Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why Singing Sacred Music is Like A Magical Wardrobe

The transition from studying sacred music at a solid Catholic university to studying music at a secular conservatory has certainly been an interesting one. One of the keenest differences is obviously the change from a predominantly Christian atmosphere to one where there is seldom any outward expression of religious belief of any kind. Although my fellow organ students and I are certainly exposed to many religious compositions through our internships at various Christian denominations -- presbyterian, episcopalian, catholic, etc. -- I would say the vibes of the studio overall are also largely secular.

By now you're probably thinking, "Well, of course, it's going to be secular! It's a school full of liberal musicians!" 

Haha, yes, I was aware of that even before Day #1. So why am I bringing this up? 

St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy
I was recently placed in an interesting scenario that struck me as particularly disjunct from my previous musical experiences in undergrad. This semester I have been working with an ensemble of early music singers who are performing a great deal of music by Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli. Gabrieli was the principal organist at Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice and wrote a great deal of sacred choral works as well as secular instrumental works. Many of the pieces which this ensemble is singing are sacred works, such as his setting of "Miserere Mei Deus," which is also known as Psalm 51.

What is Psalm 51? It is a prayer, a cry to God which King David wrote when he was at one of the lowest moments of his life. He committed adultery with Bethsheba, he murdered her husband, and he had lost a son because of his sins. In this particular psalm he is asking God to forgive him.

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy. ... For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and have done evil in your sight ... You shall sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: you shall wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. ... Create in me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your face; and take not your Holy Spirit from me." 

Sitting in on the rehearsals behind my little continuo organ watching these students and fellow musicians sing this piece, it struck me as odd that for a significant number of these singers, it was quite possible that the words made little difference to them. Yes, they cared about the inflection and the strong-weak syllables, the pronunciation, the musical notation, etc. in short *how* the text was set.  But I wonder how much consideration they put into the meaning of the words: that what they are singing is also a timeless prayer, a cry of love, remorse. It's not just music, singing, it can be an expression of something so much deeper! 

Lucy and Mr. Tumnus from
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
By C.S. Lewis
This scenario seemed ironic to me.  When one is singing sacred music, there is certainly a level of beauty that is readily apparent, in this case the music which Gabrieli composed to adorn the text. This music, this type of beauty, could be said to be a universal language -- most human beings, even atheists, will admit that they are moved by such beautiful music. It speaks to them in a way that is more easily understood.

But there is another type of beauty that was already there, that of an honest plea to God, which the Holy Spirit inspired King David to utter in his hour of darkness. It is a sacred text, timeless, inspired by God. And even though the musical setting is indeed wonderful, the words are what inspired the composer. The text and its Author are what make the music sacred in the first place. They transcend the musical adornment. This kind of beauty is not readily apparent to the casual listener/singer.  There is a level of religious devotion -- shall I call it love? -- a disposition of the heart which the singer needs in order to appreciate this level of beauty. 

It so happens that while I was mulling this all over in my head, I was in the middle of a Chronicles of Narnia kick (I go through these from time to time, now I'm on Harry Potter)-- listening to the music, reading quotes, posting C.S. Lewis and the like all over my tumblr, etc. And somehow, these two came together in what I though was a fascinating analogy. 

Lucy Pevensie, played by Georgie Henley in
Disney's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

Do you remember the scene in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Lucy Pevensie encounters the wardrobe and she first walks through to the land of Narnia, full of magical landscapes, fauns, and tea parties?  Later in the story, she tries to show this world to her older siblings, but all they see is the back of a wardrobe.  I would pose that singing sacred music is like encountering this magical wardrobe. Some musicians sing Psalm 51, Mass texts, chant, Palestrina, etc. and find themselves in Narnia -- not literally, of course, but because their hearts and minds are disposed through love to prayer, they experience the musical settings of these sacred texts on a far more intimate level. Other musicians sing these pieces and, while they admire the manner in which the piece has been composed, all they see is the wooden back of a wardrobe.

So is it better to be a Christian and sing sacred choral music? I would venture that, while it may not always be the case, it most definitely can be!