media reported that Mother Theresa had had severe doubts and concerns in her faith and ministry. I thought … duh. The deeper you go into real faith (as opposed to a kind of shallow respectability) you may encounter dark places and questions you can’t answer. In the words of my greeting card, you do all the correct religious things … but sometimes you still feel badly. Sometimes you still want to slap someone. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes you accuse God. Read Psalm 42, 143, and others, and you know that such feelings aren’t alien to Holy Scripture. Bernstein and Schwartz and their extravagant, Talmudic commentary on the Latin mass invite us to think, doubt, and feel--with one another, within the context of worship.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Late Schubert

When my daughter’s choir toured central Europe five years ago, one of our group’s stops was Schubert’s home in Vienna. Since moving to St. Louis, my wife Beth and I have heard the eighth and ninth symphonies performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. After all this, however, it was Schubert’s 1816 fifth symphony, frequently played on my Sirius-XM station, that made me pay more attention to the young Austrian composer.  So---on my ongoing journey of teaching myself about classical music---I enjoyed an article by Richard Wigmore in last month’s Gramophone magazine (March 2012) in which he discusses the music of Schubert’s final months, between the completion of Winterreise in the autumn of 1827 until Schubert’s death in November 1828.

The article discusses several of Schubert’s late works, like the Mass in E flat. Wigmore writes, “The apocalyptic, harmonically visionary Sanctus is a musical counterpart of the molten canvases of Turner and late Goya, while the ‘Domine Deus’ and the Agnus Dei are unprecedented in their violent intensity” (p 28). There is the song cycle posthumously titled Schwanengesang.  There are also the piano sonatas in C minor, A major, and B flat major (D 958, 959, and 960), and the C major string quintet.  Schubert also began to sketch a D major symphony which, according to one pianist interviewed by Wigmore, looks ahead to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. 

Another pianist, Alfred Brendel, is quoted, “Mozart lived his life and arrived at a kind of late style. Schubert, on the contrary, was in the middle of a tremendous development when he died.” Wigmore continues, “with theose visionary late works in mind it is hard---far harder than with Mozart, as Brendel implies---to escape an aching sense of what might have been” (p. 33).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Psalm 121

My notes and thoughts about my favorite psalm, 121:

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"....Thee to know, thy power to prove..."

Christ the Lord is ris'n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav'ns, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids Him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened Paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Dying once He all doth save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Foll'wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to Thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, Thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!

---Charles Wesley

"Nature with open volume stands..."

Nature with open volume stands,
To spread her maker’s praise abroad;
And every labour of His hands
Shows something worthy of a God.

But in the grace that rescued man
His brightest form of glory shines;
Here, on the cross, ’tis fairest drawn,
In precious blood and crimson lines.

Here His whole name appears complete;
Nor wit can guess, nor reason prove,
Which of the letters best is writ,
The power, the wisdom, or the love.

Here I behold His inmost heart,
Where grace and vengeance strangely join,
Piercing His Son with sharpest smart,
To make the purchased pleasure mine.

O! the sweet wonders of that cross,
Where God the Savior loved and died
Her noblest life my spirit draws
From His dear wounds and bleeding side.

I would for ever speak His name,
In sounds to mortal ears unknown;
With angels join to praise the Lamb,
And worship at his Father’s throne.

---Isaac Watts. From Hymns and Psalms (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1983)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

"O Sacred Head"

Yesterday (Good Friday), a friend posted as a Facebook status, "My friend was murdered today, 2000 years ago.  And it happened because of me." Some of us teased her for scaring us with the first part of that. The update later reminded me of this well-known hymn dating back to Bernard of Clairvaux, used by Bach in the St. Matthew's Passion, and found in contemporary hymnals.  This version is from the a book I purchased at John Wesley's house last summer, the British Methodist collection Hymns and Psalms (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1983).

O sacred head, sore wounded,
With grief and pain weighed down,
How scornfully surrounded
With thorns, thine only crown.
How pale art thou with anguish,
With sore abuse and Scorn.
How does that visage languish
Which once was bright as morn.

O Lord of life and glory,
What bliss till now was thine.
I read the wondrous story,
I joy to call thee mine.
Thy grief and thy compassion
Were all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,

But thine the deadly pain.

What language shall I borrow
To praise thee, dearest friend,
For this thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
Lord, make me thine for ever,
Nor let me faithless prove;
O let me never, never
Abuse such dying love!

Be near me, Lord, when dying;
O show thy cross to me,
That I, for succour flying,
My eyes may fix on thee;
And then, thy grace receiving,
Let faith my fears dispel,
For whoso dies believing
In thee, dear Lord, dies well.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday and Easter

A post from a couple years ago.... When I was little, I liked this hymn (words and music by Robert Lowry, 1874).

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!


Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!


Musically, the hymn was appealing to me. The verses are stately, almost march-like, while the refrain is faster, upbeat, and triumphant. With the words “up from the grave He arose,” the melody rises, too. I also liked the hymn because Jesus was pretty heroic. “He tore the bars away”… Superman did things like that.

Now I look at the hymn and see that it balances both the victory of Easter and the tragedy of Good Friday. Jesus is victorious at Easter … but first, he’s dead, executed. At least he received a more respectable burial than other condemned criminals. Nevertheless he is the “prey” caught by the predator Death.

Jesus’ heroism is one of obedience. He is dead because he followed God’s will. Remember the third “servant song” of Isaiah, 50:4-9a, where the servant declares he “gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (verse 6). What an odd kind of heroism! Certainly not the kind we necessarily esteem in people, whom we prefer to be forceful, perhaps good with weapons.

There is room for that kind of heroism. But there is also a force that resists retaliation. Dr. King once wrote, “We must use the weapon of love. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscious that we will win you in the process.” Suffering is a potential force for change, and a way for God to achieve amazing things.

But that’s the problem: who wants to suffer? Who wants to potentially be perceived as servile and passive?

The incarnate God is willing. He gives us a model for our own obedience but, much more importantly, he accomplished our unearned salvation through his own obedience, death, and resurrection.

… though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:6:-11).

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Discerning the Body

A previously posted set of thoughts.... Today is Maundy Thursday. I'd known that a possible reason for the word "Maundy" was the Latin "mandatum," or "commandment" to love, from John 13:34. But another reason may be the old English word "maund," which were baskets poor people carried to receive alms.

That reminded me of a verse that has always haunted me: "He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord" (Jer. 22:16). (I'll always be grateful to my prof B. Davie Napier for alerting us to this verse.)  If we love God but begrudge care and justice for the needy, we not only fail in loving them, we fail in loving God and do not even know God! According to Jeremiah, though, the righteous King Josiah knew God.

Jeremiah 22:16 dovetails with Micah 6:6-8, and 1 John 4:20b, as well as Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-17. Even the famous John 3:16 implies helpfulness to the needy, for if you believe in Christ as John 3:16 instructs, you respond to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).

Many churches will have communion services this evening. Years ago, I had an elderly friend who didn't take communion because he didn't feel worthy. I was a teenager and didn't know the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:27--another passage that I wish Paul had expressed differently--and I don't know if anyone tried to explain the meaning of "unworthiness" to my friend. 

Of course, the Eucharist is a sacramental means of grace for sinners. If you feel unworthy, then you're exactly the person Jesus wants to share the meal! The meaning of that whole passage (1 Cor. 11:17-34) is that the Corinthians tolerated divisions in their congregation and, at the meal, some ate and drank their fill and left nothing for the others, thus humiliating them. Not surprisingly, the persons left out at the meal were the less-well-off. Thus Paul scolded the church for missing the meaning of the experience. 

When Paul talks about "discerning the body," his phrase has a double meaning: discerning the body of Christ in the Eucharist, but also discerning the body of Christ in the fellowship of Christians where, instead of insisting on our own way, we're sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"The Awful Grace of God"

Dr. King was assassinated 44 years ago today.  About to make a campaign speech in Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy realized the crowd had not heard the news.  So Kennedy gave this short, touching speech.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Springtime Texts

A few thoughts, written and posted last April....  

When we lived in Akron, OH, we lived along a small lake. I love our present location and yard, but our yard in Akron was so peaceful, and during the nine years we lived there, the changing seasons were so pleasant! Canada geese, which were year-round residents, flew over the trees and land upon the lake with a soft, gliding splash. Blue herons, gulls, and ducks were common on the lake, too, and once I spotted a bald eagle in a tree above the water. We saw deer occasionally, and our daughter, looking at the window, saw a coyote stroll through the yard near the lake. I had a feeling the coyote would rather not live in the suburbs.

In the warm seasons frogs began to croak along the lake. We also noticed killdeer, those pretty birds that make their nests in inappropriate, vulnerable places. At a country church I once served, a killdeer laid its eggs in the gravel parking lot—then, of course, it fussed and ran each time a car pulled into the lot. A thoughtful church member made a sign and put it beside the next so people would take care not to drive into the nest. Killdeers always remind me of that.

Between our back yard and the lake, an area of brush and wild flowers grew. My daughter once identified some of those flowers for a school project: yellow wood sorrel, spotted touch-me-not, elecampane, sweet goldenrod, and others. We left that vegetation undisturbed, except for a path that I kept mowed so that we could walk to the lake. Beside the path, I planted a small U.S. 66 sign. An oak, cottonwood, and willow tree stood at the edge of the yard. In the autumn a few good windy days carried the leaves into the brush so I didn’t have to spend much time raking.

The wild flowers and bushes disappeared in winter; I saw neighbor kids tramping through there in the snow or crossing on their skis. But in springtime the flowers and rushes returned, and by early summer that section of our property became impenetrable except for my little mowed path. The vegetation grew so thick that it was difficult to cast a fishing line properly; my daughter, her friend, and I tried but couldn’t avoid tangling our lines. During our many backyard play times, Emily and I also lost many a golf ball in the brush. We also kicked beach balls around the yard and put up the badminton net several times.

All of us look back on our lives and think how fast time goes. We tend to picture time as linear, one day or month or year after another, in sequence until we come to end of our personal time, whenever it may be. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (Ps. 90:12). Of course, the Bible contains many images of warning–--the prophesied Day of the Lord, the commands of Jesus that we be watchful and ready, the apocalyptic passages of the New Testament. These teach of time as a line along which we move.

The Bible also presents a cyclical idea of time, though not as strong as the linear view. Think of the well known passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (which I first learned via the Pete Seeger song): there is a time for everything, a season for planting and harvesting—-but the word “season” implies that certain times go away and then return. We experience seasons, both the four seasons and the metaphoric seasons of life. We experience cycles and in small things and large: we return to a place we left, we rediscover music (or other interests) that we once loved, we realize that certain difficult experiences made us stronger for later challenges; we’re given second chances we never expected. We’ve also all have had the never-pleasant experience of old wounds reopened.

The Bible also speaks of the circles of repentance: the ways we stray, backslide, return, stray, return, and through it all, God is always faithful. With its recurrences of sin, punishment, redemption, and return, the book of Judges is as much a spiral as a line of history. I freely admit that my Bible study over the years has been closely connected to my own spiritual ups and downs, and sometimes the “downs” were occasions when I sought its promises more conscientiously.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, if God is our Lord, we are not subject to such things! God cares for us and guides us across our short years; God calls us not to lose heart at life’s hazards but, instead, to focus on our relationship with him. God’s plans and purposes may not always be clear, and sometimes we may feel quite lost. But even the “lost” times may simply be seasons across which God provides…..

…..But I don’t want to continue to write so wistfully. Today is a pretty spring day, and purely for enjoyment, I’m leafing through my old Bible in search of spring-y texts.

The Garden of Eden is an obvious text, not of spring per se but of newness and of nature’s purity. If I gardened more, I’d probably think I was, in a very small way, recreating a sample of lost, natural paradise.

Of course, the Passover stories of Exodus are spring stories: at this time of year, observant Jews clean their homes for all traces ofhametz, leavened bread, in preparation for the Pesach remembrance of God’s salvation of the Israelites from Egypt.

Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt. You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year (Ex. 13:3-10).

Here is another springtime verse from “sexy” Song of Songs.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land 
(Song of Songs 2:12).

Here are Jesus' words, which make me think of spring because we like to see birds like robins, sparrows, cardinals, doves, finches, and titmice.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of our head are all numbered. Fear not; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

The saying would lose something if it mentioned larger, obnoxious birds: for us, those would be starlings or blue jays, species that many people find annoying. Sparrows, in their smallness, seem more illustrative of God’s tender care. Blue jays seem like practical atheists, able to fussily take care of themselves.

The ability to go outside barefoot is a wonderful gift of spring. Here’s a prophet's warning:

Keep your feet from going unshod
and your throat from thirst 
(Jer. 2:25a)

In context the verse means, sarcastically, don’t wear out your shoes and parch your throat in your effort to pursue false idols. But (I lightheartedly think) aren’t Bible people usually depicted as barefoot? It must be okay as long as we’re not pursuing idols!

It’s been a rainy spring. Rain makes me think of this passage, which is tragic and concerned but also with a bleak, comic edge.

Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.’ Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them (Ezra 10:9-15).

“Please, Ezra, can we go inside and dry off first before we divorce our foreign women and avert God‘s wrath?”

The death and resurrection stories are beautiful springtime stories: the new life of the season and the spiritual new life offered by Jesus.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened (Luke 24:1-12).

I can never read those stories without also feeling some of the happiness of the warmth and renewal of nature, and of springtime during little-kid days, both my own and my daughter’s. In my imagination, daffodils and Easter eggs "illuminate" the Resurrection texts. Stories of Jesus, rendered in bright colors in children’s Sunday school materials, coincided uncritically with chocolate Easter treats and the egg hunts. Our congregation in Kentucky, Watkins Memorial UMC, had a good children's program; I vaguely remember that Emily took a basket to church one time for the big egg hunt around the church grounds. I also remember the excellent egg hunts that pint-sized-me enjoyed, up the street from our house, at the shady and pleasant Rogier Park. Meanwhile, back at my childhood home (amid the scattered bricks in the backyard left over from the house’s construction, and near the television antenna) daffodils appeared reliably just before Easter.

Daffodils—and flowering plants generally—invite speculation in springtime. Will they survive the cold snaps that inevitably follow pretty days in March? Locally, people have been regretting that the March days in the 70s and lower 80s encouraged flowers to bloom, but then we had freezing days and a five-inch snow! [That was 2011; we've had barely any freezing temperatures this spring in 2012.] How can flowers survive such capricious weather? Daffodils seem a parable for Jesus. When he died, people speculated pessimistically about him, too; how would his teachings and legacy survive his death? wondered his followers. Jesus in springtime still had some surprises.