Light From Without and Within

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Piero di Cosimo – Detail of St. Antony the Abbot from Visitation

 

Continuing a recent theme… Thursda was a day full of light and warmth.  No I’m not writing from vacation in Jamaica.  Even in the depth of winter I had an amazingly “warm” day through two encounters.  In the morning, I joined friends for a visit to the National Gallery.  We enjoyed lunch at the museum’s Garden Cafe, which – P.S. – has a reliably quality buffet for a reasonable price before enjoying the NGA’s newest exhibit: Piero di Cosimo: Painting in Renaissance Florence.  Cosimo’s works are typical of the time: numerous religious themes, fidelity to the Florentine school.  Unusual was the imaginative style with which he explored stories of pagan mythology, whose subjects he portrays in a wide range of characterizations from the beautifully sympathetic to the grotesque.  I’m not a huge fan of Olympian mythology, but it was fun to walk around inside the imagination of such an original artist.

Ottorino Respighi, Composer
Ottorino Respighi, Composer

Yesterday’s second experience, also with a brother priest, was a visit to the Music Center at Strathmore to hear the BSO.  Under the baton of Marin Alsop, the BSO is always in good form, but they were especially so last night, the tenth anniversary of the opening of their Montgomery County venue, Strathmore.  The orchestra presented excited  listeners with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano concerto and Respighi’s Roman Tryptic.  Both played at the heartstrings of the audience.

Three levels of light pervaded the day.  Most superficially, the sun itself.  DC was its usual beautiful self under low-lying winter sun light.  In the middle of February that should be enough to lift anyone’s spirit, but there was other light too.  Piero di Cosimo’s canvases seem to radiate the light of sacred realities portrayed.  It was almost as if the gallery’s track-lighting wasn’t necessary.  Likewise, the BSO’s performance of Respighi.  I was transported back to warm walks along the Janiculum Hill, admiring the Pines and fountains for which Rome is so famous.

So there’s the external sunlight of the present and an artistic light from the past… The last level of light I experienced was the light of friends… and unlike the first two, this illumination is internal.  Beautiful friendships illumine us from within helping us to discover different parts of ourselves, helping us to heal parts of ourselves, and also helping us to celebrate parts of ourselves.  Maybe that’s why in darker times of year, the light of the local pub is so welcoming: it presages the joy of friendship within.  Looking at your DC experience with eyes of faith, where are your light sources, and what characterizes them?

Where do I find light in my life?  To what degree is that light satisfying?  How do I chase after illumination with ever greater conviction?

Music from the not so dark ages

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Bronze of Shakespeare in the Folger’s Great Hall

 

At the risk of sounding like a cliched art critic, last night was a revelation.  I joined two parishioners for a concert at the Folger Shakespeare Theater by the Folger Consort.  This exceptionally talented musicians are dedicated to preserving and presenting early music (pre-1600) performed on period instruments.  Last night’s concert of Christmas music from Italy and Flanders set all my cultural grey cells humming.  First, there’s the Folger Theater itself: a small copy of Shakespeare’s Globe housed within the Folger Library on Capitol Hill.  Music filled the space transporting listeners back to olde Europe.  It was also a treat to see the period instruments: sackbut, harp, viola di gamba, and flutes of every sort… just amazing.

I could go on, but let’s get to our central question, “What was the experience, seen through eyes of faith?”  The answer is one word, “Hope.”

As Washingtonians experiencing the renaissance of our city, the benefits of [seemingly] unbounded technology, and the sense of possibility that inherently attends our city’s increasingly young-adult population, we have every reason to be a hopeful people, right?  And yet… Depression and anxiety are our most common psychological challenges.  Anecdotally: I recently visited my dentist.  Having just passed a birthday, age on my mind, I asked him what the best thing I could do for my teeth, longterm, could be.  His answer surprised me.  He warned, “Don’t ever start grinding your teeth.  The most common problem we deal with in middle to older aged folks in DC is cracked teeth from years of stress-grinding.”  So much for hope in the comforts of modern living.  Could our renaissance forbearers have something to offer?

Consider these verses from last night’s concert,

“[Mary] thou art the supernal queen of glory, and the true  medicine of an anxious mind.”

“Let’s now praise the Lord, with songs and musical sounds, for this day is salvation come to this house.”

“In you, Lord, I have put my hope to find lasting mercy: But I was in a sad and dark hell, and struggled in vain, but in you Lord I have put my hope.”

Do these sound like the words of an oppressed feudal people from the “dark” ages?  Last night’s music was anything but dark.  It was audible light… not a bright shining sunlight, as Palestrina or Bach, but rather a warm hearth glow, comforting as much as inspiring.  Hearth language fits in other ways too: much of renaissance music originated from “dance bands,” that is groups of minstrels who would roam from village to village playing for dances by fire light at pubs, inns, etc.  As those dancers of old gathered, they’d swap stories, recipes, tales of homelands, but also experiences of faith.  Long after the dances ended, after the wine was drained… after plague or war or even death, the faith behind the lyrics remained, woven into hearts by the mellifluous melody.  Whether they lived or died, these people had hope.  I wonder if they ground their teeth like us.

Alleluia for the Oratorio

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Did you know that the Washington metro area has one of the highest concentration of (semi)professional choruses in the country?  It’s true, Washington is blessed with a huge number of choirs and other vocal groups.

I love choral music, as a person and particularly as a priest.  That said, there are certain choral works with which I (and many priests) have a love/hate relationship.  For example, the Ave Maria is a staple of Catholic life… loving the Ave is sort of a ‘must,’ like loving the poor, 061and embracing lepers; it’s not an option.   The Ave, however, is performed at EVERY wedding and funeral… often regardless of the soloist’s ability to sing the music.  Another such piece is Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  Especially during Advent/Christmas, the choirs of the Metro region will perform Handel’s Alleluia in every way imaginable: the original setting, a rock setting, a Trans-Siberian Orchestra setting, the Ella Fitzgerald scat setting, and of course, the sing-along.  If you only hear the piece once in a season, it’s no problem… but imagine how many times (and ways) I get to hear it. (Thus endeth my venting process)

All that said, the frequent performance of the Alleluia Chorus got me thinking, reexamining it through eyes (and ears) of faith.

Handel’s Messiah may be the most famous example of a great musical form: the Oratorio.  Oratorios (probably better rendered, “oratorii”) are large musical settings with storylines, characters, soloists, choirs and instruments.  Sounds like an opera, right?  Wrong.  Oratorios are concert pieces, never acted out on stage.

The oratorio began in 17th century Rome under the inspiration of St. Philip Neri.  Philip was a major proponent of using the best parts of contemporary culture to spread the experience of Christ in daily life.  Poetry readings, literary studies, talks, plays, and yes – concerts were all part of his schtick.  Great idea, right?  The only problem was that in 17th century Rome such activities were strictly forbidden in church buildings.  So…Philip and his disciples built an annex onto their church (Santa Maria in Valicella a.k.a. Chiesa Nuova).  The annex – a building used for prayer and evangelization, but not necessarily for mass – became known as an oratory, lending its name both to the musical pieces performed there and to Philip’s nascent religious community, the Oratorians.

In addition to being a performance, an oratorio is really a kind of prayer, uniquely suited to bringing God into daily life.  Yes, you leave humming the tune.  Yes, the music helps us to learn Gospel lessons in CMAA Logoa mnemonic fashion… but there’s more.  In ecclesiastical Latin, there are two categories of prayer: prex, and oratioPrex is something I initiate… I am the primary actor.  Oratio is my speaking the word’s of another (e.g. Jesus).  The other works mystically through my voice and enters not only me but – through my voice – my world.  Oratio is the category to which Mass belongs: Christ works through the voice of the priest pronouncing His words, and becomes present on the altar.  An oratorio (like Handel’s Messiah) can be a non-sacramental parallel to such prayer.

A very short list of great oratorios includes: Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Haydn’s Creation.  (all avail. on iTunes)

 If you’re interested in St. Philip Neri’s mission, you might check out the website for St. Thomas the Apostle in Woodley Park, DC, where an Oratorian community has been given stewardship of the parish and is doing great work.

“Person-al” Art

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The Greek Muses

 

This Sunday’s Washington Post featured two great articles about getting to know music.  The first, by Geoff Edgers follows American orchestras’ efforts to expand their listener base using digital media.  The second article, by Anne Midgette, discusses pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recent exploration of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier.

More deeply knowing art is like getting to know people.  Artists pour their humanity into their works.  So a piece of art (be it music, sculpture, photography etc.) has its own identity independent of me.  I have to humble myself, to open myself to that identity.  I interact with the art, but I don’t get to control the art or define it.  I treat it as another subject (not an object).

Aimard touches on this dynamic when he reflects, “You just have to be in contact with this music as rightly as possible, as sincerely as possible, as generously as possible.”  Commenting on LiveNote, an app for concertgoers, Edgers remarks, “…I developed a better sense of how to experience the performance…  I felt connected to what was going on in the hall musically but realized that there was a crutch [i.e. LiveNote] if I got curious or confused.”

Just as a good friend helps me navigate my day, getting to know art at a “person-al” level can too.  So be sure to explore podcasts, wiki-articles, apps and yes, even traditional bound books as you’re getting to know DC’s cultural resources in a deeper way.  You might be amazed at the results.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard will perform this Friday as part of the Library of Congress’ annual music series.  See “Touring Tips” for some easy-access concert venues I’ve been to.

Today’s Soundtrack

Have you ever thought it would be nice to have a soundtrack for life?  Some days accommodate music more easily, or obviously than others; today is one of them.  November 2 is All Souls Day, a time of special prayer for the dead.  If you’re looking for a way to gild your experience of this holy day, consider listening to The Dream of Gerontius (music by Edward Elgar).

John Henry Card. Newman
John Henry Card. Newman

The Dream is a poem by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman the great convert, pastor, and academic.  Newman describes the experience of a soul dying surrounded by loved ones.  It’s a wonderful inspiration for prayer and hope-filled meditation on our own mortality.

(For more on praying for the souls in purgatory, check out paragraphs 210 and 211 of the Compendium of the Catechism).