Bach’s “Passion” as online meditation

Bach is among the very greatest of Christian artists, and his “St. Matthew Passion” is considered one of his greatest works.  It is an oratorio, something like an opera, that sets to music Matthew’s account of the crucifixion of Christ (Chapters 26-27), with soloists singing the lines of the various characters and magnificent choral music, all punctuated with Bach’s rendition of Lenten hymns (many of which we still sing today) and remarkable verse by Bach himself responding to Christ’s sacrifice.

My colleague Steve McCollum alerted me to an online resource that makes this masterpiece of musical devotion accessible online:  Oregon Bach Festival » Digital Bach Project » St. Matthew Passion.  It gives the English translation, as well as the Biblical sources and the dramatic script, for each line as the oratorio unfolds.  Click the link, then when you see the painting of St. Matthew, hit the play button.  It’s divided into five 30-minute segments, which makes it an excellent Holy Week devotion.  [Read more…]

Hollywood’s explicitly Christian movie

We saw Les Miserables, which has to be the most explicitly Christian film that I have seen come out of contemporary Hollywood.  There are more meaningful unembarrassed references–in dialogue, songs, and plot elements–to God, Jesus, salvation, grace, prayer, and Heaven than in most of the overtly Christian productions that I have seen lately.

The ex-convict Jean Valjean has received the forgiveness of Jesus, thanks to a priest who shows him an inexplicable grace.  In response to that forgiveness, Valjean lives a life of sacrificial service to others.  His good works are a direct fruit of the Gospel.

Inspector Javert speaks of God also, but, as he says of himself, “I am of the Law.”  He is all about personal righteousness, justice, and salvation by works.  He does not believe that sinners can or should be forgiven.

This all gets caught up in the wretched state of French society and with a revolutionary movement, led by idealistic students.  (This is not to be confused with the French Revolution of 1789.  France had several successful and unsuccessful revolutions in the 19th century.)  But pay special attention to the words of that final song.

The movie is intense and very moving.  It’s a musical, not just in the sense of  big musical numbers (though there are those) but in the sense of an opera, with virtually all of the dialog being sung.  The film is realistically shot–the battle at the barricade is tremendous–but that doesn’t necessarily go with the stylized singing.  I think it works better on the stage.  So see the movie, see the play, and, above all, read Victor Hugo’s novel, one of the greatest in literary history.

The first recording of a family Christmas

The Wall family Christmas of 1904 has been preserved on the equivalent of an early dictaphone.  The link gives more details, including samplings.  (Be sure to play the one of the 7-year-old singing, with his big finale.)

Curators at the Museum of London have discovered what they believe to be the first ever recording of a family Christmas.

They were made 110 years ago by the Wall family who lived in New Southgate in North London.

There are 24 clear recordings on wax cylinders which were made using a phonograph machine between 1902 and 1917.

Music curators say the sound quality of the music recorded is outstanding.

Cromwell and Minnie Wall had nine children, eight of whom appear on the recordings. All the recordings are bursting with vibrancy and life, according to Julia Hoffbrand who is the curator at the Museum of London who helped restore the recordings.

Wall Family

 

via BBC News – Curators discover first recordings of Christmas Day.

May you and your family continue this tradition, handed down from generation to generation, century to century, of having a Christmas celebration “bursting with vibrancy and life.”

Choice of music for Christmas Eve

Go to Lutheran Public Radio for round-the-clock Christmas music, starting today.  Here is the ad that shows what they are trying to do:

Dave Brubeck and the arts

E. J. Dionne’s tribute to the late, great Dave Brubeck contains some important insights into the arts in general:

Too often in the arts, the fact that someone is accessible is taken to mean that he isn’t truly creative. This is a very wrong idea, and it’s especially mistaken in the case of Brubeck, an extraordinary innovator in rhythm and meter. His music is now so familiar that we forget how daring he was as a composer.

He also defied the romantic image of the troubled and distant artist. It’s almost as if his being a generous soul, a loyal family guy, and a quietly and thoughtfully religious man — “Forty Days,” one of his best pieces, was inspired by Jesus’ wanderings in the desert — were held against him. Yet over the years, earthly redemption came his way. It turned out you could be both good and great.

“Art may not have the power to change the course of history, but it can provide a perspective on historical events that needs to be heard, even if it’s seldom heeded,” Brubeck said in a 2009 interview with Commonweal. “After all the temporary influences that once directed the course of history have vanished, great art survives and continues to speak to each generation.”

via E.J. Dionne Jr.: Dave Brubeck — a love affair – The Washington Post.

Great art can be accessible (contra the purposeful obscurity of much art and literature today).  Great artists can be normal human beings and solid citizens (contra the myth of the bohemian, that artists are unbound by bourgeois conventions).  Great art lasts; indeed, great art is pretty much the only thing that lasts from past civilizations and historical eras.

Death of a Christian jazzman

Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck died at age 92.  The man and his quartet showed sheer genius.  My old guitar teacher once sat in with him and it was one of the highlights of his life.  Brubeck was a Christian who composed a great deal of sacred music.  From David A. Anderson:

“I approached the composition as a prayer,” jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck said of his “To Hope! A Celebration,” a contemporary setting for the Roman Catholic Mass, “concentrating upon the phrases, trying to probe beneath the surface, hoping to translate into music the powerful words which have grown through the centuries.”

Probing beneath the surface marked all of Brubeck’s music, from the revolutionary 1959 polyrhythmic album “Time Out,” to his oratorio, “A Light in the Wilderness,” and his setting of Thomas Aquinas’ hymn, “Pange Lingua.”

Brubeck is best known in the secular jazz world for his startling compositions using different time signatures, such as 5/4 time in the classic “Take Five,” or the mixture of 9/8 time and the more traditional 4/4 rhythm of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Both pieces are on the “Time Out” album, the first jazz album to sell 1 million copies and still one of the best-selling.

Religious faith, however, was never far from Brubeck’s creative mind. . . .

In a 2009 interview with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Brubeck said his service in World War II convinced him “something should be done musically to strengthen man’s knowledge of God.”

That experience gave him the idea of an oratorio based on the Ten Commandments, particularly the “Thou shalt not kill” part.

But he did not act on the idea of writing sacred music until 1965, when he wrote a short piece, “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled,” to comfort his brother, Howard, whose son had died of a brain tumor at age 16.

That piece was incorporated into 1968’s “A Light in the Wilderness,” his first full-scale sacred composition.

That was followed by a series of pieces including 1969’s “The Gates of Justice,” a choral work using words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; “Truth is Fallen,” in 1971; “La Fiesta de la Posada” in 1975; and “Beloved Son,” in 1978.

“When I write a piece, a sacred piece, I’m looking hard and trying to discover what I’m about, and what my parents were about and the world is about,” he told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Raised a Protestant although never baptized, Brubeck became a Roman Catholic in 1980 after completing “To Hope!”, a Mass setting commissioned by the Catholic periodical, Our Sunday Visitor.

via The sacred ran through jazz legend Dave Brubeck’s music – The Washington Post.

Brubeck shows that it’s certainly possible and desirable to have contemporary Christian music, even to have it used in worship–if it could only be rich and complex and artistic and in accord with the Christian sensibility, unlike much of what passes for that genre today.

Here is his “Celebration” Mass. It’s just over 10 minutes, but keep listening for the choral parts and for when his quartet breaks in (around the 4 minute mark).

Here is “Take Five,” Brubeck’s most famous piece.  (Pick out the 5/4 time.)  Brubeck right now is taking five before the Resurrection.