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.”

Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.