Something to Sing About

Nicolaes_Berchem_-_Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds

Annunciation to the Shepherds, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem [Public domain] via Wikimedia

This has been a month of singing! I sing in a choral group and a church ensemble. The choral group, Capriccio Columbus, held our Christmas concert last Sunday. Our church ensemble has sung each Sunday during Advent and on Christmas eve. Christmas favorites and gorgeous but unfamiliar works. A good deal of music. Many rehearsals and practice. And hours of singing! Then there are all the songs of the season that our congregation sings.

I love singing, but when we seek to do it with some standard of excellence, in all the rehearsals we can sometimes lose focus on why we sing, beyond our sheer love of it. Yet the season of Advent and Christmas is a time of song and I’ve been reflecting on why that is so.

Certainly part of it is this thing we call “the holiday spirit.” Our choir has been part of several community tree-lightings, and I think creating a mood, a sense of shared conviviality is one of the functions of the songs of the season. At its worst, it is the background to the shopping orgies our retailers hope we engage in. At best, they lift spirits and draw our communities together.

As we get older, I also think we sometimes love Christmas music because it connects us with all the child-like sense of wonder as we remember music, lights, nativity scenes, and Christmas plays past. Music has this power to transport us to our past and recall cherished memories. Past and present merge and we have a sense of the seamlessness and wholeness of our lives.

But I’m not quite sure this answers why we sing so many songs in this season, or for that matter why so many songs have been written. A familiar song that we sang this morning suggests some of the reasons why:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!

To me, this song invites us to join an angelic chorus. Now angels in the Bible are pretty formidable creatures, that human beings are tempted to tremble before in terror or bow to in worship. Yet these creatures in all their greatness are moved to song because something greater has occurred. Strangely enough, their songs of glory center around a baby born in a small town south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem. It was a city associated with Israel’s great king, David. They proclaim a greater king has been born. He is a king who brings peace between God and human beings. And not just for one nation, but for all nations, all humankind without distinction. All the discord, all the grief, all the conflict, all the evil humans devise meet their match in this baby.

This is something to sing about! All earth is invited to join “the triumph of the skies.” We still live in a world of discord, grief, conflict, and evil. Yet we sing not to pretend that these things don’t exist, but rather that this king who was born, taught and worked wonders, who died and rose, is making peace between humankind and God and will one day have the last word, in restoring all things. We sing to celebrate the ways God has already brought peace, and in hope that what we have found in part we will one day know in full.

As you listen to, or even join in the songs of the season, do you have something to sing about? If you listen to the songs of the church (and not the “holiday” music about reindeer and snowmen) I think you will find truth that is worth singing about. And in that discovery, you will truly be able to join me in saying and singing…

Glory to the newborn king!

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Reading Musically

Tuesday nights are Capriccio Columbus rehearsals. One of the things I was reminded of once again was how much goes into “reading” and singing even a simple piece of music. One is paying attention to notes, pitches, tempos, dynamics and other markings in the printed music. Then there is that person up front waving the stick to beat time and communicating in a variety of ways his or her wishes (we have two directors, Larry and Karrie). There is your section–you want to blend with them so that all the voices are one and none stands out. There are the other sections with whom you want to harmonize. And there is that accompanist, or in some cases the orchestra.

Then there are the words we are singing and the mood they evoke–loving, tender, playful, jubilant, worshipful, and dancing are some of the descriptions of moods in the pieces we are currently rehearse them. To sing them with meaning that connects with the audience means grasping, and being grasped by that mood. There is “syllabic stress”– which syllables get the emphasis. Then there are languages–English, French, Spanish, and Latin are just some of those in which we’ve sung.

It is a wonderful thing when all these elements come together, especially at a concert! I’m always amazed with the process that begins with a “read through” where I hit maybe 20% of the notes, am learning the words, head buried in the score while the director tries to get our attention. With practice and rehearsals, it starts making sense as you learn the rhythms, the dynamics, and the “mood” of the piece as you pay attention to the mysterious interweave of words and music.

All this makes me wonder if there is more to reading a book, or any piece of writing, than just scanning and registering in one’s brain the sequence of words on the page, and maybe comprehending the basic sense of the sentence and if the skills one uses to bring so many different things together in reading a piece of music can also apply to reading a piece of literature or non-fiction. Might we not simultaneously be aware of character development, imagery, plot turns, allusions, the mood evoked in a work, figures of speech. In non-fiction, there is the exposition of an idea, the arguments for a thesis but also the use of wit, irony, sarcasm, humor, appeals to authority.

Reading and singing a piece of music demands one’s total attention. This makes me wonder whether reading a book well might also call for that kind of attention if one is to read on the various levels simultaneously that a well-written piece of writing demands. (I also recognize that there are “junk novels” and fun reads that may not require such attention). Does it even involve re-reading? I know that some of the great books I’ve loved disclose new depths with each reading.

Have you had the experience of reading richly and deeply? What book were you reading? What was that like for you?