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.”

Whipped Cream, Etymology, and Passion

With college application essays and people constantly asking me what I plan to do with my life once I graduate, I have found myself using the word “passion” more and more frequently. I have a passion for music, literature is my passion, I want to get my degree in something I am passionate about. Heavens, just last week I announced to my family that I have a passion for whipped cream as I ate it by the spoonful. This word has slipped into my everyday vocabulary, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it isn’t a forbidden four-letterer. However, when I used “passion” to describe my whipped cream addiction, I realized that I had committed a word crime almost as appalling as saying “legit” or “totes,” for I had taken a word with intense meaning and used it to describe a dessert topping.

So what is the actual meaning of this word? We hear it thrown around in so many ways that it is hard to say for sure without investigating its etymology, which is another fun word meaning the history of words. (Not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects and not quite as fun.) The word “passion” was first used in the early Christian church, taken from the Latin “passionem”, meaning “suffering” or “enduring.” The term was used in relation to the suffering of Christ at the cross. Taken by this definition, the “St. Matthew Passion” of Bach, one of my favorite musical works (seriously, I dare you to listen to that male alto and not sob at the beauty), makes much more sense and can be understood as tracing the sufferings and endurance- the Gospel of Christ- according to St. Matthew.

Passion Flower
The passion flower (shown above) is said to have received its name because of the resemblance of its corona to the crown of thorns worn by Christ, the petals to ten of the apostles, and the stem and center to the nails and wounds of the crucifixion. This is a good example of “passion” being understood by its initial meaning.

Continuing forward (if anyone is still actually interested…), by the early 13th century, the term had evolved to “patheo” in Latin and soon after “pathos” in Greek. (Starting to look a little more familiar!) The word now extended to refer to the sufferings of the Christian martyrs, following in the footsteps of their Savior. Its meaning too had expanded to included not only suffering, but intense emotion and strong desire. This should not necessarily be understood as romantic desire, as it is commonly viewed today, but the pure desire of the martyrs to live rightly and walk with God. “Passion” or its variations did not come to refer to sensual desire or romantic love until the late 1500s. In fact, the word did not even refer to a “strong enthusiasm or liking” until the early 1600s, making its common definition a recent development.

Okay, if you have stuck through my little etymology sermon, thank you. Now, let’s wrap this up nicely, shall we? I only scratched the surface of the etymology of this particular word, but I think that it is obvious that “passion” was never meant to define my sweet tooth. However, I believe that I have not been wrong in saying that I have a passion for music and a passion for literature. (Excuse my italics; I know many authors are turning in their graves as I type, but I need them!) Why? Because my relationship with music and literature match the definition of this word, regardless of its evolution.

First of all, I suffer for music and literature, not martyrdom by any means, but to some extent, there is a struggle. Paper cuts, sore muscles from playing Chopin, tired nights of rehearsals, the despair of writer’s block. Goodness, I bled one time when practicing a pizzicato section for orchestra! But despite the obstacles – from  the pen callus on my middle finger to the violin hickey on my neck-  I keep practicing and writing and writing and practicing. Do I suffer for whipped cream? No…

I also have a love for these pursuits and the desire to achieve excellence as both a musician and a writer. This desire guides me as that of the martyrs did. I want to play music to the best of my ability and the Glory of God, so I practice harder; I want to author something thought-provoking and impactful, so I journal and blog for experience. The goals are there, leading me to walk the paths to reach them, further exhibiting my passion as not just emotional, but practical.

Finally, even if passion is taken at its most basic meaning, enthusiasm or liking, I certainly have it. Anyone who has ever talked to me knows that I do not shut up once the conversation turns to books or music. Granted, this is mostly because I don’t talk to anyone who doesn’t talk about these subjects. Still, the fact that I ask to smell other people’s copies of Wuthering Heights during AP Literature and obsess over tenor voices in choir indicates my borderline-crazy enthusiasm. Although whipped cream is delicious, I don’t think there is a fandom for it.

So there you are, a brief overview of a topic you didn’t know you needed to know: the etymology of “passion” and an example of when it is appropriate and when it is not. For the sake of the English language (and apparently also Latin and Greek), please know the true meaning of the words you use and save us all from a lot of discountenance. (See what I did there? 😉 )

Bookworms Anonymous

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“I can’t, I have to study… I’m sorry.”  Sorrowfully, I put the book back onto the library shelf.  With auditions and exams looming, I have been forcing myself to read textbooks and ignore the call of novels, but last week this discipline became my undoing.

While practicing my solo for a choir audition, my voice stopped. Completely.  It just would not work. When freaking out to my director, who is familiar with my book addiction, he asked me what I was reading at the moment.

“Nothing,” I admitted. He then prescribed a novel, reminding me that I cannot abandon all leisure time and expect to be relaxed enough to sing.  Feeling that I could justify reading since it was ordered by a teacher, I visited the library and checked out the first book recommended to me, a new piece of brain candy called Legend.  (I’ll review when I finish.)

It worked.  I took this new book on a walk around the park and then settled down with some tea. My anxiety lifted and, as weird as it sounds, I could sing again!

So basically, I guess my point is that giving up all pleasure reading (or any leisure activity) for studying (or work in general) can end up being as bad as sacrificing all work for all fun.  My addiction to novels was not actually hindering my progress, but the “withdrawals” certainly did. Besides, isn’t it just nicer to look forward to reading a story at the end of the day rather than a textbook?