Reflections from the Organ Bench - April 10, 2014 by Kenneth Dake, Director of Music
Posted on April 10, 2014 by Ken Dake

Triumph and Tragedy: A Musical Journey through Holy Week

Holy Week truly is a journey “through the valley of the shadow of death,” as again we relive Jesus’ final days on earth. Dr. Brown would be quick to remind us, however, that perhaps the most hopeful word in Psalm 23 is the word through. We know that this valley will not be endless, and that waiting for us on the other side is a glorious Easter morning. The ancient story that unfolds this week is neither new nor unfamiliar, but the way in which we experience it can feel new and life-changing. If during this coming week we choose to be fully present with Jesus, Mary, and the disciples in their suffering and grief, embracing the raw emotions of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, then we will experience a far deeper joy, a far greater jubilation when we celebrate His victory over the grave on Easter Sunday. This week’s music can lead us on that deeper journey, probing the recesses of our soul and awakening our spirit to a profound new sense of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us.

PALM SUNDAY – April 13, 11am

Palm Sunday is full of liturgical contradictions. It’s festive, triumphant, and regal. Yet it’s also foreboding – a shadowy reminder of how quickly the mob turns from hailing Jesus to deriding him and calling for his death. We bear witness Jesus’ supreme courage as he “set His face toward Jerusalem,” fully aware of all the terror that lay ahead in His final days. When we wave palm branches and sing ‘hosannas’ on Sunday we will be not only be uttering loud cries of praise and adoration. The word ‘hosanna’ is also a cry for divine mercy, derived from the Hebrew for “Save us, O Lord!” or “Deliver us!” (Psalm 118:25)

Prelude: Cortège et Litanie by Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) Our Holy Week journey begins with one of the most universally beloved compositions in all of organ literature. Marcel Dupré studied organ with Alexandre Guilmant and Louis Vierne, and composition with Charles-Marie Widor, for whom he also served as Assistant Organist at Saint-Suplice in Paris from the time he was but 20 years old. At 24 Dupré catapulted to fame by performing the complete works of Bach from memory in 10 recitals. When Widor finally retired from Saint-Suplice at age 89, Dupré became head organist, a position he then held until the day he died, on Pentecost Sunday of 1971.

His famous Cortège et Litanie took a rather circuitous route to becoming the well-known piece for organ it is today. Dupré originally conceived it as incidental music to accompany a friend’s play in Paris, and it was scored for 11-piece chamber orchestra. He then made a piano transcription of it, and at the behest of his American publisher, Dupré created two further arrangements: one for solo organ and one for organ and orchestra. [LISTEN] The Cortège opens with a solemn chorale theme, one of exquisite and ethereal beauty. At the end of each phrase is heard 2 repeated notes, like the tolling of a distant funeral bell. The Litanie theme [LISTEN] consists of a chant melody, begun on a single flute, which ceaselessly repeats its wordless supplications, becoming a poignant mantra. As the intensity builds, the two themes are ultimately combined into a transcendent musical moment. One has the overwhelming sense that the funeral procession has finally arrived at its true destination, the very gates of heaven – a foreshadowing of the Resurrection we will celebrate in a week’s time.

Introit: Ride On, King Jesus, arr. Moses Hogan (1957-2003) This traditional African-American Spiritual is often associated with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Its opening fanfare-like melody sets an heroic tone. Jesus was a hero figure in the life of enslaved people, for he modeled and inspired the strength they needed to overcome unspeakable suffering and humiliation. In the context of this conquering-hero-Jesus narrative, no mere donkey would be suitable for Jesus; therefore in the words of this spiritual he rides proudly on a ‘milk-white’ horse, a sign of status and respect. The spirituals carried layers of meaning, including veiled messages and even routes of escape. The ‘River of Jordan’ was often code for the Ohio River, beyond which slaves were relatively free and safe from recapture. When the soloist sings about Jesus crossing the River of Jordan, the message is clearly that of the enslaved people looking to Jesus to lead them into a land of freedom, both in this life and in the next. The choir responds by singing “no man can a-hinder thee,” reinforcing the truth that there is a spiritual freedom in Christ that transcends – and ultimately triumphs over – the physical constraints of whatever, or whomever seeks to bind us.

Hymn: “My Song Is Love Unknown” by John Ireland (1879-1962). This magnificent 7-stanza poem by Samuel Crossman (1623-1684) recounts the story of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, mock trial, crucifixion, and burial in a stranger’s grave. Seldom has a hymn tune been more perfectly wedded to a hymn text. English composer John Ireland created a soaring lyrical melody which parallels the rise and fall, triumph and tragedy of the Passion story. A remarkable harmonic shift occurs on the third phrase, when the key center seems to sink down a step (from Eb to Db) for just a moment. It perfectly expresses the poetry of the text, and is truly a groundbreaking moment in 20th-century hymnody: (capital letters = harmonic shift) [LISTEN]

“My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me, love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. BUT WHO AM I, THAT FOR MY SAKE my Lord should take frail flesh and die.”

The final stanza is particularly powerful one: “Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine…” It concludes with the words, “This is my Friend in Whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend.” Having just sung of all the suffering that Jesus went through for our sake, we then sum it all up by proclaiming, “This is my Friend.” It makes for a soul-tingling moment.

Offertory: Sanctus from Mass in E-flat Major by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) The Sanctus or Trisagion (meaning, “Thrice Holy”) is found both in the Ordinary of the Mass and the special Requiem Mass, for it is the culmination of the prayers of thanksgiving offered by the priest which preface the celebration of the Eucharist. The Benedictus which follows is a direct quote from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as described in Matthew 21:9: “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!”

In his 31-year life Schubert bridged both Classical and Romantic eras and left a legacy of 600 songs, 10 symphonies, 6 masses, 15 string quartets, and numerous other works that are rightly considered pillars of the repertoire. His untimely death prevented him from ever hearing the premiere of the Mass in E-flat Major, which has been described as his “triumphant swansong” in choral composition. It is grand on a Beethovian scale and is one of Schubert’s most dramatic and harmonically adventurous choral works. It conveys a liturgical grandeur appropriate to the church as well as a feeling of drama indicative of the concert stage. [LISTEN] For example, in just the first few measure of the Sanctus the music progresses through a number of key centers: E-flat major to B minor to G minor to E-flat minor. A highly chromatic fughetta section follows on the text “Hosanna in excelsis.” This secion also employs a sequence of major/minor shifts, managing to sound both exalted and disquieting at the same time. To me this is the perfect portrayal of what Palm Sunday is all about, the dramatic, disquieting shift from “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him.”

Hymn: The Old Rugged Cross by George Bennard (1873-1958) A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Bennard worked for eight years in the Salvation Army. He was later ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, becoming an evangelist and conducting revivals throughout the Midwest. Around the age of 40 he went through some sort of profound spiritual struggle and began spending long hours in prayer and meditation, centering on the apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death.”

In describing what inspired him in 1913 to pen words and music to our The Old Rugged Cross, Bennard wrote, “I saw the Christ of the cross as if I were seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form and act out the meaning of redemption. The more I contemplated these truths the more convinced I became that the cross was far more than just a religious symbol but rather the very heart of the gospel.” Surely this same cross lies at the very heart of our journey through Holy Week.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross, till my trophies at last I lay down.
I will cling to the old rugged Cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.

MAUNDY THURSDAY – April 17, 7pm

The word Maundy comes from the Latin word ‘mandatum’ – meaning ‘mandate’ or ‘commandment’ to love. (John 13:34) This service traditionally commemorates Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet as the embodiment of His commandment to love.

And it marks the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as Jesus shares his final earthly meal with the disciples. Sublime choral music will combine with liturgical dance and a dramatic reading of the Passion. We sometimes also refer to our Maundy Thursday Service as Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows”), for the gradual extinguishing of candles and dimming of lights represents the encroaching darkness of Friday’s crucifixion.

Introit: Kyrie from Mass in G Minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams
The service opens with an introspective setting of the Kyrie from one of the greatest 20th-century mass settings for a cappella choir. [LISTEN] Vaughan Williams’ influences included the great choral tradition of the Anglican Church, the heritage of English folk song which permeates his music, and a reverence for modal harmonies. Grove’s Dictionary sums it up best, saying when listening to Vaughan William’s music “one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new.” This opening movement from his Mass in G Minor creates a barren landscape in sound, beginning and ending with but a single voice. The middle “Christe eleison” is sung antiphonally by a solo quartet. Traditionally the Christe, or middle section of the tripartite Kyrie, is more intimate in nature, representing the direct, personal relationship between the believer and Christ.

Nearer, My God, to Thee – Lowell Mason, arr. René Clausen [LISTEN] Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848) was the English poet who penned the words to this cherished hymn of faith. (This moving arrangement by René Clausen is featured on The Marble Choir’s upcoming CD entitled Sweet Hour.)

Adams based her hymn text on the story from the 28th chapter of Genesis, where we see Jacob fleeing his home and his brother Esau. One night in the desert he lays down to sleep with a stone for a pillow, and he has his famous dream in which a ladder appears from heaven with descending and ascending angels. Verse by verse, Adam’s hymn retells Jacob’s story in seamless poetry. Sarah Adams was a lifelong Unitarian, hence the complete absence of any mention of Christ in her beloved hymn. Nevertheless, Nearer, My God, to Thee has become a staple of Evangelical hymnals, for it expresses a deep yearning to know God personally and to experience His nearness along life’s journey.

Evening Song (Abendlied) – Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901)

[LISTEN] Rheinberger was a prolific German composer who is best known for his elaborate and challenging organ compositions. A native of Liechtenstein, Rheinberger went on to serve as professor of composition at Munich Conservatory. He set many liturgical texts, including twelve masses (ten of which are for a cappella choir), a Requiem, Stabat Mater and a large number of motets and smaller pieces. Evening Song (Abendlied) is a prime example of his expressivity and craftsmanship, and it is reminiscent of the melodic and harmonic style of Felix Mendelssohn. Its text is taken from Luke’s post-resurrection account of the disciples encountering a stranger walking with them on the Road to Emmaus whom they did not recognize as the risen Christ. As evening comes and they are approaching the village they implore the stranger to stay with them (the text for the motet), and later their eyes are opened as Jesus’ breaks bread and in that act they recognize him. In the context of our Tenebrae service the text can be interpreted as the disciples drawing near to be with Jesus in his final hours of earthly life, imploring Him not to leave them.

Tristis est Anima Mea – Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Along with Milhaud and Honneger, Poulenc became associated witha group of avant garde French composers known as Les Six. Poulenc was the son of a devout Catholic father and a wholly Parisian, if somewhat less devout mother. Following his father’s death in 1917 Poulenc’s religious fervor waned. However, the sudden death of a friend in a car accident in 1936 changed everything. In his grief, Poulenc sought refuge at the shrine of Notre Dame de Rocmadour, which, according to medieval legend, had been home to Zacchaeus who lived out his last years there as a hermit. It was there that Poulenc experienced a profound spiritual awakening that would shape his life and compositional output thereafter, inspiring many sacred masterworks such as the Litanies à la Vierge Noir, Mass in G Major, Gloria, and Christmas and Lenten Motets. Tristis est Anima Mea (Sad is my soul and sorrowful) is the final of Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence, also known as Poulenc’s Lenten Motets. [LISTEN] Composed in 1938, it is notable for the variety of timbres and choral textures that serves to portray the dramatic scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. A solo voice opens the motet, representing the lamenting cry of Jesus as he begs the disciples to stay with him in his hour of overwhelming anguish and sorrow. The music then becomes fiercely agitated as the disciples flee away and leave Jesus to face His accusers alone. A calm sense of mourning overtakes the music with the text “now is the appointed hour, when the Son of Man is betrayed.” (The audio sample is in Latin, but the choir will sing an English translation in the service.)

Requiem aeternam from Requiem – Herbert Howells (1892-1983) As darkness closes in around us in our service of Tenebrae, so to the will the music begin to darken in tone and deepen in gravity. [LISTEN] – complete performance by The Marble Choir] Through his distinctive harmonic palate Herbert Howells creates a choral landscape that is abstract, mystical, and impressionistic. It has aptly been described as “spiritualized sensuousness.” Howells composed his a cappella Requiem in 1936 in an attempt to overcome three years of grieving over the loss of his nine-year-old son Michael to meningitis. (This tragedy also inspired Howells to compose the hymn-tune Michael in honor of his son, employing the text “All My Hope on God Is Founded”) For many years the Requiem remained unpublished for personal reasons known only to the composer; however it served as a model for his future masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi, scored for choir, soloists and orchestra. In this movement one hears a profound range of emotion in a very short span of time – quiet anguish, mournful sighs, outbursts of passion, and even fleeting movements of calm assurance and hope.

GOOD FRIDAY – April 18, 11:30am Instrumental Prelude, 12Noon Service

If possible, I encourage you to arrive by 11:30am for the Good Friday service to enjoy ½ hour of instrumental music for prayer and meditation that will feature several emotionally powerful selections. Violinist Christine Kwak will play one of the masterpieces of the baroque violin repertoire, the great Chaconne of Tomaso Vitali. Later she will be joined by her father Byung-Kook Kwak on viola for the Andante movement of the breathtakingly beautiful Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart. The instrumental prelude music will conclude with a tango by the great Argentinian composer and bandoneon player Ástor Piazzola. This work, entitled Oblivion, is simply one of my favorite pieces of music ever, and its melancholy and sweet sadness perfectly sets the tone for the Good Friday liturgy which is to follow. Here is a YouTube recording of Piazzola himself performing his beloved Oblivion, although our rendering will be with violin and strings. http://youtu.be/Ya--_G0nC5k

Woven throughout the Good Friday liturgy beginning at Noon will be the complete Requiem of Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845-1924). It will be sungby 60 combined voices of The Marble Choir and Festival of Voices with chamber orchestra, harp, and organ. Faure’s Requiemdoes not emphasize the terrors of final judgment like the grandiose, operatic 19th-century requiems of Berlioz or Verdi. Nevertheless, it reflects Fauré’s own coming to terms with the loss of both his parents within the span of three years. His mother’s death – on New Year’s Eve of 1887 – quickly spawned the composition of severalmovements within the first few days of 1888. Fauré later explained his mindset to a critic, saying, “I see death as a joyful deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness beyond the grave, rather than as a painful experience.” He once remarked to his sister about the little cemetery at Gailhac-Toulza where their parents were
buried, “How good it will be to sleep here, there is so much sunshine!”

Though often heard in concert, Faure’s Requiem was originally intended for liturgical use, as it will be presented at Marble on Good Friday. We will employ his original orchestration which, in lieu of violins, calls for divided violas and cellos, lending a somber tone to the work.

Download a PDF of complete program notes on Fauré’s Requiem as they appear in the printed Good Friday program.

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