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Monday, August 29, 2011

Passionate Pianists, the Propers, and Something More than Taste

My husband is very fond of Chopin.  I, alas, am not.

It is not that I do not recognize the genius of his work, or even the beauty of the music, but to appreciate is not to necessarily enjoy.  I do not take pleasure in listening to Chopin.  

Such music pulls at my emotions and draws up the residual sorrow of the day, making me melancholy and peevish, restless in spirit.  There is no solution to such a mood for me, it spoils me for the company of others.

It leaves me, in a word, distracted.

It is an easy thing to do...distracting me with music.  It was a ploy my mother used often when I was young.  Waking a child is never easy, often entailing repeated attempts that result in general aggravation for all parties concerned.  She called me to the beginning of the day in another way.  She would play the piano, drifting through my favorite things to sing, knowing I would be lured from my bed by an irresistible urge to join her, and invariably, I did.  These are some of my fondest memories of childhood, sitting beside my mother on the piano bench, singing Southern gospel hymns until time to go to school, church, and yes, eventually, even college.

I grew up with this same distraction, readily yielding to it at awkward moments, finding my ear drawn toward music instead of the conversation of those around me and with me, finding it pulling me nostalgically away from the present into a past I would not remember without the intervening tunes that play in my head.  I equate everything with music, there is a melody for every event and every moment, and each one leads naturally to another, plotting the course of my thoughts, of my actions, and of my days.

It is one of the reasons I sing in choir and schola, sometimes acting as cantor or even trying my hand at the direction of music, although I have no great love for the last.  Music is a form of prayer for me, a way of transcending the thoughts of the secular world and reaching a place where there is nothing else but that which the music brings to mind.  Here the distraction is a good thing, it takes me from my everyday thoughts to those of a higher station, focusing my thoughts on the cross, on things eternal, and on the Mass.  It takes me from the mundane, in the most archaic sense of the word, and into the seriousness that is our eternity.

Music is an orderly distraction.  It is defined by clear delineation of tone, recognizable to both eye and ear, to fingers when played upon instruments, to feet in rhythm, to lungs, to throats, to the body as a whole.  It is a participatory art in every possible sense of the word.

In the Mass, it is even more particularly so, one of the many ways that this, my adopted Faith, differs from that of my childhood.

Baptist Hymns were random creatures, a few seasonal in nature, but most were selected much as the scripture of the day was.  Favorites surfaced most frequently, those found to be bland or difficult most often ignored. It was a pleasurable surprise to hear what was to be next on the day's selections, but there was no rhyme or reason in the selection beyond that of the songleader's personal taste.

I must confess, when I first became Catholic, I found this to be much the same, saving that there were more selections labeled as seasonal.   Yet, having been an Anglican in the intervening years between my childhood and my conversion, I had developed an understanding of what was an appropriate selection and what was not.   Much of what I heard was subjective in nature, focusing on the people, or expressing rather weird sentiments of social justice, even the lyrics of the better hymns corrupted for gender neutrality, that rather silly idea that using masculine pronouns was somehow demeaning to women.

I was not sure how to avoid this, how to correct it, how to go about educating those selecting this music that it wasn't worthy of the Sacrament.  I had no position of authority, still don't and have no desire for it, but I wanted the music here to do for my spirituality what music in general does for my life.  I wanted it to edify it, to improve it, to lift my heart unto the Lord.  I didn't need Eagle's Wings for this.  I needed something more ethereal.

Then someone introduced me to chant.

It amazed me to learn that this incredible sense of order existed within the musical world of the Church.  That here was an Introit, designed to focus the congregation on the priest's entry into the sanctuary.  That here was a Kyrie designed to focus our thoughts, not just on our own unworthiness, but on God's Mercy.  The Gloria proclaims in no uncertain terms Whom we are to worship.  The Gradual, the Alleluia and Tract, these frame the scriptures and prepare us to hear them.  Thus the Mass moves forward, each part in its Proper place,  each day with its own music, and each year finds it sounding fresh and familiar, a comforting combination that leads us from the steps of the altar to Calvary, to the victory of the Resurrection, to our own reception of our Lord while the Communion antiphon and verses echo  about us, providing that timelessness that is so like memory, and which is reminiscent of eternity.

Here I wake from worldly pleasures and sit with Our Lady, the ethereal strains of earthly music joining with the celestial ones above.  May God find our offering pleasing, may it distract Him from our failures, and May He show us His Divine Mercy as a sign of His favor.

Kyrie Eleison.  Lord, Have Mercy.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. "I had no position of authority, still don't and have no desire for it, but I wanted the music here to do for my spirituality what music in general does for my life. I wanted it to edify it, to improve it, to lift my heart unto the Lord....Then someone introduced me to chant."

    And there is the solution. Speak of it loving, promote it where and when you can, encourage it when the interest is there.

    Musically, heaven on earth is possible.