Tag Archive: family

IMG_2411I barely knew the name “Maurice Duruflé” when in my first year in the Choral Conducting program at Yale, it fell to me and my fellow singers to learn “the Duruflé Requiem”. A classmate was preparing it for performance at the annual All Souls’ Eucharist of The Episcopal Church at Yale, and we fellow conducting students were in the choir.

I don’t remember much about the rehearsals, or my response to the music, except that it was positive. The sonic image seared in my memory, however, is of the sole
mn entrance procession that first Sunday evening in November 1995. We musicians sang and played the Introit in the broad, rounded chancel in Battell Chapel, while the clergy, acolytes and thurifer processed down the aisle silently… except for the quiet metallic clank of the chain against the thurible, wafting its perfume into the vast Victorian space of the chapel. Every time I listen to the Introit, my memory adds the clink of chain against brass, as if its part had been written in the conductor’s score by Duruflé himself.

Moe vivid than my memory of preparation and performance are the people and things that mingled in my mind with Duruflé’s Requiem. When I listen to it, I think of Doug, the conductor, who would become and remains one of my dearest friends, and of all my other beloved friends, places and experiences from those fun and deeply formative years at Yale.

Maurice Duruflé was active as a musician and composer at just the right time to nurture this piece into existence. He was a devout Roman Catholic whose theological and æsthetic predilections coincided perfectly with a brief revival of medieval musical practice in the church in France before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council began to take effect in the 1960s. The Benedictines at Solesmes were extremely influential in a revival of the Church’s ancient repertoire of plainsong (AKA, Gregorian chant) in the early 20th century, and the modal harmonies suggested by those old melodies aligned with and inspired a rich language that became one (conservative) thread in the tapestry of French music. Duruflé, who had been a choirboy in the cathedral at Rouen, was steeped in church music. While a student at the Conservatoire, he studied
under Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor, both monumental figures in the history of French symphonic organ repertoire and church music in Paris, and eventually with Paul Dukas, his most influential mentor in composition. All of these influences coalesce in his music.

Like Dukas, Duruflé was extremely self-critical of his own compositions, extensively revised his work, and published very little: only 14 works in a long life (By comparison, Bach wrote well over a thousand, Mozart many hundreds.). Attracted to the plainsong melodies from the Roman Mass for the Dead, he began writing an organ suite based on them prior to 1941. When, in that year, he received a commission for a major work, he decided to expand the organ suite into the piece we hear today. The Requiem was completed in September 1947, and dedicated to the memory of his father, who had died in 1945.

Duruflé’s Requiem bears some similarity in structure and tenor to that of Gabriel Fauré, which we sang here a year ago. It, too, omits or plays down some of the more wrathful themes of the Mass for the Dead, and emphasizes comfort and hope. Like Fauré, Duruflé omits the Dies iræ, the movement for which Verdi famously wrote truly terrifying music, and includes the burial hymn “In paradisum”, depicting angels leading the soul of the deceased to heaven.IMG_2630

Where Duruflé’s music moves beyond Fauré’s is in its rich and nuanced melodies, harmonies and moods. Duruflé did not explicitly associate his Requiem with France’s sufferings in World War II, but one may hear within it the sorrow, fear and pathos resulting from years of occupation and oppression. Duruflé was also a different person from Fauré. You might remember that Fauré claimed to have written his Requiem “for the pleasure of it”. Duruflé—much more sober, pious, insecure—might simply have evoked himself in music, as surely Fauré had.

Duruflé’s music is like that of the French symphonists, with complex accompaniments and polyphony, reflecting his musical pedigree. Fauré’s music is much more of the salon. There are darkness and depth in the Duruflé Requiem, both less evident in Fauré’s. Duruflé’s moments of beauty and peace are similarly multifaceted. The concluding ”In paradisum” is ravishing because of a stunning combination of near static peace and complex harmony, suspended from an ancient melody of the Church. Fauré may have been the first to be called a “voluptuous Gregorianist”, but of the two, Duruflé is the much more worthy recipient of the “Gregorianist” mantle. If Fauré’s ”In paradisum” depicts heaven as a garden with dewdrops falling like crystals off sun-dappled leaves, Duruflé’s imagines a much less familiar paradise, not quite discernible through a morning mist.

My other association, inexplicable yet profound, of this magnificent and truly life-changing work, is with the death of my maternal grandmother, whom we called Nana, and who died only a few weeks after I sang the Requiem at that 1995 All Souls’ Mass. Nana had almost surely never heard of Duruflé nor of this work, and yet, every time I listen to, sing, or play the “Agnus Dei”, which we will sing at the Offertory today, I remember her. Not as she was that cool November evening, reduced by advanced Alzheimer’s Disease to a confused, dehydrated, murmuring stranger, a human vessel emptied of her soul and her understanding, but as the vivacious, social Italian American fashionista, who called me, alternately, “Chris” (one of very few people who ever did) and “Christian Clough”. The woman whose home was almost as much mine as was our own house; and where so many Sunday dinners, weeknight suppers, carefree overnights, and joyful holidays birthed my own understanding of family and hospitality. In the interlude after the altos’ first prayer, when the bass line makes its slow, haunting descent, and the violins and violas sing their first pleading melody, I see Amelia Piccolino Dowdall, hear her voice, and smell the aromas of another delicious and nourishing meal, to which we will soon be warmly welcomed.

“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant to them eternal rest.”

This is the power and sacred gift of music: to awaken mind and heart and soul to the blessings of joy and sorrow that embrace us in this brief and beautiful life, and perhaps to move us to offer thanks to God for them.
Chicago, Illinois; 27 October 2015

I consulted the following biography:
Frazier, James E. Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music. Rochester: U of Rochester P, 2007
in preparing this reflection.


Happy St. Jo-Pat’s Day!

I volunteered to bring snack for tonight’s choir rehearsal, which fell on the fallow day between St. Patrick’s Day (and its drying pools of green sidewalk vomit) and St. Joseph’s Day (and its decadent ricotta-filled southern Italian doughnuts). I wore a red t-shirt and red socks (St. Joseph) and a green-and-white striped button-down shirt (St. Patrick). I bridged the gap.

I decided to bring both Irish Soda Bread <http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/irish-soda-bread-recipe> 


and zeppole


<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeppole&gt;, which I bought at Il Giardino del Dolce (“The Garden of Dessert”), in Chicago’s Elmwood Park neighborhood <http://www.ilgiardinodeldolce.com&gt;, to build a sweet culinary bridge between the two feasts, too.


It’s too bad that St. Joseph’s Day isn’t better known as an Italian American feast, so much less fraught is it than Columbus Day, tainted by the disease and suffering inflicted on native peoples following Columbus’s “discovery” of America. The consumption of zeppole alone would make Italophiles out of everyone—and unlike the elixir of St. Patrick, you needn’t be 21 to consume them.

I grew up in and around Utica, NY, which to this day has a strong Italian American community, and several thriving Italian bakeries, pastry shops and markets. I remember eating zeppole every year, though I only knew them as “St. Joseph’s Day pastries” until I met the Italian Americans of New Haven, CT. I think one of the reasons I grew to love New Haven so was that many of the foodways that I treasured from my childhood in Utica remained strong there, too. I didn’t have to drive back home every time I wanted a taste of my old world.


Laying out both of these traditional foods side by side, with their strong cultural associations, reminded me of the way in which my mother’s family was a living example of this spread. My Poppa was Irish American, or at least the Dowdall family claimed Irish as their predominant ethnic strain. My Nana was first generation Italian American, both her parents having emigrated from two tiny villages in Lazio (Selvacava & Ausonia), near Formia. (By the way, the scenery is mountainous, dramatic and beautiful, and I just discovered that there’s an agriturismo in Selvacava: <http://www.lortotragliulivi.it/agriturismo%20italia.html&gt;!)

When Poppa (Jack) told his eldest brother, Jim, that he was dating an Italian girl (Amelia), Jim punched him. Italians and Irish didn’t mix in the 1930s.

By the time I was a kid, though, things were calmer on the multiethnic front lines of 1016 Rutger Street in Utica. For St. Patrick’s Day, we wore green and hung Hallmark® leprechauns in the windows. My Italian Nana would cook corned beef and cabbage and bake soda bread for my Irish Poppa et al. Two days later, on St. Joseph’s Day, my Irish Poppa would buy the zeppole at the Florentine Pastry Shop on Bleeker Street in the heart of Italian East Utica for my Italian Nana et al. (We didn’t think to wear red, though, and Hallmark® didn’t sell St. Joseph’s Day decorations.)

The father of a dear friend of mine was named Joseph Patrick. He was Pat to us, but others in town knew him as Joe. I was confused the first time I heard him called Joe. That’s when I learned his full name. Only later did I get it: he was Italian Irish American. He married a Polish Italian American. 

Nowadays, people are both fascinated, yet unbothered, by many of these ethnic distinctions. Are we thus richer or poorer? As in Andersonville, just down the street from me in Chicago, which bears only the palest shadow of its earlier “Swedishness”, what have we lost as our ethnic enclaves have been assimilated and their children dispersed?

On St. Patrick’s Day, they say, we are all Irish. If so, then on St. Joseph’s Day, let’s all be Italian, and on Pulaski Day, let’s all be Polish, and on Chinese New Year, let’s all be Chinese, and on and on.

But, even more importantly, cherish your own heritage; nurture and share it. If you don’t, who will? And who would be poorer without it? You would be. And so would everyone around you.

Happy St. Jo-Pat’s Day, friends!



Another nostalgic—and theological?—foodie entry for you…

You may have read my most recent post, “I Grow I Cook I Eat I Am”, in which I ruminated on my grandparents’ influence on my personal food culture.

[I don’t want to get all theological and drive away the skeptics and nonbelievers, so if this gets to “churchy” for you, I encourage you plow through to the secular pastures on the other side!]

In distilling the ways in which cooking makes me “fully alive”, I discovered this fact: when I cook for others, I am “remembering” my community in the way that liturgical acts (the Passover meal, the Christian Eucharist) are “remembrances” of key events in the history of the faith communities that practice them. That is, the faith communities are not simply looking back at past events, but bringing the efficacy of those events into the present. Many Christians do not simply celebrate Eucharist as a memorial reenactment, but as a way of bringing Jesus and his promises into the present moment. [The blogger Frank O’Dea, SSS, gives a good explanation of the theology behind this kind of remembrance here: http://theeucharist.wordpress.com/index/chapter-15-eucharist-as-memorial/%5D.

I realized that, when I cook for others, I bring to that process the recipes and techniques that I have been taught by my mother and grandparents, and all the other people who have shared with me their culinary skills and talents and interests. I use cookware and utensils that belonged to my grandparents (My Nana’s wooden spoon and Grandma’s stoneware cookie jar are just two of many dear and useful mementos of my time cooking with them.). And then, there are the memories—sights and sounds, scents, flavors, textures and activities—that are bound up in our family foods and mealtimes.

Sharing a meal, or even something as simple as a tin of homemade cookies, with others is a gathering of my community across time and space. It is a spiritual, cosmic event. Through my cooking and baking, I gather beloved ones from my past with those of my present. It is my communion.

So, when I baked Grandma Clough’s Banana Jumbos last Sunday, and then stored them in her cookie jar, 


and will bring them to choir rehearsal on Thursday, I both remember her, and bring her gifts to share with my current community. I am at once both guest and host, as are the recipients, who welcome me and Grandma into their lives through the gift of food.

Whoa, no?! And you thought it was just a cookie!


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!

Not My Fourth of July

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Hamilton, NY, offers archetypal small-town Fourth of July festivities: quaint parade, chicken BBQ, craft fair, junk food, local musicians, better than mediocre fireworks (thanks to mega-wealthy Colgate University on the hill overlooking the village). On the eve, the Colgate Inn offers a block party at the foot of the Village Green (two blocks from home) with music and beer. Since Hamilton (and its Independence Day celebration) is the biggest thing going in the area, it draws people from hill and valleys, villages and hamlets, all around us.

Hamiltonians may spend Thanksgiving and Christmas elsewhere, gathering with families in other homes in other towns, or checking into ski resorts and beach hotels, but they come home for the Fourth of July. Hamilton Central School class reunions happen at “the Fourth”, guaranteeing a glimpse into one’s own future as the graduating classes make their way down the parade route, first walking and whooping, next standing with thinning hair and expanding waistlines on floats and waving, and finally sitting in rocking chairs with distant gazes on craggy faces. The Fourth is Homecoming for Hamiltonians. Spouses and partners, beware.

This year, I was invited to play the 11th Annual Fourth of July Organ Recital at Hamilton’s First Baptist Church. I put together an eclectic program of fun music celebrating the diversity of voices in American music. As of bedtime last night, I had practiced twelve hours out of the previous thirty-two. I missed the block party, the arrival of cousins, and welcoming my partner whom I hadn’t seen for 43 days.

I was up at 7 this morning and at the church shortly after 8. The craft fair and farmers’ market began while I practiced. Between pieces, I could hear the National Anthem sung over the parade PA system as the first units approached Broad Street. Practice, practice, practice. With a one’o’clock start time, I had to get home to eat lunch and change my clothes. I left the organ bench at 11:15 and headed across the street to see a bit of the parade.

Back at the church by 12:30, done playing by 2. Pretty pleased with the performance, audience generally very happy. Who wouldn’t love an organ transcription of a Scott Joplin musical depiction of a staged train collision? Greet the audience, clean up the clutter, chat with the host. Craft fair gone, food tents closed. Hamiltonians have left the scene.

Where’s my holiday?

As evening arrives, I realize that today was more like Christmas than the Fourth of July. In Traditions class at Walt Disney World, we were all taught that we work when others play. That’s just one way in which working for the Church is like working for the Mouse.

As a church musician, I give up Christmas for my work; Easter, too. Most three-day weekends are like split days off. Many of my colleagues have to work Thanksgiving. If work isn’t near family (and for me, it isn’t), either the holidays are spent alone or in the car rushing across the miles to belated observances.

The Fourth of July is MY holiday. The day stretches on for hours and hours, the night is mild, the village is alive, the extended family gathers for the big picnic, the country roads are rolled out for a long bicycle ride, the wild raspberries leap off the bushes, the front porch beckons. My gift of music to my beloved hometown brings joy to us all and refreshes decades-long relationships, but now that the day is past, I realize that I haven’t just gifted them my music; I’ve given away one of my favorite days of the year.

Can you bring the parade around for another pass?

Down East Discoveries

Bar Harbor, ME
18 June 2011

A trip to Maine always reminds me of my aunt, who first introduced me to some of the best of the Pine Tree State twenty-five years ago. We camped at Camden Hills and wandered the coast from Boothbay to Lubec. Breathtaking scenery, even for a teenager.

But since those formative trips, I’ve visited places the family avoided (Shall I name them?). Bar Harbor is one of those places. Actually, on that first rip in August 1986, we detoured through Bar Harbor. Before we crossed into the village, though, we rolled up the windows and locked the doors. We never stopped. We just cruised through, gazing at the touristy shops and the tourists much like rich suburbanites pass cautiously through the ghettos, as if to scare the kids into obedience: “This is what happens to bad teens who drink beer before turning 21…” In our case, it was the fate of those who stayed in city hotels instead of rural motels with asphalt front lawns and “vintage” aluminum deck chairs outside each unit.

This time, I found Bar Harbor rather charming, if not yet overrun by summer hoards. Many schools are still in session, or finished yesterday. Even wanderlusty parents couldn’t pack the kids that soon after the final dismissal bell rings.

Poppa was a brochure man. He picked up tourist pamphlets all over the place, or sent away for them. Maybe that’s where I got it. I pack too much to read before leaving home, then amass a library of brochures, local weeklies, new books and slick magazines, none of which I ever have time to read, compulsive as I am about exploring from dawn to dark everywhere I go.

Today, reading guidebooks and studying maps and looking out over blue water, grey rocks and green hills makes me long to see more, to stay longer. I want to chain myself to a tree in Blue Hill, eating Nervous Nellies Jams & Jellies with my hands, fingers cupped like a primitive spoon for scooping sweet blueberry preserves out of jars and right into my mouth.

My sister served steamed lobster and clam chowdah Wednesday night. That was yummo. Last night, we had lobster “subs” at Roy’s in Auburn. Big helping of shredded meat with too much mayo. Described as a sub, I expected lettuce & tomato. My traveling companion asked for coleslaw with his. “We only have fries.” There was — literally — not a single vegetable in the place, except for relish. The clientèle, all locals, looked like they weren’t much for veg. I guess you play to your audience.

We had an EXCEPTIONAL meal of local food at Cleonice in Ellsworth last night. The 1930s-era ice-cream parlor has booths with original wooden arches setting each apart like a little room. The long counter is still there, but the shelves are lined with spirits, some of them local, memorable. I plan to slip away today to go up to Bartlett’s Maine Estate Winery in Gouldsboro. That French white oak-aged dry blueberry wine is worth the detour when one is so close already. And now they make brandy.

Who has a scheme for how to stay the summer?