Pandemic, Pedals, and Pentecost

I celebrated this Pentecost Sunday with a virtual Evensong service. While it is certainly not the same from behind a screen and 5,000 miles away, singing together remains a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives as believers. As choral composer John Rutter notes, Christianity has always been a “singing faith,” and theologians explain that this is because Christianity has always been a Spiritual faith; the movement of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God is manifest in the breath of believers in unified song.

In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their hearts]” (Ephesians 5:18-19). In this, the unity of believers in the Spirit is manifest in the harmony of song; furthermore, song serves to reinforce the communion and fellowship of the saints as a vital form of proclamation and encouragement.

My favourite part of being an organist is facilitating the song of believers. It is my greatest joy to provide the harmonic foundation upon which singers rejoice. Perhaps the reason the organ is so effective for accompanying choirs is that it has the capacity to breathe. The pipes of an organ are themselves similar to members of a choir, each singing with a unique voice and yet all attuned to the same song. Even the name “organ” indicates a sense of its being alive and active, perhaps as intrinsic to liturgical life as our own lungs are to singing. The organ, which breaths out in a mighty wind, is also analogous to the movement of the Spirit.

The organ, however, is also otherly. There is an eery quality to it, for its timbre is at once like and unlike any other instrument; for instance, the viol stop sounds vaguely like a string instrument yet maintains the unique character of being also a wind and keyboard instrument. This is perhaps analogous to the God we worship; He became like us in the person of Jesus Christ and breathes his Spirit into us, however, He is also other. Although we speak of God anthropomorphically and even familiarly as Our Father, Spirit, and Saviour, we must also remember His omnipotent and provident otherness as we worship.

The organ thus provides a foundation for our song, intimately supporting our breath with its own, while also reminding us that the One we worship is far greater than we. This Pentecostal theme is particularly prominent in one of my favourite pieces to play: Bach’s Chorale Prelude, Fantasia on “Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.”

This piece provides an extended introduction to a Lutheran hymn for Pentecost, the text of which translates:

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
fill with the goodness of your grace
the heart, spirit and mind of your believers,
kindle in them your ardent love !
O Lord, through the splendour of your light
you have gathered in faith
people from all the tongues of the world;
so that in your praise Lord, may there be sung
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You holy light, precious refuge,
let the word of life enlighten us
and teach us to know God truly,
to call him father from our heart!
O Lord, protect us from strange doctrines
so that we may never look for any teacher
except Jesus in true belief
and may trust him wholeheartedly!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You sacred warmth, sweet consolation,
now help us always to remain

joyful and comforted in your service,
do not let sorrow drive us away!
O Lord, through your power make us ready
and strengthen the feebleness of our flesh
so that we may bravely struggle
through life and death to reach you!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah

Although the organ prelude does not include words, it prepares the mood and melody for the choir, much as the Holy Spirit brings with it renewed speech and song.

Right now, although many churches are gradually reopening, it is difficult to celebrate Pentecost Sunday musically; choirs are an at-risk category, for although breathing together is intrinsic to Christian life, it is dangerous in the midst of a health crisis. I believe that we can take heart in the message of this chorale, though, which speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding believers to live courageously as they move through time.

Although the words of this chorale are encouraging, listening to the prelude can be, ironically, a breathless experience. The music is in constant motion, sixteenth notes passing fluidly and quickly between hands and only ceasing after five minutes. It can feel like movement through time: busy, prone to rushing, and overwhelming.

There is hope hidden in the bass-line, however, The melody of the hymn is found in the pedal line and remains a steady foundation for the upper voices. In using the chorale tune as the cantus firmus (the musical layer upon which all else is built), Bach makes a deeply theological statement through music: the truth of the Holy Spirit as proclaimed in the hymn is the essential foundation for all else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote something similar, using musical analogy to explain the goal of the Christian life:

“There is always the danger . . . that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love Him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.”

Bonhoeffer here speaks of our proneness to get caught up in earthly pursuits, just as in Bach’s music we may be distracted by the intricate counterpoint. However, by seeking the foundation of our faith, everything else begins to make sense, just as listening to the chorale tune in the pedals draws the rest of the fantasia into harmony.

Theologically, God gives His Spirit to guide believers through life and death; musically, the cantus firmus provides a foundation to all other polyphony. As long as the pedal line remains secure, the upper voices will interact in a clearly-choreographed relationship. Just so, believers can move through time and all that it contains—the “polyphony” of life—in the clarity of faith if they hold fast to their eternal foundation.

Right now, we cannot sing together in person but we may choose to rejoice together in Spirit. The world is buzzing in a ceaseless counterpoint which may feel chaotic and deafening. This Pentecost Sunday, however, may we remember the foundation of our faith and the Spirit which sustains us. May we continue to sing from wherever we are and to listen attentively to the cantus firmus who will never fail to “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”

Organ Sonnet 1

Until sent stepping down the pedals—scalar,
My feet were not sure of their footing here
But then, at once, my most pressing fear
Became naught but a small organ failure!

And once my frigid fingers found their note
I settled into newfound harmony
In a choir which turned much-loved company
And rendered far-off home not so remote.

But now, removed, another organ aches
To think of all I confess lies undone;
Not of my choosing, my heart once more breaks

—It beats the time of old chorales and makes
Pretend that there are present more than one—

Alone, though, none can hear its sad mistakes.

A small explanation:
I once wrote on my personal philosophy of “Theme and Variations,” the idea that I must identify the small things which make me feel at home, no matter where I may be. When I moved to California, it was finding a little church where I could play music. In Scotland, it was finding a church organist position.

Now, back home in Arizona, I am ironically feeling more displaced than ever. Yet again, though, an organist position came along to make me feel at least partly settled, partly useful and hopeful. Even as I auditioned for this new post, though, I could not help but think back on the one left unfinished, left behind sadly and suddenly in the impending wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Half Cadence

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Performing in the beautiful St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrew’s

An audio recording of this article is available here:

As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.

Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.

Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.

Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.

I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.

I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.

Now, how about some poetry?

I rest in preparation of the final chord,
In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .

I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.

I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

Certain Uncertainty: some thoughts and a song

In high school, I won an essay contest for arguing that uncertainty and hope were two sides of the same coin. I’m not sure I agree theologically since I now understand hope as the anticipation of things assured in faith. Still, it was a darn good essay for a 17-year-old, and something in its essence stuck with me through the past six years.

You see, I’m 5,000 miles away from everyone I love, studying in a graduate program surrounded by men with more degrees than a thermometer (I’d better learn to smoke a pipe), married couples with young children in tiny rainboots (seriously, my heart explodes every time), and people who seem to know exactly what they want in life. Or, more daunting, people who already seem to have what they want.

And even though I’m doing reasonably well, found a job that I love, and am living in a place I’ve dreamt of for years, the uncertainty of what comes next keeps me awake until the terrible hours of the morning. (Which, due to how far north I am, look more or less as dark as the terrible hours of the afternoon.)

The uncertainty is relentless. I’ll spare you, whoever you are, from reading my long lists of worries that have filled a journal cover-to-cover in record time. Instead, I want to leave you with another small original song. Perhaps it is odd to take comfort in my own words and music, but this song reminds me of earlier this year when things felt just as terribly uncertain, perhaps even more so.

And yet, here I am, six months later and still moving forward.

In the time since I wrote this, the lyrics have taken on richer meaning, deeper hope, and a more mature understanding that while everything feels uncertain, there is true certainty in hope. Unlike my high school essay, it seems now that uncertainty propels me back to my certain hope in Christ and the blessings He prodigally bestows on me even in the most lonely, frightening, and uncertain seasons.

It was a love song once but it has taken on a meaning beyond romance. Now, it is an expression of the hope which unites uncertainty and certainty. This hope, like a song, relies on moving forward through time toward its realization.

Jesus is King: A reflection on the man and the music

It is impossible to go on social media without seeing posts, arguments, and even memes about the latest revelation in the music industry: Kanye West’s conversion and the subsequent release of his latest album, Jesus is King. 

Many Christians (and perhaps even more non-Christians) are skeptical: has Kanye really changed? Christians worry publically that this transformation is not what it seems, that Kanye is faking faith to reach a wider audience and increase media attention. Ironically, non-Christians are on the offensive, frustrated that a big-name is not only claiming Christianity but is actually living it, as evidenced by a mocking article declaring that Kanye is “hell-bent” on his new faith.* This article indicates that if this is indeed a career move for Kanye, it is a very poor one, for it risks losing a large part of his typical audience. (Luckily, he seems to have caught the ears of enough families, moms, and grandparents to make up the deficit!) 

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” 

-Isaiah 30:18

I’d like to focus on the negative Christian response. While I cannot expect those who do not share my faith to respond kindly to Kanye’s conversion, I would have hoped that Christians would treat his professed faith (whether or not they believe it is genuine) with hope and prayer. If justice operates on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” why shouldn’t we consider a man’s profession of faith right and true until proven otherwise? Would not that be the just—or, at least—merciful and gracious response?

To see Kanye speaking out about the sanctity of human life, the importance of family, modesty, and other more conservative values is remarkable and ought to be as celebrated by Christians as it is bemoaned by seculars. I have had quite a few “Amen” moments while scrolling through Facebook and seeing various pastors and theologians calling out Christians for bashing West’s born-again faith. They remind readers that Paul’s conversion was likely met with even more astonishment. I believe that we would do well to also recall the following parable: 

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 

‘But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to the heavens, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

– Luke 18:11-14

We have seen Kanye exalt himself, but now we see him in a posture of incredible humility. Who are we to look down our noses and comment, “well, he had to do something for his career” or “hard to believe this will last…”? We might as well say outright, “Thank goodness that we are not like him.”

No, we aren’t like Kanye West because—let’s face it—we are not celebrities. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d look particularly righteous and faithful if my entire personal life were broadcast in the media, and I came to the faith as a child. Are there some terrible things in Kanye’s past? Of course. But what matters is his present posture, which is more similar to the heart-broken tax collector than the pharisee.

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you
will not despise.” 

– Psalm 51:17

There is more at play here, though, than a mere skepticism regarding Kanye’s personal conversion. Along with a prejudice based on a hypocritical self-righteousness, there is an aesthetic judgment occurring, perhaps unconsciously. Many of those expressing doubt regarding Kanye’s conversion are also demonstrating a deep-seated suspicion toward not merely the artist, but the entire genre that he represents. 

Rap music and the church have a complicated history and I am far from qualified to delve into it.** However, as with most prejudices, it seems that opponents of the genre single out its most profane and most jarring products and form their judgment based upon these. I suggest that if we allowed ourselves to look only at the best and brightest of any genre, we would find little room for such blanket-statement biases.*** For years, I have claimed a dislike for rap based on my understanding of it as incapable of expressing anything other than the profane and worldly. However, I was wrong and admit my bias was formed without enough diversity of information. 

Kanye’s music prior to the release of Jesus is King is not, morally, something that I can endorse, nor, it seems, can Kanye. Still, to judge the entire genre on one particular example is also to overlook its potential for beauty and goodness. For instance, due to my high-brow conceptions of music, I somehow managed to grow up as a youth-group teen without ever listening to Lecrae, a Christian hip-hop artist who has done truly amazing things, both artistically and altruistically, for the Kingdom. In my conception of classical music as the exemplar, I remained in willful ignorance, unaware of the quality contributions of more diverse genres and artists. 

In Jesus is King, I found myself convicted of my prideful judgment of both the man and his music. In fact, Kanye recognizes and predicts the reluctance of Christians to both accept his conversion but also to listen objectively to his music:

“If they only see the wrongs, never listen to the songs
Just to listen is a fight, but you booked me for the fight
It’s so hard to get along if they only see the slight.”

-“Hands On,” Jesus is King

Not only does this album demonstrate remarkable aesthetic development within the genre but it reveals a humble willingness to engage with both the Christian gospel and also contemporary Christian culture. Fusing hip-hop/rap and gospel music, the album demonstrates a transfiguration of Kanye’s typical genre, maintaining the integrity of his artistic background yet becoming strongly evocative of gospel music. 

To judge rap and hip-hop, then, as incapable of gospel work or expression, is a great disservice and only strengthens the stubborn refusal to welcome the artist himself into fellowship. Kanye recognizes this and describes it poignantly: 

“Said I’m finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me” 

-Hands On, Jesus is King

The lyrical content, too, has undergone a total transformation, preaching the gospel clearly and cleverly without being ironed out into a kitschy Wow Hits album. This has led many (especially Christians) to listen who would not ordinarily choose Kanye’s music. Kanye’s faith, then, is altering his art, but still allowing him to continue within his genre, transfiguring it into a glorious means of praise without losing touch with its unique style. Isn’t this the heart of Christian sanctification? That, as we are remade in Christ’s image, we become more like him and, paradoxically, grow into our best and truest selves? Kanye may only have “half-read Ephesians,” but it seems he read far enough to understand this!  

More than simply an aesthetic adjustment, though, Kanye’s new album shows a humble and even humorous move to engage contemporary Christian culture. The most catchy example is the refrain of “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-a.” The interspersing of serious lyrics describing what he has learned during his discipleship with Pastor Adam Tyson with the almost cheesy refrain of “Chick-fil-a” demonstrates not only a true willingness to learn (even to humbly begin at the basics of Christian doctrine) but also an openness to joining in the culture of contemporary Christians. After all, we love our Chick-fil-a and Kanye, being a good sport, jumps right in on these jokes about chicken cravings and Sunday closures. Who are we to deny him this fellowship, from the serious to the silly, when he approaches it with humility and repentance? (Not to mention a wholesome need for a chicken sandwich!)

Christians are the first to judge when we ought to be the first to celebrate. We are like the Pharisee, holding a man’s past against him without truly believing he can change. We sing “Amazing Grace,” but if John Newton were to walk into our Sunday service and pound his chest in repentance, we would likely look away, embarrassed, and murmur amongst ourselves, “well, we hear he did some nasty things…” 

But more than simply having a prejudice against a fellow sinner-turned-saint, Christians are revealing a lack of graciousness when it comes to genre. I am not asking anyone to give up moral convictions or aesthetic taste and listen to Kanye’s previous albums, but simply because they continue to exist does not mean that they still reflect his heart. As he said in a recent interview, “When you walk into the Apple Store, you don’t see no iPod 4.” Just because his past is downloadable does not mean that it is unforgivable. 

“As far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” 

-Psalm 103:12

Furthermore, we must be careful that we do not perpetuate the assumption that those particular songs represent the genre as a whole. Kanye’s conversion is not only revealing deep-seated hypocrisy within our hearts as believers but prejudice toward an entire artistic genre. However, the release of Jesus is King offers the remedy to both biases, for it demonstrates the possibility, through Christ, of a transformed person, as well as a transfigured genre: the secular restored to the sacred through the power of the Gospel. 


*https://www.tmz.com/2019/10/26/kanye-west-jesus-is-king-old-music/

**The following offers a case for a more “prodigal” (i.e. more open and gracious, especially to genres discounted by religion) consideration of secular music’s sacred potential (Brown, David, and Gavin Hopps. The Extravagance of Music. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.)

***Chapter 7, “Form and Funk: the Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art” and Chapter 8, “The Fine Art of Rap” are of particular interest and offer an aesthetic (rather than moral or religious) argument in favor of these genres. (Shusterman, Richard. Pragmatist Aesthetics Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.) 

Another Sea

Scotland is a beautiful place and its music never fails to hit me right in the feels. (I mean, who doesn’t shed a tiny tear at “Parting Glass” or “Wild Mountain Thyme”?) And when I fall in love with a particular type of music, I tend to want to make it my own through songwriting. Besides, being far from home and loved ones is tough…but it’s just about as Scottish-ballad as it gets.

So here (featuring me trying my best with a mountain dulcimer, violin, and my own little voice) is “Another Sea.”

Breaking: Choir Director’s Eyebrows Ascend into Heaven as Choir Goes out of Tune

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13 October 2019

Los Angeles, California- A local church choir has been thrust into the spotlight as reports are circulating that the choir director’s eyebrows have been, prematurely, raptured.

“It was truly a miracle,” said long-time congregation member and greeter Jim Dennison. “I was sitting in the pews listening to the choir and suddenly I saw what I thought was a dove descending over the conductor—”

“—but it wasn’t,” added his wife, Donna Dennison, “It was the poor dear’s eyebrows. They lifted right off her face and up to heaven.”

Reporters followed the rumors from the local Claim Jumper (where many congregation members lunch on Sunday afternoons) to First Episcopal Church, where they were permitted an interview with Mrs. Laura Bell, music director and eyebrow escape victim. However, while the ascension of her eyebrows took her by surprise, Mrs. Bell explained that she supposed she had had it coming for years.

“You see,” said Mrs. Bell, “When the choir begins to go flat, I always raise my eyebrows to remind them to keep their pitch up.”

When asked what went wrong this time, she sighed and confessed that the choir simply had not been watching. Instead, their pitch just continued to sink and her eyebrows continued to rise. She lifted them so high, it seems, that the Lord decided to put them out of their misery and simply call them home before their time.

“It was remarkable,” said First Episcopal’s Rev. Seymore Orwell. “Truly a sign from above. It reminds me of Psalm 121, which I believe is, all things considered, perhaps more rightfully translated, ‘I will lift up mine eyebrows.'”

When asked what she plans to do next, Mrs. Bell shrugged. “It’s alright,” she said. “The choir had a grand time and, besides, I’ve always wanted to try bangs.”

 

Nation’s Organists Rally to Fight Stereotypes as Halloween Draws Near

9 October 2019 Los Angeles, California

Nearing the middle of October, spooky season is in full swing and Halloween celebrants across the nation are gathering their pumpkins, brooms, and ominous soundtracks in preparation for their night of revelry. Halloween has long been a time of community, of neighbors sharing chili on the front porch, children meeting for trick-or-treating, schools pausing their lessons for costume parades and apple bobbing. In fact, it seems that perhaps even more than Thanksgiving, Halloween has become a means of bringing people together despite their prejudices.

One demographic, however, continues to feel misunderstood and intends to use this Halloween season to make new strides toward social awareness: organists. As Halloween hosts cue up their perfect party playlist, organ music annually finds renewed appreciation. Toccata and Fugue in D minor, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the Haunted Mansion theme are among the most popular organ pieces sure to make comebacks this Halloween. While some organists are amused by the use of their music for creepy ambiance, others are speaking out against the stereotypes that it represents.

“Organists across the nation have suffered in silence long enough,” says Frank Steinbeck, chapter president of the National Association of Organists. Steinbeck has long been a contender for organist appreciation and intends to utilize the pipe organ’s Halloween spotlight as a platform to speak out.

“Organ stereotypes have hurt too many,” he said in an interview with The Daily Weak, “Just last week, my buddy Paul Stopford was turned down on a date because he was an organist.”

“It’s true,” added Stopford in a follow-up interview. “She said she couldn’t date me because I play the organ— said I was too creepy for her taste.”

When asked if his rejection might have also had to anything to do with the mask and cloak he was wearing (completely veiling his face and person in foreboding mystery) he declined to comment and instead vanished into thin air.

“Too many have suffered,” claims Steinbeck. “And this ends now.” At this, the opening lines of Bach’s Toccata played apparently from nowhere, though Steinbeck did not seem to notice.

Along with his local chapter, Steinbeck is calling organists to speak out against stereotypes and has even gone so far as to organize an awareness march outside of a local costume shop. Footage from the march shows a small mass of organists holding signs bearing slogans such as “Organists are not only swell, they’re great!”

While the march was, unfortunately, shut down by the police due to rowdiness, it did — accidentally — succeed in increasing the number of registered organ donors in the town.  Not discouraged, the participants expressed a desire for the press and public to know that they represent a diverse range of backgrounds and are united by their desire to eradicate prejudice against organists.

“Just because lightning flashes with every chord I play doesn’t mean I’m evil,” said long-time church organist and amateur murder mystery writer Rodger Turnpage. “It’s probably just an electrical issue.”

Other organists have added to the conversation, claiming October as “Organist Awareness Month” and sharing their stereotype stories online and on church bulletin boards via the hashtag #organfailure. Tweets such as “We are more than Toccata and Fugue in D minor” are circulating the Twitter world or, at least, they would be if any organists knew about Twitter.

“We just hope that as people listen to our music shuffled in with ‘Monster Mash’ and ‘Ghostbusters’ they will realize that we organists are not monsters; we just want our music to be heard,” concluded Steinbeck.

And with that final, powerful plea, Frank Steinbeck, chapter president and social justice warrior, limped off among the tombstones and into the foggy night, never to be seen again.

*Watch this promotional video by an anonymous local organist and share to help end organist stereotyping! #organfailurenolonger

 

Theme and Variations

Not long ago (though it seems a lifetime), I wrote about modulations. The idea that the dissonance of post-college life would eventually resolve into normalcy was comforting; considering the modulations in music were consoling to me as I felt keenly the sudden transitions I experienced after four years of relatively little change. 

Several months later, I find myself facing another transitional period as I recently moved to Scotland to pursue my master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Despite my love for this country and its culture, I was nervous: where would I fit in? Back in the States, I had clear roles, routines, and relationships. A creature of habit, I was overwhelmed to find seemingly everything changing, from my time zone to breakfast foods.

Just as a musical metaphor was helpful in reframing how I approached this past summer, I found that the same to be true of settling into a new place and new chapter. In-between, the key is modulation. Now, though, it is theme and variations. Theme and variation is perhaps the simplest musical form to explain: pick a melody or some other musical statement and repeat in different ways until it wears out its welcome. This compositional structure provides the basis for both smaller, stand-alone pieces (such as Mozart’s classic 12 Variations in C Major, K. 265, which most will recognize as “Twinkle Twinkle”) and larger works (such as Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bach’s Goldberg Variations).

The trick to listening and learning such pieces is simply to memorize the key theme and then discover its subsequent incarnations. Indeed, this is the key to internalizing music of all sorts, for it is difficult to ever truly escape from themes and variations. For instance, during my sophomore year as a piano major, I was assigned a piece that was — so I thought — far, far beyond my capabilities. Near tears, I asked my teacher how on earth I was to conquer it. I could not imagine my hands becoming familiar with and even fond of this monstrous composition.

“Memorize it bit by bit,” was my teacher’s first bit of advice. “Start with the main themes and motifs and then find how they vary and develop.”

Learning this piece was a war won by small battles. Still, I came to know it better than any other, and, though it challenged me with every practice session, it became mine. The professor in the studio next door came to recognize that when he heard its opening theme, I must be at work. That daunting piece went on to earn me my first victory in the university’s piano competition and, more importantly, I found that I was able to play it with surprising joy.

Any modulation, be it a new piece or a new chapter in life, must be conquered the same way: Identify a theme, find its variation, and move on to the next. During my first weeks in St. Andrew’s, I have intentionally sought out the elements that I know to be essential themes in my life and, finding these (though in slightly different forms) I have felt more and more at home.

For example, throughout both high school and college, I was the on-call accompanist at my schools. This is a key theme that makes me feel as though I fit in, as though I have a clear role and am known for my skill set. So, as soon as I could, I introduced myself to the music directors at my new university and, within an hour, had several gigs lined up. As an organist and choral singer, I pursued and quickly found a church music ministry. My community of faith and worship during my undergraduate years was essential to my wellbeing and service. Fully aware of this and feeling keenly its absence, I immediately pursued a new position in the same vein, with similar yet diverse people.

Knowing the themes I relied on for normalcy back home, I ardently sought their Scottish variations, and with each new rendition of a continuing idea, I perceived the puzzle of my life falling more and more into alignment with what it ought to be. 

The same is true of smaller elements, of motifs. Themes, in music, are generally the larger building blocks of composition; they are the melodies that recur and are recognizable no matter their evolving ornamentation or transpositions. Motifs, however, are the smaller elements that, though often only a single chord or ornament, are sure to be felt if missing.

My motifs are running trails. Bookstores to sniff around. A coffee shop to frequent. Possibly a garden with a particular bench. Houseplants on my windowsill. Floral accents to everyday items. These seemingly unimportant things are the glue that hold the larger blocks — the themes — together in harmony. Again, similar to the piece I learned years ago, as soon as the small pieces are in place, the larger ones become more manageable. 

Motifs are often quicker to come than themes, making them the best place to start when feeling overwhelmed in a new place or new stage of life. It is so much easier to thrive in the grand scheme of things when the small details are tidy and familiar. Find them, these little things that bring you back to your senses. Love them and cultivate them and use them to string together longer melodies, making yourself at home again in foreign modes, unknown places, until these new-yet-familiar themes, too, become a part of your life song.

Schumann’s Arabeske: A Musical Love Letter

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(video performance at link below article)

It is my conviction that one must fall in love to play Schumann well. I did not at first enjoy practicing his Arabeske, Op. 18; while I understood the piece theoretically, I did not truly understand it emotionally or spiritually until I, like the composer, fell in love. Then, all at once, its nuances and imagery became obvious, for I was better able to empathize with its composer and his situation.

This piece, it became apparent, was born of sweet affection. The story of Robert and Clara Schumann is a familiar one: he was a brooding, poetic soul with a passion for literature and composition and she the prodigious daughter of his piano teacher. Their love was one that overcame distance, disapproval, and even disease as Robert gradually declined due to mental illness.

The Arabeske, Op. 18 was composed during the couple’s three-year engagement while Clara was touring abroad. One of his experiments in small-form writing, the Arabeske is an exquisite example of Schumann’s ability to compact immense ideas into concise creations.  In this seemingly-simple piece, reflections of the composer can be discovered. Always torn between his two loves — music and literature — Schumann put elements of both into his work. In the notes of the central motif, we can hear the outline of his beloved’s name: the main theme hangs upon the notes “C” and “A” and might be interpreted as the spelling of “Clara” using the musical alphabet.

Also apparent are the two sides of the composer. In his literary works, Schumann presents himself as both the introspective “Eusebius” and the more extroverted “Florestan.” The opening theme and the first minor passage are reminiscent of the character of Eusebius as they gently flow along but build like an obsession. The more demanding nature of the second minor passage might be considered a Florestian outburst; here the composer is filled with determination! A third character, however, is also present; “Raro,” a name created by combining the last letters of “Clara” and the first letters of “Robert,” is a personification of the balance found in their marriage. This third character resounds in the gentle, bittersweet transition passages and, at last, in the heartfelt conclusion.

There is much more that could be said of this piece. For instance, the ending, comprised of suspensions, sounds like a goodbye across a great distance and the recurring theme carries different connotations with each repetition as the composer considers the same thought with different inflections and emotions. Indeed, I discover something new and lovely with each practice session, but perhaps it is best to let the Arabeske speak for itself, a small love letter from both composer and performer.