Remarks on Christmas Music 12/21/08

Good morning. I’ve been asked to say a few words about church music before the choir sings the annual Christmas cantata.

Every year for Christmas, my Aunt Myra gives me a little red and white Quaker calendar with inspirational sayings that I hang on the bathroom mirror to read while I’m shaving. This October, I saw something so extraordinary there that I left October up for the rest of the year. Maya Angelou said:

“I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

How true is that? I’ve spent my whole life thinking that if you said the right things and did the right things, you were right with the world. But when I look back on my life, it is the people who have made me feel good whom I cherish.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Now that’s a strange way to start a sermon, isn’t it? – by telling the congregation that they will forget what you said? On the other hand, if you are afraid of public speaking, remember – people will soon forget what you said.

It’s the feeling part that made me think of church music because some of my most wonderful memories of church are of the music. Do you remember a few weeks ago when Will Shurley played Amazing Grace on the piano? It was a moving and emotionally gripping performance. When he finished, I wanted to stand up and cheer, but then I remembered – I’m a Presbyterian. I can’t do that!

The history of the church is the history of this tension between logic and feeling – wanting to do the right thing – to be reverent and respectful and thankful – and also wanting to stand up and celebrate and praise God! One could almost say that it goes back to the beginning of time.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

God speaks and all creation is set in motion. God hands down laws, and those laws guide our lives. The Old Testament is the record of the laws and the difficulty of living within them. The people chose gold over God, and even the greatest leader of the Old Testament – David, himself – broke God’s laws again and again. No matter who we are, we have a hard time living our lives with only the guidance of law and logic.

The New Testament is the story of the Word made Flesh. And what did He tell us? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And – that you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus spoke of love. He fed the hungry and healed the sick. His speech was simple – “Blessed are the poor.” God Himself makes people feel good, and this, to me, is the most appealing thing about Christianity: it is not a religion of worldly power – it is a faith in God’s love.

This tension between logic and feeling is also the history of music in the church. As Jesus found with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, religious leaders often want to control access to God – there is our ever-present desire to assert our own power. Music, on the other hand, frees the mind and opens us up to the presence of God. As Will Shurley demonstrated, music can make us want to stand up and cheer in a perfectly serene place like this.

And so music has often been suppressed or very tightly controlled by the church. Until the 14th century, church music was sung in Latin, related only to the liturgy and probably not very moving. Gregorian chants were the preferred form, and we know how much we love chanting.

In the early church, you wouldn’t think of singing anything as secular as, say, O Holy Night. Today, we think of O Holy Night as extremely reverent, but, even in 1855 when it was first published by Adolphe Adam, a composer better known for his ballet, Giselle, church authorities criticized the carol for its lack of musical taste. O Holy Night contains all the elements of music that we instinctively love – a simple message that builds to a dramatic conclusion:

A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees!
Who can hear that song and not be moved?

In the 14th century, the church and the world were in turmoil. Two rival popes – one in Avignon and one in Rome – fought for political gain and put everything up for sale: ecclesiastical offices, pardons for sins, holy relics. Celibacy was not a vow taken seriously. Reformers were burned, and, when John Wycliffe died a natural death, his bones were dug up and burned. The Hundred Years War raged on, the Bubonic Plague struck and there was even a freezing spell called the little ice age.

By all accounts, the 14th century was a terrible time, but it was also a time that music broke free of conservative church constraints. People were cynical about church leadership, and began to write words in their own languages rather than the Latin demanded by the church – and to write melodies that were more compelling than the old Plainchants. These songs or carols were harmonized or sung in rounds by common people and were very popular. As has often been the case, when our human leadership abandons us, we seek the genuine spirit and find new forms to express our feeling.

In England, carols were called Nowells – spelled N O W E L L – and have nothing to do with the French word Noel – N O E L. Our popular hymn, The First Noel, is not a French song at all, but is really an English song about the first carol. When you sing the words, “The first nowell, the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…” you are singing about the first carol ever sung, which was sung by angels to shepherds. The English word Nowell goes back to the 14th century and can be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury tales.

The theme of carols was love and particularly the tenderness of a mother’s love for her child. This maternal love was represented by a rose, as in Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming, a 15th century German carol whose composer and lyricist are unknown.

Martin Luther, the famous reformer and a German monk of the 15th century, expanded harmony and encouraged congregational singing, but in England, the Puritan reformers suppressed music, dancing and boisterous celebrations in general. In 1647, the Puritan Parliament abolished Christmas, and in America in 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law forbidding anyone from “observing any such day as Christmas.”

So the tension between good words and feeling good, between emotional control and music, extended beyond the Reformation.

For a hundred years, carols were kept alive in the English countryside and were celebrated in America by immigrant groups such as the Dutch in New Amsterdam, the Moravians in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the French in Louisiana and the Episcopalians in Virginia – until the late 18th and early 19th centuries when new interpretations of hymns by lyricists like Isaac Watts were united with moving melodies from composers like Presbyterian Lowell Mason, who wrote the theme to Joy to the World in 1836.

Today, new carols and hymns continue to be written by composers like John Rutter and by contemporary Christian musicians who seek audiences even outside the church.

What strikes me about much Christmas music is that the best and most authentic music has often been created, like the Christ-child himself, in the most humble circumstances.

For instance, the most recorded song in history was written for lack of a church organ. On Christmas Eve 1818, the organ in the village church in Obendorf, Austria had broken down. The organist, Franz Gruber, composed a melody for two solo voices, a chorus and guitar to lyrics by Rev Joseph Mohr, a Catholic priest. Silent Night was introduced to the world.

Now I have been singing that song for about half a century and had never heard that story, so I was excited to tell it to Fred Schmidt, whom I stand next to in choir. “Oh yeah,” said Fred, “I’ve been to that church in Obendorf.” He knew all about it.

Another unlikely musical triumph is Handel’s Messiah. Handel began his career as an organist in Halle, Germany and followed George the Elector of Hanover to London after George become King George of Great Britain. Handel composed anthems for the coronation of George the Second, was the Director of the Royal Academy of Music and was recognized as the leading talent in the leading cultural city of his day.

However, in 1737 Handel suffered a stroke that partially paralyzed his arm, and he complained that he had lost his ability to focus. By 1741, Handel had stopped performing, and had gone bankrupt. He suffered from insomnia, depression and rheumatism. He was 56 years old in a time when the average life expectancy was about 28. He was considering giving up music altogether.

No one in London wanted much to do with Handel, but he was invited to give a series of charity concerts in Dublin. His librettist had provided a new manuscript and extracted a promise from Handel that he would spend at least a year on the composition. In August 1741, Handel became transfixed by this task. He barely ate, and he wept over the beauty of the music, later saying, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself.”

This 56-year-old who could no longer concentrate wrote 260 pages of music in 22 days and finished the orchestration in another 2 days. Handel’s Messiah, originally performed with 26 boys and 2 men, eventually became the sensation of 19th and 20th century music, with regular festivals featuring over 3000 performers at London’s Crystal Palace. One biographer notes, “Considering the immensity of the work and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.”

Gruber and Handel were inspired by their love of God – simply put, by the way they felt. Throughout Christian history, music has helped to open us up to God’s love. It all began with the first carol, chronicled again in Hark, the Herald Angels Sing:

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Published in: on January 16, 2009 at 3:13 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. This is a wonderful sermon and I learned much from it. Most important, it leaves me feeling good.

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