Liturgical invitation

A few weeks ago, I was reading for my Music Semiotics course and was blown away by the following combination of thoughts:

An invitation for the listener to identify with the action is a strategy of liturgical Passion settings.  The violin foreshadows an aria [“Erbarme Dich” in the St. Matthew Passion by Bach] in which an alto voice speaks repentantly in the first person, without further specification of his or her identity.  This persona is that of the listener, the believer who responds to the drama by identifying with it.  A Lutheran chorale, inserted after the aria, is placed to reinforce the movement from narrative to response, confirming Bach’s confessional intent. …Working within the framework of Lutheran theology, Bach makes Peter’s denial a universal symbol for acts of self-dislocation from God, representing his interpretative tradition by giving the alto a penitential prayer. …For a listener who is sympathetic with Bach’s theological framework, the aria can constitute an act of real or symbolic repentance.

(Naomi Cumming, “The Subjectivities of ‘Erbarme Dich,'” Music Analysis 16/i, 1997: 21, 36, 37)

As an evangelical Protestant, I have not grown up in a strongly liturgical tradition, although as a Presbyterian, I have perhaps encountered more liturgy than some. However, during my time at Houghton and in London, I developed a deeper love for liturgy in worship.  Speaking common words together in praise or prayer to God, especially words that connect you not only with those people in your time and place but with believers across space and through the history of the church – there is so much beauty and symbolism in this regarding a sense of the unity with the whole body of Christ.

What I was particularly struck by in this article (beyond the fact that it was a reading for class!) was the connection between the way the music was composed and its functional invitation to the worshipers who would watch and potentially participate in the drama.  Cumming points out that Bach’s use of “voice” in this work provides a connection between Peter’s expressive tears, the Evangelist who is narrating about them – and therefore participating in them via the expressivity of the music, and Jesus, whose words are merely quoted, yet come forward through time to speak to each participant in the drama.  When the vocal part stops and the violin introduction to the aria begins, the lack of a particular character, emphasized by an instrumental voice, and the long, expressive solo invites the listener to participate with the beautiful penitential prayer that the alto (who is not a character) sings.  And intriguingly, the chorale which follows is designed as a congregational song, and it is all about God’s grace!

Cumming argues that the construction of the piece itself invites the listener to participate with the singer in actively repenting… if that’s not an integration of faith with music, I’m not sure what is!

Erbarme dich, mein Gott,            Have mercy, my God,
um meiner Zähren willen!           for the sake of my tears!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge       See here, before you heart and eyes
weint vor dir bitterlich.                 weep bitterly.
Erbarme dich, mein Gott.            Have mercy, my God.

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Singing together

There’s nothing quite like singing together in the worship of God and for his glory.

I’m up late trying to make progress on a paper about the use of narrative as an analytical tool in a piece that is trying its best to avoid being a narrative (Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments, for anyone who is interested), and as much as I like to write, and as much as I think music is one of the greatest topics to write about, and as interesting as this topic is to me as one of my research areas for my future diss, all I can think about is how great it is to sing together.

My church put together a Christmas choral program this year…this was the first time we’ve done something like this since I’ve been there.  We were able to sing a variety of beautiful numbers: Chesnokov’s Salvation is Created (in English, and a slightly simpler version than the one linked here) to Mendelssohn’s “He Watching Over Israel” (from Elijah) to In the First Light to the great Hallelujah chorus, among others.  The program also featured hymns and a narration that tied the pieces together in the story of the good news of great joy – that Christ has come to earth, not just as a baby, but as the Lord God, to redeem not only his people, but ultimately the whole of creation.

Even though I already knew everyone in the choir, the time we spent in rehearsals brought us together in a different way – we saw each other’s foibles as we each tried to offer advice, and we trusted each other with our weaknesses as we each faced challenges of various kinds, not the least of which was the sickness that plagued all of us.  On the night of the concert, our singing with the congregation that joined us brought us together in rejoicing in a way that is difficult to describe but is wonderful to behold and experience.  Somehow, singing together pulls us together in a fellowship of the heart that surpasses words – as terribly important as words are – and creates a bond that adds a significant dimension to the whole experience of fellowship as a body of believers.

Have you ever simply gathered with your friends around a piano or guitar to sing hymns or songs of praise to the Lord?  In this Advent season, in the midst of the insanity that is finals for those of us who are students, or in the midst of preparations for the busy-ness of the Christmas season, take the time to sing with those you love, to sing together to the Savior whose first coming we celebrate and whose second coming we eagerly await.