Saturday, 28 April 2007

Oh, don't join the choir!

Please be forewarned that this shall be my most irritable post in the history of blog-dom. But I'm at that time of life when one weeps for the potential one once had - and also at an age where I no longer hide being opinionated.

There are notable exceptions (for example, I doubt the music of any church on earth could top that of Westminster Cathedral), but, as a general rule, churches which are either Roman Catholic, advertise 'family services,' or are looking to be a spot where everyone can 'relate' have music that is utter crap. Just focussing on the RC Church, where I served for years, with memories of the 1970s and hopes that we'd have top quality music to rival even the Anglicans, the music tends to be pathetic. It shall continue to be pathetic until serious musicians are employed. (Yes, I said employed, and I said serious musicians. I am aware that the Church would prefer that everyone be an angel, therefore with no need for food, clothing, shelter and therefore a means of sustenance. I am equally aware that people whose skills in music are laughable can become the darlings of congregations, and can come to think of themselves as if they were Renata Tebaldi... though I doubt they know who Tebaldi was.) The unwritten rule that 'everyone must sing everything,' that facilitating this means including nothing beyond the range of someone who'd have trouble singing London Bridge is Falling Down, and that choirs, soloists, and instrumentalists exist only to provide support for congregational singing must be abolished.

Serious singers indeed will be encouraged to join the choir - though not to really sing once they get there. There are exceptions, of course - a first rate professional choir, or training in a choir school, can be beneficial. But I am speaking of the average church choir (and many choirs not associated with churches), where operatic singers can be reduced to crooning because the director wants the sound of 'one voice.' (From a distance, that's the effect anyway, but it's not worth mentioning this.)

Though I have not seen this often, it is so dangerous to one's voice that it is worthy of note. Here and there, I have met choir directors who have a particular 'choral sound' they want, and who encourage a technique which would totally ruin the voices of those who adapted this. I well remember one fool who wanted (as he said) a "heavy, covered sound." He told people to "hold their mouths rigid," to adapt bizarre pronunciations, and other instructions it would pain me to even remember. His choir sounded like an old, somewhat damaged record playing on a slow turntable.

I am a spinto / dramatic soprano, the sort who plays Leonora in La Forza del Destino or the title role in Aida. My timbre is dark, but my range sits high. I was doomed, as far as choirs are concerned, the day that Sister Liberanos, who placed people in choral sections based on their saying "Hello," thought I was an alto. Were that the end of it, it might not have been so bad - but church and school choirs, and even the choir of the university where I earned my degree in music, want "strong altos." (Useless to say I'm not an alto - and there was no understanding of how I had to practise doubly for the rest of the week following a rehearsal, to get my voice out of the cellar. I sounded as if I had two voices.) Of course, in choirs such as I have mentioned, most people in the alto section are not true contraltos - they are those with a limited range. A spinto will be stuck in that section... with damaging effects.

Useless to offer to vocalise! The director, having determined the supposed 'contralto quality,' will hit a middle C, ask one to vocalise an octave up, and allow one to go no further, writing down that this is the top of one's range. Never mind that I had a range of over three octaves and could sustain notes above a high C.

It works both ways, of course. A true mezzo-soprano may find herself the lead soprano, because the people in that section are not much good, either, and she's the only one who can hit a G.

I've known some fine musicians who nonetheless knew nothing of vocal technique. One, with whom I worked for some years, was an excellent conductor and organist, but it took me years of study to 'unlearn' the nonsense he taught me. How well I remember not only being stuck in an alto section but being instructed, "Put it in your chest!" When my voice finally started to have proper bel canto technique, he complained to others that I was losing those 'chest tones,' not even knowing that is a major fault in a voice.

Any reader who is a serious singer has this advice from me. Keep up your lessons and practise religiously - but try to do only solo or serious ensemble work. I'm sad, to this day, that the crooning I learnt in church choirs, and which was made all the worse because, in my convent of only 17 Sisters, I had to whisper not to be accused of 'singularisation,' ruined my voice. Not that I cannot still sing - the ghost of the opera singer self still is there. But my voice was severely damaged, and all the while I was hoping I was using the gift for the good of the Church.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Divine mercy?

It continually amazes me that many of the devout make quite a fuss over Lent, yet (unless they are greatly concerned with matters liturgical, as I am) tend to forget that the Easter season has only just begun. I would be the last to criticise Lenten devotion, and indeed believe it is very valuable. Still, the preoccupation with 'giving things up' and so forth smacks of Calivinism - we are depraved, anything that appeals to us (even if not remotely sinful) just has to be problematic, and we'd best not forget that Christ died for us by dwelling on His resurrection and our deification.

As my regular readers will know, I believe that 'folk religion' and devotions are valuable as well. There is much in our sensual nature which needs to be satisfied - and sprinkling holy water in a room can be just as much an act of faith, and an expression of a desire for divine blessings, as anything else in our formal prayer. I know this will not endear me to some, but I must say that I am not exactly mad about the sites which promote this, the Second Sunday of Easter, as "Divine Mercy Sunday." (It's based on a private revelation - in this case, I'll leave you to Google.) Somehow, having a mini feast, based on a vision, dedicated to Divine Mercy, the week after the Triduum, seems on a par with taking a glorious gold processional cross and gilding it with the sort of paint kids used to use on their ballet shoes for recitals.

Those who originally proposed 'atonement theology,' as is not unusual for those seeking to articulate the inexplicable, could not have foreseen that it would leave a permanent 'scar' on Christianity, wherein God the Father can seem to have been guilty of the ultimate child abuse. He can be seen as having been possessed of boundless insult and anger, so much so that He had to see to it that His son had a horrid death in order that He himself could be appeased. There is no explanation for evil, as all the great philosophers (who wrote reams on the topic) would ultimately concede. Jesus indeed took on our sins - in becoming fully human, and remaining faithful to His prophetic, human vocation to proclaim the kingdom, he would be a victim of much of what is the worst in human nature.

Meditations on the Passion can be very enriching, but this did get out of hand (partly through the excessive emphasis my own Franciscan order used in preaching) once the resurrection became an afterthought. Too much thinking was centred solely on forgiveness. Devotional books, many used in preparation for the Eucharist or communion, often focussed entirely on Jesus' suffering and our need for forgiveness.

Anyone who is a devout Christian would know, all too well, that metanoia, which frequently involves repentance or at least a painful look at one's weakness, is a constant part of our lives. (In fact, the more devout we become, the more we can tend to think of our weaknesses as virtues.) Divine grace indeed transforms us. My objection is to an approach where we are either seen as essentially wicked or equate forgiveness (which I see as a restoration of or increase in our intimacy with the divine) with placating a punishing task master.

The uncertainty of this life, and the pain, suffering, or wickedness that always could be round the corner, is frightening. (Raymond Brown, in his works about Jesus' Passion, makes a superb point - Gethesemane was a scandal to the Greek Christians at first, because Jesus' agony is so in contrast with the stoic acceptance of death demonstrated by Socrates.) We never will understand why a God who is omnipotent and perfectly loving seems deaf when we are in pain. It is best we reconcile ourselves to that this cannot be understood than to seek explanations - or we can fall into either seeing everything as a punishment or, as I've treated before, fearing that being one of God's friends is even more perilous (at least on earth...) than being a distinguished sinner.

Many great theologians and authors of classic on the spiritual life presented ideas which either can be mistaken for 'punishment theology' or which awkwardly sought to express some vague idea that God's will is in all and even dropping a pencil was part of the divine plan. (With Archbishop Runcie, I'm agnostic about Auschwitz... but I'm warming up to an explanation of misunderstanding.)

I think it is important to remember that great theologians often were seeking to refute dangerous or heretical ideas prevalent in their time. For example, Augustine was refuting dualism (a concept of a second god who created evil, and of creation as wicked - which the Incarnation certainly would disprove!), which, in his Manichean days, he had come to see as a denial of divine omnipotence. To use a line about "there is no evil - it is the absence of good" would be small comfort in pastoral situations. (In fact, those who use it in such settings should be penanced to read Augustine's works in their entirety before being allowed out.)

Philosophy regarding the problem of evil does not, and never sought to, explain all the difficulties we have in this life. It was intended, sometimes brilliantly, to illustrate that the concept of God is not at odds with the wickedness and pain of this world.

As for some of the authors of works on the spiritual life, we need to recall that much of their work was intended as direction (and indeed may have been compiled from letters to people they were guiding, or based on experience of that sort.) These can be the most dismal of all. The only hope one should have is to see God in heaven. Sainthood comes from suffering. The first step in meditation is to picture one's dead body.... I'm going to stop there. It is miserable for those who are suffering to be shrugged off with "God's will" or an idea that one should only hope for happiness in eternity (and misery here, to ensure we have a chance of getting to heaven.) There is no space here for me to chronicle the history of 'vicarious suffering' and the like, but I think, on a very basic level, we need to remember that those whom these authors directed well may have been preoccupied with fears of damnation. Progress in the spiritual life means letting go of notions of God because we see their limitations - and it can be frightening, even giving us a sense of severe doubt. No one can be certain of salvation, eternal life, and the like - not because these do not exist, but because they are beyond us. No one can say, with certainty, even that there is a God.

All of us, in one way or another, have dealt with formidable authority figures. The image of a stern, even cruel God who wants placating and blind obedience is miserable, but can be comfortable in a way because of its familiarity. Resurrection, ascension, the eternal presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, our own deification - these bring us into the realm of wonder, which can make us uncomfortable because we cannot relate this to our own experience.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Do this in memory of me

Christianity is very simple. All it requires is a memory and a vision; and, if you can get them, some bread, and wine, and water. - Kenneth Leech

Simplicity is hardly my strong point - yet my honest nature prompts me to further comment that the bread, wine, water, vision, and memory are perhaps the only universal factors which have united the Christian Church since its earliest days. (Well, all right ... I can develop an idea of the Church's going back to Adam... but let us save that for another day.) Looking back to a 'golden age' is a favourite pastime of everyone in every era, yet such have never existed.

I spent quite a bit of time in church on Wednesday. First, at midday, I attended a lovely Eucharist, with a magnificent mediaeval setting. Unexpectedly, that afternoon, when I stopped in at a Franciscan church, they had a scheduled Eucharist, so I attended yet again. Then, in the evening, I went to a service of Tenebrae (admittedly, with disappointment - the weather had turned, and I was chilled, so, rather than attending the church where the music would be splendid, I was in a local, small church where there was no music at all.) I was left with the feeling which always haunts me during the evening before the Triduum - how very alone Jesus would be, in Gethesemane, then throughout his Passion. I shall not compare any of us to Jesus, of course, but it is a sad fact, to this day, that, within the Church, once anyone falls out of favour one is abandoned. In fact, I think it is unique to the Church that those who are tossed aside are supposed to be rejoicing in God's will, and "happy" about their successor.

But, now, on to Maundy Thursday, before I start telling tales... which I should not care to do, even anonymously.

I am not likely to call the Last Supper an actual celebration of the Eucharist - there can be no anamnesis of what has not yet happened. :) Yet Maundy Thursday is one of those days when something approaching Ignatian meditation is exceedingly tempting. In fact, I'm even going to toss aside my better scriptural commentaries and not question whether it actually was Passover, etc., etc..

One wonders what the apostles were like. (I am also a peasant, yet the intellectual snob in me turns up her nose at the thought of their not being able to grasp the simplest parables and that most of them smelled of fish...) When I was reading Luke yesterday, and this soon before I became immersed in the haunting magic of Tenebrae, I had to smile, seeing how, right to the end, the apostles were tossing about the idea of who would have the highest place in the kingdom. Ah, yes, arguments about authority...

It is all too easy, particularly if one not only watches the scriptural epics and reads the 'Lives of Christ' of another time, and has been exposed to the 'see how these Christians love one another' myth, to picture twelve intense young men, in great awe at having been first to see the ritual which would sustain the Church until the parousia. Actually, what was present at the Last Supper was a prototype of another sort. :) I am sure that at least one traditionalist was frowning that Jesus had changed the form for the Pesach meal with all this "cup of my blood" business. Those who were either simple or highly observant would question why the Passover was anticipated a day early. (Well, at least, in that day, they were spared the irate vegetarian's protests about the lamb, and no one offered the cup would have irately commented, "But wine is a drug!") Judas was on verge of betraying the Master. I would imagine that Matthew was still sensitive about why Judas held the purse, considering all of his own experience as a tax collector. The disciples were conflicted about who would be the kingpins (I suppose when the Messiah toppled Roman rule.) "The Rock," who had learnt insufficient humility from that sad incident of attempting to walk on water, was making bold promises he'd soon find were beyond him. The lot of them would scatter in fear before the night was out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Church.

Still, whenever I heard the words of consecration at the Eucharist, it moves me to think that the perpetual memorial has endured for two millenia. For all the conflict, persecution, quarrels, heresy, whatever, which the early Church faced, that bread, wine, and water was the catholic element - and these rituals of common worship kept the Church from crumbling when many a reform movement of the time would die out quickly enough. Jerusalem would fall - the Word would spread to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Gaul, etc., with Christians being the odd ones who conformed neither to Jewish nor pagan society.

All that was common, then or now, was worship - praise and thanksgiving - water, bread, and wine - the memory and vision, and the scriptures. We shall never accept that, of course. :) Till the end, I'm sure that those of us who are avid believers will think that some ideal of unity and love will prevail. Yes, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow... but not everyone will be happy and grateful at that gesture. :)

Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness, comes from you, through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age, you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made...