Tag Archive: music

Bach & Mexico

Apparently, I said this 3 years ago today upon attending a CSO performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-minor Mass, not a bad piece of music. Facebook reminded me of it, and I thought it was worth broadcasting more widely.

Chicago, IL
16 April 2013

I ate salsa, guacamole, torta, and drank mescal and margarita. Then, I stepped outside into the cold, damp, gray, windy Chicago evening. A fitting reality check before a performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass. What would Bach, that dour old Lutheran, have known of the sultry, sensual pleasures of Mexico? Bach was a Chicago-style composer.

I heard Bach’s B-minor Mass this evening by the CSO. IF I had run into the composer at the bar afterwards, I might have said, “That was a pretty good song, Jack. Good effort.” Would a Lutheran expect anymore than that?


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.

The pollen of elms troubles my eyes

How mine eyes
Tear and weep.

Is it the pollen of elms?
New Haven’s eponymous trees?
The elms are back from weakness, disease.
I return from there, too.

We gather,
Sit beneath the great
Barrel vaults. The
Florid rood floats, almost,
Faces in faux-ancient
Glass gaze down.
“Do we remember you?”
Their stares draw my
Gaze to them, to the
Western light, the
Vesper glow.

What tears! Is it the
Pollen of elms, or the
Bright sun, which
Makes me weep?
Such distorted vision—
Prismatic view!

Whom do I see?
Friends long since departed,
To both other places and planes.
The bat boy flitters nude across the parlor,
The chunky one flounces before the tube,
Taunting the weird, bearded one.
Beets pour forth,
An endless sea of beets.
And the fragrant, baked egg yolks.
The lazy man naps in the dining room niche.
Jolly rings.
The first real love approaches—
What fear!
Funky, chunky,
crazy, annoying,
Krauts, Canucks,
Tiger Lily,
Beer me!
Leona Helmsley lives again.
Miner, Murray,
Lara, Lackstrom.
Faces pass in eye mist:
Newberry, Dwight, Marquand—
Pipes by the thousands.
Velut maris stella!

Two Dots… then a dash?
No, stay!
I cannot.
I must go
To grow.

I have gone.
Are you still there?
Yes. No.

When I close my weeping eyes,
I see you.

I open my eyes,
And you are there
In the tears.
“There we sat down,
Yea, we wept.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?”

I am back!
You are here…
You are gone.
Your face, your smile,
Your voice.
We meet, embrace,

Friendly faces
Peer from the windows I pass.
Again, I return,
Must go.
All my godsons,
How they’ve grown!
And my Mentor
Prepares for a final

I can’t see.
My nose drips.
Images and memories
The allergens,
But not the irritant:
It is the absence,
The distance.

I hear “Singet”
And remember when
I last sang
Truly well.
Under the elms.

I am here again—
Must I say good-bye?

A score of years
Since I arrived,
Yet even after so many away,
It is still a reuniting
To return.

Could I have left
My heart in New Haven?
Hardly, you say,
And yet,
Why this weeping
When I return?

Is it only the
Myopia of age and
Nostalgia that makes me see only
Your warm smile?
Has the cheek sunken?
The hair thinned?
The waist grown?

Or are you still the
Rough Beauty
I came to love?

Wipe the tears,
And let me see
You, in the
Vesper Light
Filtered through the saints,
And the elms.

High-Acreage Curiosity

I’m getting ready to take Putney (my dog, for those who haven’t met him) to Camp Clough (AKA my parents) for the summer. I’m leaving soon for 20 days, part of which is a liturgy conference at Yale.

I’m expecting a house guest for two nights, immediately before departing. I haven’t had an overnight guest for months, and the guest room is the staging area for storing winter clothes and disposal of things I no longer need.

Behind my piano is a pile of music: ten volumes of piano rags and French romantic chansons from the Chicago Public Library, a tote bag of choral octavos from Ellen Fisher, a borrowed collection of Schubert piano duets.

Behind my couch is a basket of issues of Maine: the Magazine, Vermont Life, National Geographic, unread, awaiting reading.

My refrigerator is packed full, most of its contents a large collection of sauces, relishes and other accompaniments I’ve picked up in stores trading in local and artisan foods. They keep well, but get used in exceedingly small quantities. On the kitchen shelves is a similar collection of unopened toppings. There are five jars of different kinds of mustard from Raye’s <www.rayesmustard.com> in Eastport, ME . One is open.

Mustard jars

I live alone.

And then there are the books.

A friend of mine popped his head in my office last week, and said, “It looks like a dorm room.”

Scattered about therein are more books and scores.

I need to say right now that I am NOT a collector. In my twenties, I realized that the few collections I had collected for the sake of having collections brought me no joy. There was remorse for spending money on things that had no utility. I committed to no more collecting. No thimbles, no bone china plates of exotic places. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

In tidying for my guest’s arrival and my departure, I see the problem, arising from my being a curious person. Working with a life coach <www.purposeatwork.com> a few years ago, I articulated a life purpose that is, briefly, to guide others to uncover their own curiosity to lead them to discovery and learning. My life purpose grows out of my own attitude. I find meaning and joy in vacuuming up experiences, then letting them shape my perspective and choices. I thrive on exceptional sensory experiences. Five jars of mustard could tell you that (actually, there are seven jars, but only five from Raye’s) with a translator.

The musical scores, the magazines, the Mason jars. These are containers for experiences. They gather around me, offering adventures. But they compete with each other for my time and energy, and my space. They conflict with my desire to simplify, to live more like the Shakers I visited a few summers ago.

I am immensely blessed to know that curiosity will never, ever let me be bored in this too-short life.

But it’s taking up a lotta space in my apartment!

Confession: Guilty Pleasure

I penned this article about the enjoyment of making music with others for the weekly newsletter of the congregation I serve as Director of Music, the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer in the Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, IL.

I have written on several occasions over the years about the increasingly important role that the Church plays in modern American society as one of the few remaining places where the average person has the opportunity to make music. As school arts programs suffer continual diminishment, many American children receive no formal education in music. Since the invention of the record player, the playing and singing of music (and attending live performances) have increasingly–and tragically–been supplanted by listening to recorded music. And even the experience of active listening to recordings has been so cheapened by a ubiquity of music everywhere one goes that many people barely hear what is playing all around them. Music has become noise, audible wallpaper.

In this bleak desert stands the Church, perhaps the last refuge of truly democratic music-making in America. For, where else does a group of unrehearsed, variously-abled people have an opportunity to make music together simply for the joy that it brings themselves and their audience (e.g., God)? Alas, even the Church in many places, with diminishing membership and a decline in the musical abilities of its members, has gone the way of band-and-audience, or worse, recorded music.

Thus, those of us who still practice live congregational music are passionate to keep the tradition alive and strong. We are, for many children (and adults, too), their best hope for musical literacy and appreciation.

A couple days ago, I was sitting at the piano in SPR’s sanctuary practicing the accompaniment for an upcoming instrumental performance with a parishioner. I was learning a new piece, and suddenly was overcome with guilt. I, professionally an organist, not a pianist, was using valuable work time to learn a piece of music on an instrument I did not go to conservatory to perfect. And, worst of all, I was enjoying it. I was enjoying it on at least two levels. First, I was nurturing my curiosity for new repertoire. Second, I was looking forward to the moment when my fellow performer and I would come together for the first time in musical communion. Surely, there was something wrong here.

At times in my career in the Church, I have either been taught, or perhaps was silently led to believe, that our resources were too limited, and the struggles of our members and guests too serious, for us to be permitted to take joy from our work. The enjoyment of practicing, of learning and of performing was only an acceptable outcome inasmuch as it brought joy to others. To draw joy directly from the exercise itself was an unacceptable luxury, too dear a fringe benefit for a laborer in a poor, old church.

Sitting at the piano at SPR, I feel like the psalmist, who sings, “It is like fine oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, and runs down upon the collar of his robe. It is like the dew of Hermon that falls upon the hills of Zion.” I am, like George Costanza, ensconced in velvet! I fight the feeling of guilt for never in my life have I been privileged to collaborate so frequently with so many other musicians. Granted, every week as a church musician is a collaboration, as I lead congregational singing from the piano or the organ, or with my voice; and as I lead our choirs. And yet, in these roles of song-leader and conductor, I am not an equal partner in the music. In contrast, when I join another musician or more in playing chamber music, I become simply one of the gang. I experience what it is like to be part of the ensemble, as our choir members are when they sing anthems, or our worshipers are when they sing hymns and songs. And it brings me joy!

SPR is blessed to be rich with artists of all sorts whose gifts to the church nourish and delight our visitors and members, and enlarge our praise of God. We are particularly enriched, I believe, when two or more of us come together to bring to life works of beauty that otherwise lie dormant on the page. Doing so is my guilty pleasure, and, at least at this point in my life, crystallizes my joy in being a musician. I hope that you will join with others in the creation of something beautiful here, and will share in the joy of other creators as we offer together our many talents for the glory of God.