Tag Archive: choir

Christmas—Held Over!

Seasons Greetings from Edgewater, 24 January

Seasons Greetings from Edgewater, 24 January

This has been an odd Christmastide for me. Odd even that I am still thinking of it in the present tense. I was late to decorate for Christmas, and even later to feel like I had slipped into the “Christmas Groove”. I followed the set-up of the holiday train diorama in the lobby of our Thanksgiving hotel with frequent check-ins, yet baked not a single Christmas cookie.

Christmas at home, once I finally got there late Christmas night, was as festive and enjoyable as ever. I fell into the Groove immediately. It snowed, I skied. We cooked, I ate. Family gathered, I mingled. Gifts appeared, I unwrapped. Corks popped, I drank. Lights twinkled, I gazed.

Snow drifted, I stayed an extra day. Readily.

When my partner and I went our separate ways at the end of Christmas time in snowy, bucolic Hamilton, neither of us wanted to see the celebrations end. When I reached Chicago on the 4th of January, I still had two days left to celebrate. I squeezed in Christmas shows and movies, CDs and stories.

Epiphany (January 6) came, and I hadn’t had my Christmas fill, so I left the decorations up. The Christmas tree hadn’t lost any needles, so I gave it another week. I continued shopping the post-holiday sales for Christmas decorations with particular verve. My Lego® Holiday Bakery is still on the sideboard.

We have a family fondness for Sesame Street, and we usually watch the 1978 special “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” when we’re together. This year, the show’s signature song, “Keep Christmas with you” has become like a battle cry for some of us. It says,

“Keep Christmas with you All through the year, When Christmas is over, You can keep it near. Think of this Christmas day When Christmas is far away.

“Keep Christmas with you All through the year, When Christmas is over, Save some Christmas cheer. These precious moments, Hold them very dear And keep Christmas with you All through the year.

“Christmas means the spirit of giving Peace and joy to you, The goodness of loving, The gladness of living; These are Christmas too.”

It’s the 24th of January, and I’m watching “The Bishop’s Wife”! What is happening to me this year? As Christmas comes round every year, I think I enjoy our homecoming, my family home, and my hometown more and more. It is tinged with nostalgia, but also revived and refreshed with new tastes and experiences.

I wrote the following article for the weekly newsletter of the church where I work as Director of Music. (If you’re in Chicago, I hope you’ll come visit us <www.sp-r.org>.) As a church worker, I have a multi-layered—some may say ‘complex’—relationship with Christmas. Perhaps reading this now will help *you* “keep Christmas with you” for at least a little longer this year.

“Christmas is the Church’s ‘Try to Remember’ Holiday”

Merry Christmas. Except for the two years when I had flu (maybe even then), I’ve been blessed with Merry Christmases. Fun, food, family, friends, snow for skiing and sledding, games, movies, singing, wonderful worship… I love Christmastide! More than any other holiday I celebrate, Christmas is a smörgåsbord of experiences, origins and meanings. Complex, like me.

While at Choir Camp last summer, an hour from New Haven, where I spent nine of the most wonderful, friend-filled years of my life, I sat in on a colleague’s boy-choir rehearsal. They rehearsed “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks for a concert. Listening to my godson, his younger brother, and their fellow choir members sing this simple tune, I began to cry. I felt deeply how much things have changed in my life.

The irony wasn’t lost on me, however, that the singers were all preteens, some as young as eight. What could they possibly be nostalgic for? Christmas, maybe.

Christmas nostalgia is often born at a tender age, when one discovers that all is not as it had seemed earlier. Through the years, the revelations keep coming, as one’s view of life and loved ones becomes more nuanced. Relatives die, friends and family move away, new ones arrive. Sibling rivalry, aging parents, challenging children, irksome in-laws. Who wouldn’t be nostalgic for earlier, simpler Christmases? “Try to remember…”

When I began my work as a church musician during graduate school, I had to miss Christmas Eve and Christmas Day family gatherings to play for services. Those first few years, I decided to divorce my new Christmas routine from my memories and old expectations. It was time to “remember the reason for the season”, and respect Christmas as the religious holiday it was meant to be.

The Vulcan treatment worked for a while, and helped to ease the grief that came when one of my grandparents died shortly before Christmas each of the first two years. As the years passed, though, nostalgia trampled my holiday compartmentalization. Ah, Ye Happy Olde Tymes!

Church plays a complex role in the Christmas drama. The trappings of Christmas liturgies are intimacy, warmth, beauty, and—yes—nostalgia, but the message of Christmas is forward-looking. Who else gets myrrh (for embalming) as a baby gift? The crèche is only a brief stopping place for Jesus. Before the nursery is painted, the Holy Family is off to Egypt, fleeing for their lives.

My mother cries when she sings Christmas carols, perhaps because they evoke some latent nostalgia. We want children to be adorable in pageants so we can wax wistful about how precious and fleeting these moments are. Church traditions—the same six hymns year after year; “Silent Night” on our knees, the lights dimmed—connect us to our tribe and our memories.

There is no harm, and much joy, in these moments. We should celebrate them. The Church’s Christmas commemoration, however, is not simply for cooing over cute children or luxuriating in intimacy and beauty. It is, instead, to show the great power of humility and the bottomless well of God’s love for humanity. Through the incarnation, God helps us frail humans to see and understand Godself more fully, and to chart our path to care for the world, and gain our salvation, by following Jesus’ example. Christmas is only the prologue, the flash that fixes our gaze. God knew we humans are suckers for a cute baby, having evolved that way so we wouldn’t get distracted and walk off and leave little Norbert to be eaten by pterodactyls.

But followers of the story, like singers of the hymn “Once in royal David’s city”, may get distracted before they get to the point. We are entranced by the nostalgia and homeyness of the manger, but in the second half (as we sing it from The Hymnal 1982), the message comes forth:

“For he is our lifelong pattern; daily, when on earth he grew, he was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us he knew. Thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.

“And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love, for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heav’n above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.

“Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing round, we shall see him; but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where his saints his throne surround: Christ, revealed to faithful eye, set at God’s right hand on high.”

As you gather your beloved around your own hearth and memories, as you tell the story and sing the old Christmas hymns, listen for the message that goes beyond the wonder of God’s arrival in infant form, and be transformed, so you will be ready to transform the world. Merry Christmas. May it be ever so!


“Renaissance Man, Renaissance Mass”

On Sunday 3 November, I am conducting the Pope Marcellus Mass by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in two All Saints’ liturgies at the church where I work, The Episcopal Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer. I was asked to write a reflection about this event for our newsletter, and thought that a Renaissance-era mass gave me an opportunity to reflect on life as a “Renaissance man”.

I remember in high school a classmate calling me a Renaissance Man. I eschewed sports unless I could watch something taking place on a snow-covered mountain somewhere wintry and beautiful. I both played and listened to classical music, and I enjoyed cooking and decorating for the holidays with Mom and Nana.

In college as in high school, I avoided parties with alcohol, claiming I didn’t like beer, and the low-class associations that accompanied it. When I finally made it to Europe, I decided that I liked wine. I put a lot of thought and care into decorating my dorm room.

All of this makes me sound like a fop or a dandy, which I wasn’t really, but I did like the idea that my interests and abilities spanned a variety of genres, that I used both brain hemispheres as I moved through life and the world. I excelled in both science and the arts. I majored in geology but still pursued music. I enjoyed living history museums as well as digging for dinosaurs (or, more accurately, trilobites). I changed my own oil. I was an Enlightened Male.

From college on through my twenties, I struggled more with my sexual orientation. Maybe I resisted the pressure for so long because it meant that all of these interests I prized as marks of my distinctiveness–my enlightened nature–were stereotypical of “them”.

Alas, when I fell in love for the first time, I admitted defeat: I was no Renaissance Man, just another chardonnay-swilling, Disney-loving queer. *sigh*

As I said, I loved art (a.k.a. “Classical”) music, and it was great to finally step into Renaissanceland when I went to Italy in 1989 and 1991, putting some of my interests in context.

The composer of our choral mass setting for All Saints’ Sunday lived the real thing, of course. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born near Rome in the early 16th century, at the pinnacle of papal power, and rose quickly to some of the most prominent musical posts in his day. He went to Rome to be a choirboy at one of the great papal basilicas (S. Maria Maggiore), where he cut his musical teeth before returning to his hometown, Palestrina, to become organist at the cathedral there. In 1551, his bishop, Cardinal Giovanni Maria del Monte, was elected Pope Julius III, and took him to be director of the Cappella Giulia, the choir of St. Peter’s Basilica.

It was Marcellus II, the successor to Julius III, for whom the Pope Marcellus Mass is named. Often, and erroneously, cited as the composition that saved Western music from a sort of theological fundamentalism that threatened to snuff out polyphony, this mass features a textual clarity that distinguishes it from many contemporary works. It is believed that it was written to satisfy a request by Pope Marcellus that Holy Week music reflect the solemnity of the week in simplicity and clarity. The mass was first published in 1567, long after Marcellus’s death.

Clarity doesn’t mean lack of beauty, though, and it is a gorgeous piece, in six voices, expanding to seven for its dénouement.

It is a rare privilege to sing and hear choral masses in the liturgy, even occasionally. I am looking forward to donning my Renaissance Man cap again on All Saints’ Sunday, 3 November. I hope to see you there in your best foulard, and then we can repair to Boystown for brunch and sip chardonnay and talk about fabric and our summer in Provincetown and our upcoming winter escape to Key West.


Do you hear bells, or is it just me?

This coming Sunday you might hear bells. Continuing the annual tradition of performing a “classical” mass setting on All Saints’ Sunday, we at the Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer in Chicago (www.sp-r.org>, are stretching the definition of “classical”. Last year, the SPR Choirs sang Franz Schubert’s Mass in G, which is, literally a “Classical” mass, i.e., written during the classical period, ca. 1750-1830.

This year, the bells are ringing as we prepare to sing Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s (b. 1935) Berliner Messe (Berlin Mass), originally written in 1990 for organ and choir, and later revised for string orchestra, which is how we will perform it.

Arvo Pärt is often referred to as one of the Mystical Minimalist composers, along with John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki. In the 1970s, after earlier work in other compositional styles including neoclassical and serial, Pärt developed a compositional technique which he named tintinnabuli (the onomatopoetic Latin word for bells) for its imitation of the complex harmonics of ringing bells. Berliner Messe is written in this style. In each movement, there are basically two musical ideas. Together, two sections of the choir (e.g., soprano and tenor) sing a succession of pitches from a triad (a basic, three-note chord), imitating the harmonics of a bell (Did you know that many bells are actually tuned to produce not just the named pitch we hear most prominently, but also a rich amalgamation of overtones?); the other two sections sings melodies, often moving stepwise and in parallel, which evoke Gregorian chant.

What does all this technical analysis mean for the listener? The intersection of these ideas creates a sublime oscillation between concord and dissonance, between tension and release. Each movement seems to breathe, to cry out or to sigh. The penitential movements, Kyrie and Agnus Dei, whisper their pleas for mercy and peace, while the Gloria and Credo fill the ears, lungs and space around us with joyful declarations of believe and celebration of God’s great goodness. The Alleluias that frame the reading of the Gospel are quiet and sublime. The hymn, Veni sancte spiritus, traditionally known as the “Golden Sequence” for its richness, is a multifaceted prayer to the Holy Spirit (Berliner Messe was originally written for performance on Pentecost.) which Pärt sets with the widest variety of textures of any movement in the Messe, alternating among pairs of voices, unison melodies and a four-voice climax. The Sanctus, instead of trumpeting the song of the angels like those of so many other masses, seems to imagine the awe-filled, silence-evoking majesty of the Holy of Holies, as if the worshiper has, with some trepidation, stepped into the all-encompassing Presence of God. At times, the music feels like the waves rolling relentlessly against the shores of Lake Michigan this week as the remnants of Hurricane Sandy churn the waters from hundreds of miles away; and at other times, it feels as if time has been slowed to a near stop, allowing us to gaze uninterrupted on some great wonder—a trick of the mind that music does better than no other medium.

When I first discovered Berliner Messe a few years ago, I immediately fell in love with it, and knew that, someday, I must perform it. Only the opening of the Credo of Bach’s B Minor Mass has similarly brought forth such upwelling of emotion as this Credo. Only the Agnus Dei of Duruflé’s Requiem, brings me to tears every time I hear it the same way Pärt’s exceptionally simple and intimate setting does. I am grateful for and blessed by the opportunity to teach and share this piece with the singers and worshipers at SPR. I fervently hope that you will be with me at the Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer in Chicago’s Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhood this Sunday, at 9:15 or 11:15 or both, to share this holy experience with me.