A Musical Advent Calendar – 10.For Unto Us a Child is Born

For the 10th day of Advent how about a movement from that most famous of all oratorios, Messiah, by George Frideric Handel.

So much has been written about Messiah. Composed as it was in just 24 days, Handel did what many composers of the time routinely did – re-worked music he had written previously.  In this case he adapted a love duet from a secular Italian cantata of his entitled Nò, di voi non vo’fidarmi, which explains the slightly strange word stress.

Never mind… it is a wonderful piece full of joy and excitement, especially in this performance!

Sabbatical musings

During the first few months of 2015 I am taking a mini-semi-Sabbatical from Church, and also from all but one of the choirs that I seem to have started leading over the past few years.  Due to some changes at work I am also managing to take every Friday off and and planning some reading and informal study around anything that interests me, but primarily (unsurprisingly) Word and Music.

Watch this space for I hope much more regular updates on what I am reading and discovering about Bach, music, theology, singing, the Bible and connections between them.

What’s the purpose? Apart from to re-group and re-fresh and listen to any fresh revelations of His purpose, I think (to quote from a talk I heard last weekend) “the goal is God”.  A greater understanding of who He is, leading to greater worship.  And if there’s one thing I am seeing more clearly than ever, understanding comes through hearing the Word and putting it into practice.

If you want to check up on me through this, then hold me to those overarching goals.

A New Song

I’ve been on an interesting journey over the past couple of years since I last posted!

Most interesting is the way that, quite unexpectedly, I’ve started running two workplace choirs. One is at BT where I work, and then out of the blue last Summer I was offered the chance to run an another choir at John Lewis at Home and Waitrose in Ipswich.

These have put me in touch with some great people: Manvinder Rattan from John Lewis and the whole Sing for Pleasure organisation.

Most exciting for me, its led to me start a new Community Choir out of the Church where I lead the musica New Song Community Choir.

The title comes from Psalm 40 which has become very important for me:

I waited patiently for the Lord to help me,
and he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
and steadied me as I walked along.
He has given me a new song to sing,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
They will put their trust in the Lord. [New Living Translation]

I am praying that for everyone who comes, of any faith, or none,  it will be a fun, encouraging, challenging, friendly community to be part of.  There won’t be any preaching or pressure. But maybe it will become part of the faith journey of some of those who join. God really has given me a New Song to sing, and he offers it to everyone.

Check us out on our website, and come and join us for our first ever session on Monday March 3rd at 8pm at Burlington Baptist Church Centre, Ipswich, Suffolk

Satan hates music

While in  UK churches the so-called “Worship Wars” have to a large extent abated (although not completely), in the US they are still in full swing.

I was debating with someone from the US on facebook just now about “Contemporary Christian Music” and whether it’s all ungodly rubbish, and found myself asking, why is the church always dividing over music?

I think it must be because God LOVES music and created it for our good and for us to use to worship Him. Why else are there so many commands to Sing to the Lord in the Bible? Bach (who might have known something about it) said that

The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the spirit.

Is it a surprise then, that Satan HATES music and will do all he can to pervert it away from its God glorifying purpose?

C.S.Lewis’s Screwtape (the senior devil in Screwtape Letters) says this:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

The Absolute Priority of Words over Music

I have blogged briefly before about the wonderful Bach Cantata edition by the Monteverdi Choir and Sir John Eliot Gardiner which is currently being released. These are recordings made during the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, which aimed to perform all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day or Sunday, in locations throughout Europe (and in New York), all within a single year – the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.

In each beautifully presented set (with marvellous photos by Steve McCurry on the front cover setting the tone) there is a short endword by one of the performers on their experience of the Pilgrimage.  The note by Soprano Katherine Fuge in the latest set caught my eye:

Along with our music, we received each week photocopies of the bible readings set by the lectionary for that particular Sunday…

The words of the Cantatas are based on the readings of the day – sometimes directly, sometimes more obliquely. Clearly Gardiner is persuaded that in order to get the best performance his singers not only need to know the music, but also need to understand the Cantata text. And to understand the text they need to be familiar the Bible readings on which the texts are based.  The results speak for themselves.

There is another equally rich set of Bach cantatas being produced right now from Masaaki Suzuki – a Japanese Christian and organist in the Reformed church – and his Bach Collegium Japan. His performances of Bach in Japan have introduced Bach, and the Christian Faith, to a wide Japanese audience. In an interview with Malcolm Bruno from 2005  Suzuki says this:

Japan’s church population is only 1 percent. It’s not essential to be Christian to understand Bach, but in my case it has been an important motivation. Players as well as singers need to know what the text means, not just how the German should sound phonetically. And as my musicians know very little about the Bible or the words of Christ, I have to explain everything carefully. The tenor aria ‘Schlage doch, schlage’ for example has a very difficult pizzicato accompaniment. When I told the orchestra about the Last Judgement, trying to give them some sense of the angst of the last moment of a person’s life, and the towering sense of judgement in Bach’s Lutheran Germany, they were able to find a new vigour to put into the music.

Later in the interview he adds:

I want not only to reproduce what Bach might have done, but experience cantatas as a nourishment to our human condition. That is why I translate all the German into Japanese myself.

Note that he says “players as well as singers”. Whether singing or accompanying, to interpret music effectively it is essential to understand deeply the words that are being sung.

A further re-inforcement of this for me came recently when Richard Edgar-Wilson came to work with the choir I am fortunate to conduct, Illuminati. We had a fantastic evening. As he worked with us, again and again he drew our attention to the words of what we were singing, whether a folk song, a carol or a latin motet. He encouraged us to think about we could best reflect the meaning of the texts we were singing in phrasing, in dynamics, in all aspects of interpretation.  The results were immediate, and I think will be long-lasting.

Other singers have the same passion. Thomas Quasthoff, in a masterclass I observed once asked one Soprano to lie on the floor so that the Tenor under scrutiny at the time could imagine she was a baby in a cradle as he sang his lullaby. Very funny at the time – but he was making a serious point. Richard Edgar-Wilson mentioned a similar focus from Felicity Palmer, whose discovery of the absolute priority of the words helped transform her singing.  The secret? “To approach every word as though we are speaking it, only there happens to be a pitch.”

She said this in a recent interview

…more than anything, I want to be remembered as a communicator. Singers who don’t communicate the words as well as the music can make you feel bored very quickly. That’s not to say that I don’t think ravishing voices are sensational to listen to, but after a while, I want more.

…and this

If we didn’t have words in opera, it would just be vocalise, and we’d be flautists or whatever. Our vital dimension is provided by the words you hear, and if we don’t get that across both in the emotion and in the actual colouring of the words then we’ve failed because it’s our duty to do that.

Which (eventually) brings me to my conclusion. As primarily a Church musician I’m involved Sunday by Sunday in a context where we have the most fantastic words (the Word) and thoughts in the world to communicate – whether in a worship song, or hymn, a solo, or even an instrumental piece. If musicians in the concert hall, opera house or recital room make words such a priority how much more should we who “have the words of Eternal Life” (John 6:68)

A Many Generation Foundation (1)

I am prompted to start what might be a series of posts because of a series of recent and upcoming events.

Most recently I read this post from Bob Kauflin about the legacy of Asaph, the Levite, later chief musician and author of Psalm 78 (and 11 others):

The Legacy of Asaph – Learning to Sing in the Same Room

In it Bob talks about Asaph’s enduring legacy. He ministered in the tabernacle, he was chief cymbal player when David returned the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The “sons” of Asaph ministered in the tabernacle and later Temple for David and Solomon. All through the reign of the kings of Judah sons of Asaph ministered, worshipped, prophesied and were at the heart of Revivals of Hezekiah and Josiah, and the rebuilding of the temple of after the exile under Ezra. That’s a pretty high calling. To establish such a heritage is worth working for. Something Isaiah calls “a foundation of many generations”

And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Isaiah 58:11-12

The story of Asaph reminded me that I have a copy of Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest with the following inscription:

A Token of Appreciation
Miss Joan Castro [my mother]
German P.O.Ws at 194 camp, Penkridge
in Remembrance
of her Valuable Singing at many
Musical Services
in the
Parish Church – Penkridge

Then yesterday I discovered that a close relative (possibly father) of a great-great grandmother of mine had been a Baptist Pastor in Gislingham, Suffolk – about 45 mins drive from where I now live. By all accounts my grandmother’s family were all stauch non-conformists going back generations in Suffolk.  He had certainly raised up a many-generation foundation which includes missionaries, Baptist ministers as well as many ordinary Christians now in churches as far afield as Belgium, Seattle Washington, Colorado, London… and Ipswich.

Then lastly my twins, both of whom have helped lead the music for worship at our Church for the last several years, are both off to College/University to study music in the next 2 weeks.  My prayer for them (and for their elder brother Jonathan) has always been that they will be the next generation of the many-generation foundation of those serving God.

It inspired me to keep praying, to keep working at leading of music for others to worship, and at the raising up together of the next Generation to do that. What higher calling could there be?