Curating Advent // PART III: Spotless Rose

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical calendar for many Christians around the world. Advent, which means "a visitation," is a season wherein we reflect upon the darkness that surrounds us, long for God to break in, rejoice at the visitation of His Son, and hope for His return. In this series, I will share various works of art and musical selections to enrich our experience of this holy season. Each post will contain a short reflection along with one artwork and one piece of music. 

During this season, we reflect on the myriad of imagistic and rich prophetic texts foretelling Jesus' visitation. One such text is Isaiah 11. This incredible prophecy has been the source of many poetic, musical, and artistic reflections. 

"The Branch" by  L.L. Effler

"The Branch" by L.L. Effler

The music I am sharing is one of my favorite Christmas texts and music of all time. Paul Mealor, a modern Welsh composer, uses this anonymous text based off of Isaiah 11. His choral setting of this poetry brings me to tears upon each hearing; it has truly never become old to me. Take the time to read the lyrics, below the recording, while listening. 

Enjoy!

A Spotless Rose is growing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.

The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
Through God’s great love and might
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night. Amen
— Anonymous

Curating Advent // PART II: Simeon

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical calendar for many Christians around the world. Advent, which means "a visitation," is a season wherein we reflect upon the darkness that surrounds us, long for God to break in, rejoice at the visitation of His Son, and hope for His return. In this series, I will share various works of art and musical selections to enrich our experience of this holy season. Each post will contain a short reflection along with one artwork and one piece of music. 

On Friday, I shared a captivating image of Mary and her son, the Holy Son of God, Jesus. 

Today, I want to explore through art and music another incredible and peculiar individual from the Incarnation narrative: Simeon. Luke 2:25-35 introduces us to Simeon and as He meets the Holy Infant, he bursts into song. This song, known as the Song of Simeon, or as a traditional benediction of the church "Nunc Dimittis" (which means, "now dismiss"), is commonly explored in Advent, as Simeon himself had long awaited the visitation of the Messiah. 

I share with you below a work of art that captures so wonderfully both the joy of Simeon, as well as his consolation (which are both now, in turn, ours as well!). 

It seems somewhat self-indulgent, but Joel wrote a tune for Simeon's Song this week, and we led it in church this morning. It feels appropriate to share alongside this artwork. Unfortunately, due to some recording bumps, I can only share part (we sang it twice through; second time with harmonies). Attached beneath the recording is a PDF of the sheet music. 

Peace be with you. 

"Simeon's Moment" by Ron DiCianni

"Simeon's Moment" by Ron DiCianni

Curating Advent // PART I: Lady

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical calendar for many Christians around the world. Advent, which means "a visitation," is a season wherein we reflect upon the darkness that surrounds us, long for God to break in, rejoice at the visitation of His Son, and hope for His return. In this series, I will share various works of art and musical selections to enrich our experience of this holy season. Each post will contain a short reflection along with one artwork and one piece of music. 

Mary, the mother of Jesus, has long been one of the most fascinating individuals of the Scriptures to me. A young, poor girl from the middle-of-nowhere, a virgin who suddenly finds herself on that confusing path towards motherhood that we call "pregnancy," she stuns me with her humility, wisdom, and grace. Luke 1:46-55 in particular illuminates these aspects of Mary to us. 

The following painting has been sitting on a table in my home - easily visible when you first walk in our front door - during this Advent season. I have found it to be mesmerizing in the way it captures both Mary and her Holy Child. By one of my favorite artists, Janet McKenzie, it is characteristic of so much of her artwork in how well it captures intimacy, personhood, and ethnic diversity. 

The accompanying music is "The Shepherd's Carol," a poem by Clive Sansom scored for SATB choir by Bob Chilcott. Although it is a sort of "classic," I have long found it stirring during Christimastime. I cannot listen to this music without thinking of this painting, and vice versa. 

"Embracing the World" by Janet McKenzie

"Embracing the World" by Janet McKenzie

We stood on the hills, Lady, 
Our day’s work done, 
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.

The evening was calm, Lady, 
The air so still, 
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.

There was a star, Lady, 
Shone in the night, 
Larger than Venus it was
And bright, so bright.

Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady, 
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.

And so we have come, Lady, 
Our day’s work done, 
Our love, our hopes, ourselves, 
We give to your son.

 

A Passacaglia of the Psalms

Most readers of the Bible know this Psalm as “His steadfast love endures forever,” the line repeated every verse.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

A passacaglia is a musical term (often interchanged with the term chaconne), and was a form that originated in 17th-century Spain. Its meaning has changed some throughout history, especially into the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the main characteristic of containing an ostinato (or obstinate repeated line) remains consistent throughout all passacaglias. [The history of passacaglia is truly fascinating, though, and I doubt you will be disappointed in exploring!] Generally, then, a passacaglia will have this repeated line in between improvisatory sections, or other developmental moments.

It is not hard to see why I would call Psalm 136 a Passacaglia of the Psalms. The insistent repetition of His steadfast love endures forever is indeed a textual ostinato, and as the Psalms were the worship texts of the Israelites, one can only imagine that perhaps these words were sung with a repeated melody. Unlike a theme and variations – where an initial theme is stated and then exploited through development rhythmically and harmonically – this Psalm resounds with a passacaglia that becomes the insistent pumping heart for its writer, readers, and singers.

His steadfast love endures forever should be a reality that helps our hearts in their daily rhythm. The psalmist employs this passacaglia amidst remembrances of God’s work – at times severe (to Him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt), but always merciful (His steadfast love endures forever). It becomes an engine; waves crashing in on a shore, receding, and coming in again; blood leaving and returning to your heart; a breath coming in and going out; flowers opening and closing for the sun and moon. The lines are not a repeated as labors, but as rhythmic catalysts. They propel and ignite.

With this energetic thought in mind, comparison to the usual musical nature of passacaglias (as far as mood and atmosphere goes) proves difficult. Almost across the board, passacaglias are sobering, sometimes dark and brooding, at times mournful. I do think this Psalm is sobering. The Psalms are faithful to be quite honest about the human condition (Psalm 88 is a great example); penitential psalms and psalms of lament certainly outnumber psalms of praise. In contrast, though, with our usual expectation from a passacaglia, Psalm 136 is not dark, brooding, or mournful. Although Psalm 136 is sober, it is not somber. Truly, this passacaglia is very “other.” It is, dare I say, a new kind of passacaglia altogether.

I do not mean to assert that I think we should always sing this Psalm, or that it was always sung, in a particularly upbeat way. I actually don’t think that at all. This psalm is usually interpreted in modern Christian worship with an upbeat, diatonically-major musical feel (i.e. Chris Tomlin’s “Forever”). I don’t necessarily have a huge problem with this, but I do think it is perhaps not the intention of the psalmist (but what do I know? This is speculative…). The idea of this Psalm is to remember God’s work, and to remind you of a realer reality than your sorrow, or your momentary happiness. It both sobers and stimulates. It’s musical interpretation seems to beg a paradox, just as its texts present their own paradoxes. Lyrical paradox seems possible, but musical paradox? How do we present paradox in sound and texture?

With a hopeful passacaglia, of course…

[I cannot tell you how much it pleases me that a British composer is the one who brings this to life best for me. Goodness I have such a partiality for 20th British musicians…]

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 5, IV. Passacaglia Moderato

Here, Vaughan Williams sets the obstinate structure of passacaglia against the hope of D Major. How true, it seems, to the psalmist – the psalmist who sets the obstinate structure of passacaglia (a backdrop of remembering God’s humbling works) against the hope of steadfast, unending, covenantal love.

His steadfast love endures forever.

Resonance: Lessons in Empathy

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. [proverbs 18.13]

Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda. [proverbs 25.20]

When I became a mother – still wide-eyed, green as could be, and doing my best to hide all my insecurities about how to meet the needs of a tiny human – I remember my own mother teaching me an unforgettable lesson. Oscar was crying, his tiny body writhing and I’m sure my postpartum body was writhing as well, probably responding to my own stress more than his. I swayed anxiously, silently, willing it to stop. My mom gently suggested, “Melissa, let him know you’re there.”

This sounded silly at first. How does he not know I’m here?! I’m holding him! But then I caught on to what she meant – I needed to let him know I was there by vocalizing my presence.

At first it was a wimpy little hum, but that hum began to mimic the rise and fall of Oscar’s cries and soon became a song-like cry along with him. He began calming down quickly, but by this point I was feeling alongside him. I felt what he was feeling: reaching out for comfort, love, presence. I teared up, not necessarily out of sadness that he was sad, or out of happy surprise that my mother’s suggestion had worked so well, but because I was empathizing. I was sounding along with him. I was resonating with him.

Resonance in music is a universal, physical phenomenon that is as mysterious as it is measurable. If you are a nerd who wants to know more about the actual physics of it all, you can click here. The long and short of it is that all tones are interconnected, some more strongly than others, and when you play one note, you are actually hearing a series of notes all resonating together. This is called a harmonic series. When one note is played, its own unique harmonic series vibrates along with it (although this is too slight for our ears to pick up on in any obvious way), and we refer to this as sympathetic vibrations or sympathetic resonance. This sympathetic resonance is what gives a note its richness, its distinct tone and place in the harmonic world.

It is amazing to me that our physical bodies are hardwired with sympathetic resonance as well. Many a new-mom can tell you that if she hears a baby cry, her body will physically empathize (there is a reason nursing pads exist!). Even if she does not feel an emotional response to the cry, her body will tell her, “You should.” On that day when I first had “sympathetic resonance” with Oscar, I was able to emotionally empathize and therefore apply a soothing balm to both of our uneasy spirits.

Sympathetic resonance, both in music and in my experiences as a mother, has taught me much about empathy in other relationships. Empathy doesn’t always come easily, and at times I think we can even fight it (any of my well-trained counselor friends want to dissect that one for me?). But as I look at and understand the harmonic richness that occurs in the musical world due to sympathetic resonance, and as I experience the calming and connecting power of resonating with my child, I can’t help but wonder what power it would have to let ourselves resonate with others in the same way.

Perhaps it is simply a matter of listening and letting whatever possible chords that can be struck within you to indeed be struck. This doesn’t mean you understand or can relate to everything someone else feels. Again, music provides the perfect analogy: a low C on the piano isn’t going to cause sympathetic vibrations in every other note on the keyboard, only the notes within its harmonic series. In the same way, I believe that due to the imago Dei – image of God, in all of us – we are able to connect with anyone simply because we are human. At first, it may feel like we are acting, to just resonate back what we hear. But just like the strings pulled tightly across the soundboard of a piano, or the swirling emotions of motherhood, sounding back and resonating with another means that at some point, we too will be moved.

I opened this post with two verses from Proverbs because they so beautifully capture pictures of empathy. Usually when we think of empathy in the Bible, we think of Romans 12.15, “Rejoice with those that rejoice; weep with those that weep.” As true and valuable as that verse is, I think it has been taught and communicated in such an imperative way that makes it, at times, a barrier to true empathy. The Proverbs verses are more imagistic and imaginative.  The second proverb in particular is so rich – you can almost feel the chill of taking of a garment on a cold day, or the bubbling of the soda. Using one of my two primary lenses for viewing the world around me (musicianship and motherhood), I now leave you with my nerdy, overstated interpretations of these proverbs in hopes that you, too, may resonate with others and continue on a lifelong journey of lessons in empathy.

Just like a harmonic series cannot and will not sound before the first note has been struck, so also we cannot and should not attempt to resonate with someone before we have listened to them. [interpretation of proverbs 18.13]

Just like a note will only cause sympathetic vibrations in the notes within its harmonic series, so also we should only empathize by sounding within the parameters of an individual’s emotional context. [interpretation of proverbs 25.20]