Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Marriage of Words and Music for Christmas

At Christmastime, we turn to carols to express the season in words and music. Although some may be traced back for centuries, we rarely sing them any more; most of the familiar ones originated in the 19th century (although Adeste fideles dates from the mid-18th century).

When it comes to choosing carols, we are most likely to prefer the ones we heard as children. Yet there are some that stand out for their almost perfect union between words and music. For Christmas 2018, I would like to present you with first the text, then two different settings, and three different performances, of a particularly lovely carol in order to illustrate my point. First, the text -- by the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, as first published in Scribner's Monthly in January 1872:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago. 
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ. 
Enough for Him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore. 
Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss. 
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.
The meter is as stark as the setting. Even though snow does not normally fall in Bethlehem, Rossetti probably has in mind John Milton's imagery of pure driven snow at the Savior's birth as necessary to cover the ugly sins of mankind (On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, lines 37-44). In the second stanza, she draws on imagery from the Book of Revelation to draw a paradox with the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth. The third and fourth stanzas create similar contrasting images of striking simplicity, while the final stanza expresses the author's own humility when faced with her creator God.

The lyrical form of the poem invited a simple, homophonic setting which composer Gustav Holst gave it in 1906. In doing so, he gave the world a new and wonderful carol. Listen to its beauty -- and to its perfect marriage of music with words -- in this classic performance by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge:






Just three years after Holst's composition, Harold Darke, a young organ student at the Royal College of Music in London, gave the poem another stellar setting, in which again the simple homophony sparkles with cascades of passing tones and unexpected chord progressions that serve to emphasize the purity of the infant Savior amidst his crude, rustic surroundings. Here is a lovely performance of the tune under the direction of John Rutter:





To drive the point home, here is a final performance of the Holst setting (just the first and last stanzas), which I can describe only as sung by an angel (who in this case is the Norwegian soprano, Sissel Kyrkjebø). She is accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle choir and orchestra.




A blessed and joyful Christmas to all my readers!


Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Brazen Plug on Beethoven's 248th Birthday

Your Curmudgeon is pleased to announce that his new book on Beethoven's Third Symphony is now available (paperback or eBook) on Amazon, and has garnered two (!) five-star reviews to date.

The book is entitled Beethoven Unbound: the Story of the Eroica Symphony, and is based on the honors thesis I submitted for graduation in 1966. Here is a brief description of what it is about:
There is one musical theme that Ludwig van Beethoven used on four different occasions, in four separate works. He first conceived the theme while composing the music in early 1801 for a ballet based on the legend of the Titan Prometheus, who brought clay human figures to life with divine fire stolen from Vulcan’s forge. Jupiter then punished Prometheus severely, by chaining him to a rock so that each day an eagle could swoop down on him and gnaw out his liver, which then would regenerate during the night, to be eaten again the next day. Prometheus endured what he regarded as a most unjust punishment for his gifts to mankind. He defied the gods until Hercules unbound him from his chains.

This book traces how Beethoven, who was agonizing over the onset of deafness, came during his work on the ballet to identify with the Titan’s ordeal. He saw deafness as a most undeserved fate for a composer who spent most of his waking hours sketching and polishing musical works as his own gifts to mankind – but also as a cruelty that would force him to withdraw from Viennese society. By identifying with the determination of Prometheus, Beethoven generated his own inner resolve to surmount his suffering and emerge with skills that enabled him to forge, beginning with his revolutionary Third Symphony (the Eroica), an entirely new path for music in the nineteenth century. As with Prometheus, so Beethoven himself became unbound.

The music Beethoven wrote for the ballet’s finale, in which Prometheus’ originally clumsy humans advanced under the Titan’s tutelage to be fit to dance with the gods, took on a special significance which he may not fully have appreciated at first. But by the summer of 1802, when he realized he could no longer hear the sounds of nature which had for so long inspired him during his periodic escapes from the city, Beethoven returned to his Prometheus-melody as the basis for an unprecedented set of piano variations. As this book shows through his surviving sketches, he noticed that the bass line for the theme could be developed independently, and gradually built up until the treble melody could emerge in all its glory, much as the humans had emerged to glorious heights in dancing to the same tune at the end of the ballet.

Beethoven’s personal crisis came to a head in October 1802, when he admitted in his secret “Heiligenstadt Testament” (not discovered until after his death) to having entertained thoughts of suicide. That bout with despair, however, was overcome by a new burst of energy as Beethoven saw how much more he could still do with his Prometheus-theme. He began to fill page after page of his sketchbooks with new ideas for further variations – much more than he could ever include in the set that he eventually published.

This book draws for its thesis upon a sketchbook that was auctioned among the composer’s papers after his death, found its way to the library of a Russian count in Moscow, and now is in a state museum there. It contains the pages on which Beethoven set down his very first ideas for what in time would become his monumental Eroica symphony. As such, it provides the missing link to tell the full story of that work’s genesis out of the music Beethoven had written for his 1801 ballet. That story not only has not been set out anywhere before, but also establishes that it is the Titan Prometheus, and not any human figure such as Napoleon, whose heroism lies at the heart of the Eroica.

Note that the Kindle edition is $6 cheaper, but contains the same contents as the printed book. Moreover, there are hyperlinks in the Kindle version between the text and the endnotes, which make jumping from one to the other and then back again as easy as can be. Finally, the illustrations in the Kindle, unlike in the paperback, are in full color and at a higher resolution that makes it possible to enlarge them to see greater detail.

If any reader here does purchase the book, I hope he or she will be motivated to leave a review at Amazon, for which I will be most grateful. Meanwhile, Ludwig van is 248 today, and will be 250 on this date in 2020. In celebration, please enjoy this stellar performance of the piano variations (op. 35) on which he was working in Heiligenstadt in the summer and fall of 1802, when he despaired of his future as a composer due to his ever-worsening deafness.

In this set of 15 variations and closing fugue, Beethoven forged well ahead of his contemporaries and laid the ground for his path-breaking  Eroica Symphony. As noted, his sketchbook shows he conceived the Symphony at Heiligenstadt, as the outgrowth of all the effort he poured into elaborating on the theme he first used in his 1801 ballet based on the legend of Prometheus, and around which he constructed these fantastic variations. (Notice how they begin, as described above, with just the bass of the theme itself, stated in octaves. The "Prometheus"-theme does not emerge in full until the fourth variation.)







Napoleon was the furthest person from Beethoven's mind when he was writing this music, which is all about the heroism and triumph of Prometheus, who provided just the inspiration Beethoven needed at a crucial turning-point of his life.


Sunday, November 11, 2018

+Love's Last Stand

As readers may have noted, I have stopped posting regularly about the Episcopal "Church" in the USA ("ECUSA", for short) -- mainly for the reasons (as explained in so many prior posts on this site) that it is losing its identity as a Christian church, and that I am no longer a member. Now and then, however, there arises from ECUSA's decay an item which is of broader interest to Christians at large, as it points up what happens when a religious denomination  surrenders itself to the zeitgeist (and no longer follows the Heiligen Geist).

The current situation in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, led by the Rt. Rev. William H. Love, is just such an item. On the surface, it presents a diocesan bishop who is doing his utmost to carry out his ordination vows to "guard the faith, unity and discipline of the Church" (BCP 517), and to "[f]eed the flock of Christ committed to your charge, guard and defend them in His truth, and be a faithful steward of his holy Word and Sacraments."

His vows are being put to the test because of the passage, by the ECUSA General Convention last summer, of Resolution B012. That legislation purports to make available, in each and every diocese in the USA, "trial" rites of same-sex marriage and blessings to those couples desiring them. As Bishop Love explains, in a pastoral letter addressed "To the People of God in the Diocese of Albany and throughout the World":
With the passage of B012, the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church in effect is attempting to order me as a Bishop in God’s holy Church, to compromise “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3 ESV), and to turn my back on the vows I have made to God and His People, in order to accommodate The Episcopal Church’s “new” understanding of Christian marriage as no longer being “a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God” as proclaimed in the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP 422), but now allowing for the marriage of same-sex couples.
The 8th Resolve of B012 states: “Resolved, That in dioceses where the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or, where applicable, ecclesiastical supervision) holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples, and there is a desire to use such rites by same-sex couples in a congregation or worshipping community, the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or ecclesiastical supervision) SHALL invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couples, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites."
In his letter, Bishop Love details seven grounds for his opposition to the directive in that 8th Resolve. For purposes of this post, I summarize them in point-form here, but be sure to read the whole thing:
  • First: B012 contradicts God’s intent for the sacrament of marriage as revealed through Holy Scripture;
  • Second: B012 is contrary to the 2000-year-old understanding of Christian marriage as still reflected in the rubrics of the BCP, and in the Canons of the Diocese of Albany;
  • Third: B012 "is doing a great disservice and injustice to our gay and lesbian Brothers and Sisters in Christ, by leading them to believe that God gives his blessing to the sharing of sexual intimacy within a same-sex relationship, when in fact He has reserved the gift of sexual intimacy for men and women within the confines of marriage between a man and woman";
  • Fourth: B012 encourages Episcopalians to engage in sexual behavior which is expressly forbidden in both the Old and New Testaments;
  • Fifth: By its false teaching and encouragement to sinful behavior, B012 is leading same-sex couples, as well as ECUSA itself, to come under God's judgment (resulting in the precipitous decline in membership throughout the Church);
  • Sixth: B012 attempts to force Bishop Love to violate his ordination vows, as stated above, and would lead to schism and departures in his Diocese; and
  • Seventh: Succumbing to B012's directive would render it impossible for Bishop Love to represent his diocese before the wider Anglican Communion and the whole world.
There is much more in the letter, including assurances to same-sex couples that scripture does not forbid close friendships or living together, only sexual intimacy (citing this article; see also the other resources linked on this page). As a consequence of the seven factors he identifies, Bishop Love closes his letter with this Pastoral Directive:
Until further notice, the trial rites authorized by Resolution B012 of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church shall not be used anywhere in the Diocese of Albany by diocesan clergy (canonically resident or licensed), and Diocesan Canon 16 shall be fully complied with by all diocesan clergy and parishes.
Thus the lines are drawn, and the conflict caused by the actions of General Convention now invades the hitherto peaceful diocese of Albany. For instance, could Presiding Bishop Michael Curry now try to exercise his supposed authority to issue a "Pastoral Directive" to Bishop Love, requiring that he make the trial rites available to any in his diocese that request them? (Note that Resolution B012's mandate does not take effect Churchwide until December 1.) 

As I pointed out in this earlier post, it is extremely doubtful that the enactment of the provision in Title IV that purports to confer upon the Presiding Bishop metropolitan authority over his episcopal colleagues can be squared with the grant of all ecclesiastical authority, by Article II.3 of ECUSA's Constitution, to a bishop within his own diocese. In other words, individual diocesan bishops are, by Section 3 of Article II of the Church's Constitution, limited to exercising jurisdiction within their own dioceses -- they may not exercise any authority within another diocese unless invited to do so by the ecclesiastical authority of that other diocese.  

The Presiding Bishop is not even a diocesan bishop, and has no diocese of the United States within which he or she can act as the ecclesiastical authority. Nor does the Constitution vest the Presiding Bishop with authority over other bishops. Consequently no canon (bylaw) of the Church can confer any greater authority on the Presiding Bishop than he or she has under the Constitution.

Without Bishop Love's consent, therefore, how could the Presiding Bishop issue him a "Pastoral Directive", let alone one that requires him to violate his ordination vows and the rubrics of the BCP, as well as his own diocese's canons? (Even Canon IV.7.2, authorizing the issuance of Pastoral Directives, specifies that a Directive must "be neither capricious nor arbitrary in nature nor in any way contrary to the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention or the Diocese" [emphasis added].)

If Bishop Love cannot be directed by any other bishop to violate his vows or his diocese's canons, then neither may General Convention do so. The problem is with that capitalized word "SHALL" in the 8th Directive of Resolution B012, quoted above. The mandatory language of the Resolution is directed improperly at diocesan bishops, and so violates their constitutional authority within their own diocese as specified in Article II.

A qualification: at the session of the House of Bishops which adopted B012 last summer, there was this exchange between Bishop Dabney Smith, of SW Florida, and the chair of the committee that reported the Resolution for passage:
Bishop Smith: . . . a question: . . . I'm wondering about the definition of the word "shall" in a resolution compared with the use of "shall" in a canon.   
Committee chair: I would just say: there is a difference, number one. And also, this word "shall" is modified by the next phrase, "as necessary". . . . The committee . . . I believe I can say . . . we intended that it was a matter of pastoral discretion for the bishop.
(You can see this exchange beginning at 45:28 of the video of the session, at this link. Also on the video, beginning at the 28:00 mark, are Bishop Love's observations in opposition to B012.)

Will ECUSA, therefore, in light of the committee's insertion of the qualifier "as necessary", grant to Bishop Love the full extent of his pastoral discretion in refusing to implement B012 in his diocese?  It remains to be seen -- especially in view of ECUSA's previous shameful treatment of Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina. If the House of Bishops begins disciplinary proceedings against Bishop Love, then history will repeat itself in Albany.

It should go without saying that no Canon or Resolution of General Convention may by its terms be contrary to the provisions of ECUSA's Constitution. But the LGBT movement within ECUSA, by pushing and pushing to force same-sex rites on all dioceses in the Church, has now brought matters to such a pass. If ECUSA attempts to rein in or discipline Bishop Love for refusing to violate his own vows or canons, then it will demonstrate once again its contempt for church order as established by its Constitution, and the surrender of its integrity to the spirit of the times. And that is why this Curmudgeon has such difficulty in perceiving ECUSA any longer as a church which recognizes Christ as its head.

On this Armistice Day, on which we honor all those who gave their lives to keep our country free, it might be well to consider the connection to its equivalent in the church calendar, All Saints Day. On that festival day, Christians honor all the saints whose sacrifices have ensured to us the transmission of the "faith once delivered" to the very first of them. Both saints and brave warriors are necessary to preserve our freedoms and our faith. By rejecting (or abandoning) what they have kept secure for us, we place ourselves and our country at risk of God's judgment.

May God preserve Bishop Love strong in his faith, and may He so preserve us all.