Whether I’m conducting a chant training session for choir members of parish churches, choir directors, or organists, or even doing a choral anthem workshop, inevitably, someone raises their hand and states with considerable firmness and clarity, “I don’t know any chant!” Frankly, I’m glad for the honesty because it bursts open a grand opportunity to point out to people just how much chant they “know but didn’t know.”
For instance, open the hymnal in your church pew – in ANY church and go to the Advent and Christmas hymns. Most likely, one of the first hymns you will find is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Instantly, your participants will probably express a certain amount of joy in that “certainly, we know this.” Then, they know a chant. Keep going through the hymnal and they will continue to be surprised by just how much chant they have been singing their entire life and did not realize that it was a chant.
However, it does not stop there. Point out the fact that Hollywood is no stranger to Gregorian chant. Movies such as The Name of the Rose, The Hunchback of Notre Dame or even The Matrix employ Gregorian chant to evoke a certain mood or frame of mind.
We hear and experience chant in both its original context and unexpected places. Sometimes it takes a moment of thought and realization – better known as an “aha moment” – to understand that whether we know it or not, we are influenced by chant in whatever context it may be found. But, we do know some chant!
This week, we are preparing to perform Vaughn Williams beautiful and heart-wrenching work, Dona Nobis Pacem. Using Walt Whitman poetry as the primary source of text, Vaughn Williams wrote the work just before WWII as an outcry begging the world not to enter another world war. The piece takes the listener on a journey through all sorts of human emotions about life and war. There’s an outcry for peace, followed by a ruthless depiction of the sheer horror and un-humanness of war. Next comes a beautiful portrayal of the hope of reconciliation, followed by a martial and respectful, but sorrow-filled movement titled Dirge for Two Veterans. In the fifth movement the ensemble reaches its height of anguish, crying out to the heavens asking why? Why all this death, turmoil and suffering? Echoing the prophets of the Old and New Testament, the work closes with a triumphal hymn reassuring us that God will have the last word. The work is set down quietly with one last plea for peace.
In the fourth movement in particular, Vaughn Williams is juxtaposing the inexplicable horror and gut-wrenching sadness of war with the dignity and respect of human life. The music sounds triumphant and victorious as the poetry is depicting a tragic scene of a father and son killed together on the front lines.
It’s the same 2 measures in this movement that put a lump in my throat every-time we sing them. The poet has just explained that he can see and hear a sad funeral procession approaching. As it arrives the listener is quickly swept from seeing a sad procession into the grandest and noblest British-sounding march with all the pomp and circumstance the orchestra, organ and choir can muster. It is a triumphal and victorious moment, thrust in among deep anguish. I know this moment is coming in the work, but each time I’m caught by surprise in the sweep of majesty and glory. Vaughn Williams captures this essence. As the created beings in God’s image, we need to be reminded that all human life deserves the utmost respect.
I’m now part of a team assigned to keep the inner workings of our E.M. Skinner organ pipes dust free. The prelude to dusting included a tour of the area where the pipes reside. It was an intriguing labyrinth of small spaces, some high up and some maneuvered on hands and knees. What I found most interesting about the tour, was our guide didn’t focus on what to do, but rather on what not to do. Although he apologized for his negative approach, we assured him that his “learned the hard way” advice was invaluable. The what not to do’s represented hundreds of possible work hours and thousands of dollars saved. It occurred to me how easy it is to do the wrong thing — to respond in anger, withhold forgiveness, and seek vengeance. And how difficult it is to do right — to consider God’s love for my current enemy, turn the other cheek and ultimately forgive.
Recently, I had some members of my extended family come for a brief visit. On the last morning, they attended our 7:00 am Lauds and Eucharist service. I deliberately planted myself next to my 10-year-old great-nephew, figuring he might need a little “guidance” through the service. The church was quiet and still as we took our seats in the visitors’ section. The introduction to the opening hymn came floating from everywhere, as the organist surrounded us with the most beautiful melody. I turned and caught the look of wonder and pure delight on Luke’s face as he reveled in the moment. I thought to myself, “Don’t ever take this for granted”.
To be a Docent in our Church is like sharing Christmas on every tour. When visitors come through the Church doors, and experience the mosaics, frescoes, sculpture, the organ. . . they receive a gift of the love of God in a deep way. Their surprise and wonder is a big gift in return. Many times I have struggled through a hard day, and then find myself smiling with joy as I share the church with what were once strangers and have now become friends in Christ.
Beneath my feet the steady crunching of the stones on the path beside the south side of the church creates a consistent rhythm as I head toward my office. The notes of someone practicing scales on the organ seeps through the church stone wall. A cacophony of bird songs reaches across the marsh sounding as though they are rehearsing for a concert. Drifting from the practice area in the underground area of the Chapter House a young person is playing melodic exercises on a marimba. We are all part of a symphony; we are all part of a plan. God is the conductor!
Did you ever wonder what makes a pipe organ sound? In some ways its much more simple then you may think — it is just air moving through pipes! Last week Br. Luke needed help moving a large air duct to make space for the installation of a new division. So 10 of us brothers carefully climbed down the narrow south-side organ chamber and raised a large piece of metal duct work. This pipe runs at least 150 ft down and underneath the church, and provides the air power for thousands of pipes to sound. Much of the organ is very intricate and put together in a very specialized way, but you can’t take away the basic ingredient, or no sound is created. It’s a bit like us. If we lose our breath, no matter how carefully the rest of the instrument is constructed, or how hard we might try, we can’t do much without God’s breath running through us!
The evening sun gave a fiery aspect to the church’s oculus window on the eve of the Feast of Pentecost. The next morning we celebrated the fire of the Spirit in our Eucharist worship: festival music from the choir and fanfare from brass, organ and bells. We heard the words of the Spirit: scripture and prophecy in song and story. The service closed with a “still small voice”: a solo cantor singing “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” accompanied by a chamber orchestra.
Sometimes the most unexpected things catch me up short and give me a fresh shot of energy. Getting out of bed was not easy this morning after two runs last night of our upcoming play “The Dining Room.” But I dragged myself to a brass rehearsal at 6:00am (leaving my dog snoozing soundly on his bed!) The first perk was playing “Be Thou My Vision” – one of my favorites – with a great brass group – what’s not to love? But what really caught my attention this morning, after slipping into my seat for Lauds and wondering if I’d make it through the service without falling asleep, was the introduction to the week’s hymn. Our organist was telling us a little of the history of the text written by John Bunyan as he sat in a prison cell, having already suffered tremendous personal loss. Singing his words I had one of those awesome moments where suddenly all life’s “problem’s” seem insignificant in the face of the hugeness of God and the fantastic and exciting adventure that it is to live the Christian life.
“He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, Let him in constancy follow the Master. There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.”
“Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit, We know we at the end, shall life inherit. Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.”