Sunday, December 25, 2011

Getting to Know Franck and Vierne

Happy New Year to all! It promises to be an adventurous year, full of many challenges, changes, and decisions.  My strategy is to take them one step at a time. I go back to school on Sunday to complete the last semester of my senior year, giving my senior recital in April and graduating in May -- most certainly an idea that takes some getting used to.
I'm currently beginning work on my music history research paper (yes, one week before school starts the books for my research, which I ordered through interlibrary loan, finally decided to come in, haha). Nevertheless, already I am becoming intrigued. It's fascinating getting to know the character and personalities of the composers whose music I have been learning and performing over the past year -- Louise Vierne, Cesar Franck, Charles-Marie Widor. My paper is going to focus mainly on the work of the heavily influential Romantic organ-builder, Aristide Cavaille-Coll, a Frenchman who revived the art of organ-building and had a major impact on the compositions of the Romantic period. I'm just beginning to learn about him.
Cesar Franck,
French Romantic organist and composer
Meanwhile I am becoming acquainted with Vierne, Widor, and Franck. Franck and Widor both taught at the Paris Conservatory, and both were teachers of Louis Vierne, a late Romantic period composer and the organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Vierne idolized Cesar Franck from a very young age. He began studying composition with the organ professor prior to entering the Conservatory. No sooner had Vierne entered the Conservatory then Franck passed away, devastating the young Vierne. It was Widor who was selected to assume Franck's position after his death. Widor was a major contrast to the personality of his predecessor, though his skills as a teacher and his care and concern for his students were equal. Franck was challenging but very sweet, nurturing the individuality of each student and placing a great deal of emphasis on the art of improvisation. Widor, on the other hand, was much stricter, focusing on technique before even considering improvisation. Vierne grew to appreciate and love Widor, but Franck always held a special place in his heart. Here are some passages on the relationship between Vierne and Franck that I found particularly sweet. Vierne's uncle and aunt also worked at the Conservatory and had extolled Franck's virtues to their young nephew, while also keeping Franck posted on the progress of the budding musician. Vierne gives an account of his first meeting with Franck at age fifteen.

"How pale you are, my dear child. Do I frighten you so very much?" (Vierne had been born legally blind and was an extremely sensitive child).
"Oh yes, Monsieur Franck."
"Because you are a genius."
"Genius? Who told you that?"
"My Uncle Charles and everybody here. I heard you at Saint Clotilde when I was ten, and I nearly died from happiness."
"Because it was too beautiful. I wanted it never to end."
"As beautiful as that? And why did you think it beautiful?"
"Because it sang. It took hold of my heart. It hurt me and made me feel good at the same time. It transported me to a place filled with such music."
"In that place, my dear child, the music is better. Here, we learn. There, we shall know how. . . . Next year you will begin studying the organ. Apply yourself with all your might, and when the time is ripe I shall take you into my class at the Conservatory."

Louis Vierne, late Romantic composer
and organist at Notre Dame Cathedral
Uncle Charles had told Vierne of the beauteous music Franck made upon the organ, but even he could not prepare Vierne for the pain and rapture he felt when hearing the organist play at St. Clotilde. "Certain melodic turns, certain harmonies made me feel a kind of nervous malaise that was at the same time voluptuous pleasure. I could not keep back the tears." Vierne felt "A vague presentiment of the true purpose of music." At age 10 Vierne told his Uncle Charles, "It is beautiful because it is beautiful. . . . I do not know why. It is so beautiful that I would like to do as much and then die just after." (Vierne's words eventually came true, as he died moments after giving his last organ recital).

Upon Franck's death, Vierne struggled with the prospect of studying at the Conservatory without his beloved mentor. However, Vierne remembered, "To serve- [Cesar] Franck had once said, after an especially happy lesson- to serve always, in spite of everything, no matter what might happen, to love God, and next the love of God to love one's art, mindful of the good it could achieve, this Franck announced as his creed, which Vierne was to hand down in turn. 'These thoughts gave me courage. I was filled with elation at the idea of joining battle with routine, officialdom, the powers that be, of avenging the lack of appreciation, the jeers of which he had been the object.' To do less was cowardly betrayal."
This courage was tried and found true under the direction of Widor, Franck's successor. But Widor shall be left for another post. 

In the meantime, some exciting news -- I think I may be organistically related to J.S. Bach! I was doing a little digging, and some of my research demonstrates that I may be able to trace my line of organ teachers to Marcel Dupre and on to Vierne, Franck, and Widor, who if you follow his line of organ teachers far enough, reaches all the way to J.S. Bach! Oh joy! Rapture! 

Happy Christmas!

Wishing all of my followers a blessed, beautiful Christmas!

Original artwork by Mary Sullivan
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

music by Morten Lauridsen sung at 
Westminster Cathedral, London 
for the Christmas Midnight Mass 2009

(Someday I aspire to have my own Church choir and my own Christmas Mass to plan for where we can perform this piece - this one or Louis de Victoria's version, or perhaps both!)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing - Howells

Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing is is a 4th-century poem by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, translated by Helen Waddells. In 1963 British composer Herbert Howells was commissioned to set it to music for the memorial service in honor of John F. Kennedy. It is a beautiful memorial in honor of a departed loved one. Howells himself had lost his 9 year old son Michael to polio in 1935. He commemorated the anniversary of his son's birthday and his death in his journal every year. I am certain that he drew heavily from the loss of his son in composing the piece, as many of the musical compositions following Michael's death were deeply impacted by Howells' loss. 
Other influences on Howells seemed to have included British composer Vaughan Williams and early English choral music. I have recently begun researching Howells' in an attempt to explore his compositional styles while on break -- at least until some of my books on French Romantic organs come in at the library. I would like to get started on my music history paper before I return for my last semester. But the interlibrary loan system tends to be rather slow these days, so I'm not sure how much I'll be able to accomplish. Until then, I shall enjoy Howells, apply for organ competitions, and explore graduate school options. I am searching for a good recording of his setting of Take Him, Earth. I am enthralled by his setting of the first stanza -- what a beautifully haunting, English melody. I get a little lost towards the middle, but I think with a better recording and a few more listens I will quickly warm to the rest of it. In the meantime, check out the recording on youtube by the Boston Choral Ensemble.
Tombstone in the Zentralfriedhoff
(Central Cemetery), Vienna
Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.
Once was this a spirit's dwelling,
by the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.
Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
not unmindful of his creature
shall he ask it: he who made it
symbol of his mystery.
Comes the hour God hath appointed
to fulfil the hope of men,
then must thou, in very fashion,
what I give, return again.
Not though ancient time decaying
wear away these bones to sand,
ashes that a man might measure
in the hollow of his hand:
Not though wandering winds and idle,
drifting through the empty sky,
scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
is it given to man to die.
Once again the shining road
leads to ample Paradise;
open are the woods again,
that the serpent lost for men
Take, O take him, mighty leader,
take again thy servant's soul.
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
balm upon the icy stone.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What Christians can Learn from an Atheist

Christopher Hitchens: God's Favorite Atheist?
Christopher Hitchens. Born 13 April 1949. Died 15 December 2011.  I was not familiar with this man until today, only a few days after his passing, however after reading a few articles on the man reflecting on his life and his zealous atheism, I am uncertain as to whether or not I would like him or if we would have been friends. He certainly seemed as if he was quite a likeable character even in Catholic and Christian circles. I think I would have at least held a considerable amount of respect for him.  I would also like to think I understand at least some of the reasons behind his disbelief. None of these reasons may have been decisive factors, but they certainly seemed as if they were contributors to his self-dubbed "anti-theism."  I would like to discuss two significant points that Hitchens made in a recent interview and their significance in evangelization. Hitchens was wrong about many things, but he was right on these two points. In an article titled Hitchens: God's Favorite Atheist? posted on the World Net Daily, author Art Moore describes an interview he had with Hitchens.

Noting that Christian evangelists say they are motivated by a desire to please God, I asked Hitchens – pointing to his "zeal" for his message – what motivates him.
"Well, intellectual scorn, really. Frankly," he said. "A sense of superiority, arrogance."
He quickly made it clear that he was speaking for himself.
"It's a feeling of just intense irritation that people are allowed to say that they are people of faith. They feel that by making this statement they have added to the argument," he said. "By announcing they believe something for no reason at all, without any evidence, they don't contribute to the discussion."
(Read the full article here:Christopher Hitchens: God's favorite atheist?

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth.
This part of the interview reminded me of a point that my ethics professor, Professor Javier Carreno, made on the first day of class last spring during my studies abroad in Austria as part of the Franciscan University Austria Program. He told us about a fashion competition that took place a few years ago during which one of the judges, a homosexual, inquired as to the reason behind the traditional views on marriage held by one of the contestants who was a Christian. The contestant responded that she believed that marriage was between a man and a woman because that was what she was raised to believe. She had been taught that her whole life. The judge replied that her reasoning was stupid. When he finishing the story, I thought my ethics professor was going to uphold the bravery of the contestant for standing up for what she believed. However, my professor said that in a way the judge was right. The reason that the girl had given for her belief was stupid. It's not enough to say that you believe something because you have been taught it your whole life. This is poor reasoning, if it could be called reasoning at all. One needs to actively wrestle with their beliefs and either reject them or take them on as their own.  Christians, especially Catholics, need to take responsibility for their faith through ongoing conversion, forming themselves in their faith through philosophy and theology. Hitchens called attention to this fault in certain Christians who simply say they have faith, and think that this simple statement is good enough. Hitchens had every right to voice his irritation with such people. Catholics need to be capable of answering not only for what we believe but why we believe it.

But he said one of his "big quarrels with the Anglican church, the one in which I was baptized, is that it got rid of the King James Bible for the most part and the old hymnbook."
"They now sing and read these banal versions of [liturgy], which I used to enjoy," he said.
"I now go to an Anglican or Episcopalian ceremony, and I'm just horrified by what they've lost," he said, "what they threw away when it was unarguably a huge, aesthetic advantage."

Hitchens called attention to the need for beauty as well as truth in Catholicism. The significance of beauty in the conversion of the human person is often neglected when it comes to evangelization . . . at the expense of souls like Hitchens'. Beautiful art, beautiful music, beautiful language are what Hitchens calls "a huge aesthetic advantage." Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky said once, "Beauty will save the world." Pope Benedict XVI has called beauty the language of the human heart.  He says, "The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of an arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes so that we can see the truth more clearly." Note that Hitchens specifically mentions the language of the Anglican liturgy and the music. How we pray and what music we sing at the liturgy does in fact matter. Dr. Peter Kreeft gave voice to this in a lecture he recently gave at Franciscan University titled, "How to Win the Culture War," where he mentioned an instance in which he had accompanied a Muslim friend to Mass one day.  The Muslim said afterwards that while the beauty of the architecture had lifted his soul upwards, the language of the liturgy had left his soul horizontal and flat. In the same talk, Kreeft spoke of two separate atheists he knew who converted to Catholicism after hearing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. For some people, it takes more than just the naked truth to draw them into the fold. It takes the harmonies of Faure's Requiem, the stirring use of shadow and light in a Caravaggio painting, the lofty spires of a cathedral. Benedict XVI calls sacred music "an audible and perceptible rendering of the truth of our faith. In listening to sacred music - suddenly we feel: it is true!" This is a principle that applies to all forms of art.  
Although the Catholic Church has always advocated the use of beautiful art as an integral part of evangelization, her support has not always been properly  represented in the liturgy or recognized by bishops, priests, and laity. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. With the arrival of the new translation, the language of the Roman Rite has improved immensely.  Through the work of our beloved Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, organizations such as the Church Music Association of America and the sacred music programs of Franciscan University and Ave Maria University, sacred music is beginning to make a come back in the Church. These institutions and programs are helping artists and musicians to recognize the need to use their gifts for the conversion of souls. They are shown that it is not enough simply to create art. Rather, they must be taught the principles of beauty behind it so that they can create art and music containing the qualities of universality, goodness of form, and sanctity. I conclude with a passage from Bl. John Paul II's Letter to Artists

Statue of St. Paul at St. Paul's Outside the Walls Basilica, Rome.

 "Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age. It is with this in mind that I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of communication. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man."

Hitchens may be counted among the victims of the rational and aesthetic impoverishments occurring within Christianity today, but I am praying and hoping that such times are coming to an end. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Delights of Drawing Again

The semester is nearly over and soon I shall have time for posting and blogging nonsense. But until then, I thought I would post a few drawings I accomplished for my drawing class this semester. The class has proved to be a wonderful refresher. I used to draw a great deal in high school but with the dawning of college and my conversion to a musician, the other fine arts I enjoy had to be put to the side. It was a pleasant diversion to be able to have a class where instead of writing papers or reading assignments I was able to take up a pencil and attempt to create something beautiful. The first is a drawing of the woman of Samaria at the well. I call it, "It was about the Sixth Hour."

The second is a still life of the torso of a cello with a decorative trumpet and a piece of draped fabric. I was delighted with the way that the cello's reflective surface transmitted onto the paper. I didn't think it would show as well as it does!

 The third is a section of a portrait that I had to do. I was not pleased with the way in which the entire portrait turned out, but there were elements of it that I liked, such as the way that the eyes, nose, and mouth turned out.

So there are just a few things that have been occupying my time as of late. I just received more of my drawings back today, so I shall be posting more of them on my blog within the next couple of weeks, along with updates on the beauties and trials of the semester. But first, to conquer my finals and an organ studio recital!