Archive for February, 2011

Post-Compline organ music

Flentrop Organ at St. Mark's

Program for the dedication of the Flentrop Organ, September, 1965, with Flentrop’s autograph.

Last Sunday night after the Compline Service, a young organist gave a solo recital on the “mighty Flentrop”, the big pipe organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle.  It’s not too unusual to have a guest organist, but an unusual thing happened at the end that inspired me to write about organ music this week.

Informal organ recitals have taken place immediately after Compline since 1965, when the organ, built by D. A. Flentrop in Zaandam, Holland, was installed.  The Flentrop was one of the first neo-Baroque or mechanical-action instruments installed in Seattle, and one of the largest of its kind in North America.  It made St. Mark’s almost immediately a mecca, a pilgrimage destination, for every organist in the country. Peter Hallock, organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s from 1951-1991, and founder/director of the Compline Choir, made the organ loft available to anyone who wanted to play after Compline.  A crowd of us would climb the stairs and listen while Bill Giddings, a member of the Compline Choir, would either play the organ himself or facilitate the playing of others.  I’m sure that this after-Compline event brought more people to the service itself, leading to the growth of attendees by 1967 to between 400-600 people, mostly teenagers and young adults.  Bill, now a retired chemistry professor, still takes his place at the organ most Sunday nights, and many people hike up the stairs to get a closer look and listen to the magnificent instrument.  To give you an idea of what it’s like up in the loft, here’s a video of St. Mark’s organist Mel Butler giving an organ demo after church.

Last Sunday was the night before Presidents’ Day, and we had an extra-heavy attendance of young people at Compline.  The organist, Kyle Kirschenman, was himself only a junior in high school [update 2012: now beginning organ performance studies at the University of Washington in Seattle].  He reminded me of so many young organists, who over the years have made their pilgrimage to the Flentrop.  One of those prominent in the organ “free-for-alls” back in the late 1960s was the then 16-year-old Roger Sherman, who now heads Gothic Records, a national source of organ and choral music.  In 1993 he started the radio program The Organ Loft, which in Seattle follows the Compline Service on Classic KING-FM; The Organ Loft has both organ and choral music, and it’s the next best thing (and in some ways better!) to being at St. Mark’s in person after Compline.  Another young person I remember was Bruce Neswick, who sang with the Compline Choir while in college, and is now the organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City [update 2012: he’s now associate professor of music (organ) at Indiana University] .

I have always sensed intuitively a link between music and spirituality, but could never until recently articulate the similarity between a concert and a worship experience.  I have come, mainly through being a Benedictine oblate, to see that deep listening is the same as meditation, and that the process of focusing one’s attention on music in either performance or listening is no different than a Zen monk focusing on the qualities of a moss-covered rock.  Many of the young people that come to Compline refer to it as a “concert”, and I don’t have a problem with that.  The divine office is a concert for deep listening — and afterward, organ music provides additional opportunities for mindfulness.

Taking a larger view of musical beauty, all forms of creation, whether they be meant for deep reflection, or simply for enjoyment, have that divine creative spark.  Spirituality has been defined as “a stance toward life [where] more and more everything cries out ‘God’ for us” (John Gorsuch, An Invitation to the Spiritual Journey, 1990).  Spirituality allows us to process the experience of sound as communion with the Divine, through our own individual discrimination-process (called “taste”), which takes in the qualities of the particular work, the intent of the performance, memories of past hearings, and the special circumstances of the moment.  The qualities of a piece of music can vary from those requiring deep listening to those that are simply entertaining, full of playfulness and joy.

We experienced both kinds of beauty with Kyle’s recital last Sunday.  After his program, which included an arrangement of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings“, the people gave him a round of applause. He then launched into an arrangement of “Be Our Guest”, from the 1991 Disney movie “Beauty and the Beast”.  Many of the young people in the audience knew the lyrics, and sang along — I even saw several young women dancing on the labyrinth in one corner in sheer abandon. I smiled with recognition, at my own youthful excitement during the organ “free-for-alls” of the ’60s.  But I believe that this spontaneous sing-along was a first for these after-Compline concerts!

Not being familiar enough with the lyrics (even though I bought a copy of the film for my kids when it came out) I looked up “Be Our Guest”.  The final chorus really says it all about the kind of Benedictine hospitality that we have been offering at Compline since 1956:

Be our guest! Be our guest!
Our command is your request
It’s been years since we’ve had anybody here
And we’re obsessed
With your meal, with your ease
Yes, indeed, we aim to please
While the candlelight’s still glowing
Let us help you, We’ll keep going
Course by course, one by one
‘Til you shout, “Enough! I’m done!”
Then we’ll sing you off to sleep as you digest
Tonight you’ll prop your feet up
But for now, let’s eat up
Be our guest!
Be our guest!
Be our guest!
Please, be our guest!

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Psalm 91 and a movie

Filming “Nothing Against Life” (copyright, NAL Movie/Regan MacStravic – Picture by Regan MacStravic)

I’m going to digress from my usual recounting of recent events, and go back to October 2010, when Compline Choir took part in the filming of a scene from the movie Nothing Against Life.

The film, directed by Julio Ramirez, was shot entirely on location in Seattle   It follows four characters – two men and two women – whose lives intertwine in the final days before each attempts suicide.  Nothing Against Life centers around this taboo subject, and is intended to raise consciousness about suicide, and inspire people to get and/or give help before it’s too late.

One of the four characters, a young woman named “Wave”, comes to the Compline service at St. Mark’s, and finds a few moments’ peace from her troubled relationship with her religious fundamentalist parents.  Since we don’t allow photography during the Compline Service on Sunday evening, the filming took place on a Friday evening, with movie “extras” as Compline attendees.  In the scene, which lasts about three minutes, the camera pans over the Compline Choir chanting, and then picks up Wave and follows her as she enters the cathedral and walks up the center aisle to sit on the stairs beneath the altar with a number of other young people.  She makes eye contact with a young woman who smiles at her.

Jason Anderson, the director of the Compline Choir, had picked out several things for us to chant in simple plainsong while the action was taking place: “Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts” and Psalm 91.  It was actually my writing last week about Psalms 4 and 134 that got me thinking about Psalm 91, because the three of them, taken together, are the psalms that St. Benedict selected to be sung every night at Compline.

We spent from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. filming the scene.  Most of the time was spent waiting back in the choir room, or in our places.  The cathedral was teeming with activity – sound crew setting up mikes, camera crew practicing their run on a noiseless cart, wranglers wrangling the “extras”, and lighting people rigging up reflectors so our white surplices (as the director said afterward), “glowed like angels”.  I saw one person walking around, carrying a can of Red Bull, as if the energy of all this were not enough.  Finally came the moment to film the first take.  A ritual of things came in succession: the command for silence — the cry “rolling!” — the obligatory blackboard with the clattering arm — then an almost deafening silence — then the shocking cry from the director — “ACTION!”

Then it was up to me to begin — I was the cantor — to intone the first notes of “Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts” — to break open the incredible silence.  The words came out of my mouth almost as in slow motion.  There was something about the fact that this was going to go on celluloid, and perhaps live on much longer than I would, that made this moment so significant.  And this was October, my 46th anniversary of singing Compline – this film suddenly seemed to me to sum up, in three minutes, the very thing I had dedicated most of my adult life to do.  And now, singing to this imaginary young person who was contemplating suicide, came the reassuring words of Psalm 91 (to which you can listen here):

1  He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
2  He shall say to the LORD,”You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust.”
3  He shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter *
and from the deadly pestilence.
4  He shall cover you with his pinions, and you shall find refuge under his wings; *
his faithfulness shall be a shield and buckler.
5  You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, *
nor of the arrow that flies by day;
6  Of the plague that stalks in the darkness, *
nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.
7  A thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, *
but it shall not come near you.
8  Your eyes have only to behold *
to see the reward of the wicked.
9  Because you have made the LORD your refuge, *
and the Most High your habitation,
10 There shall no evil happen to you, *
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
11  For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.
12  They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
13  You shall tread upon the lion and the adder; *
you shall trample the young lion and the serpent under your feet.
14  Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
15  He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; *
I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
16  With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation.

Among the many things I could say about this psalm, I will select two for now.  First, if we are bound to God in love (verse 14), then we are at one with the power, the force that animates us, and is there available to us as our “true self” (Thomas Merton) — therefore, to quote Julian of Norwich, “all will be well”.  This is not delusional thinking, but simply that come what may, we are in the hands of God.  I often think of images like the buildings coming down on 9/11 when I sing such verses as “There shall no evil happen to you”.  Do we trust in God enough to always say the Compline “mantra” (from Psalm 31)  – “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”?

The other thing to consider is “how does God take care of us?”  Are we not the creatures of God?  As we are in the hands of God, are we not also the hands, the eyes, the ears of God for our fellow creatures?  I think this is the message that Julio Ramirez is getting at in his movie: listen to others — be aware of their needs, and help them to choose life.

I’ll be letting you know when the movie comes out.

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Compline Psalms 4 and 134

Psalm 4 from the Liber Usualis

Psalm 4 from the Liber Usualis

At Compline at St. Mark’s in Seattle, we often select the psalm according to the liturgical theme of the day, but occasionally we sing psalms that were prescribed by St. Benedict in his Rule for monasteries to be sung only and always at Compline.  Last Sunday we sang two of these – Psalms 4 and 134 (I’m using the Jewish numbering, which is widely used in bibles today, as opposed to the Latin Vulgate numbering, prevalent in scholarly discussions and  Catholic liturgy until the 1970s — here’s a decoder for the two numbering systems).  Peter Hallock composed for us a lovely setting of these two psalms, in which the very short Psalm 134 is used as a refrain (or antiphon) before and after Psalm 4.  Here is the text, taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP) that you can read while listening to it on our podcast (click on the “Play” button — the Psalms begin at about 3:40):

Psalm 134
Behold now, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, you that stand by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord; the Lord who made heaven and earth bless you out of Zion.

Psalm 4
1  Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; *
you set me free when I am hard-pressed;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
2  “You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; *
how long will you worship dumb idols
and run after false gods?”
3  Know that the LORD does wonders for the faithful; *
when I call upon the LORD, he will hear me.
4  Tremble, then, and do not sin; *
speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.
5  Offer the appointed sacrifices *
and put your trust in the LORD.
6  Many are saying,
“Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.
7  You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase,
8  I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; *
for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.

Behold now, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, you that stand by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord; the Lord who made heaven and earth bless you out of Zion.

Psalm 134 is the next-shortest psalm in the Bible – Psalm 117 has about half as many words.  Although the portion “you that stand by night in the house of the Lord” evokes the priestly class worshipping in the temple, Robert Alter, in his translation of The Book of Psalms (2007), comments (p. 464) that “the acts of the sacrificial cult were completed by sundown, but the reference here could be either to the tending of the fires and the temple lamps through the night or to those who stayed to pray, or perhaps to partake of the sacrificial feast, through the hours of the night”.  It seems like an excellent way to describe all who pray before retiring for the night.  Alter translates the psalm as three verses, beginning the third where the BCP has a semicolon.  His second verse begins “Lift up your hands toward the holy place and bless the Lord”, implying that the Hebrew qodesh (“holiness”) can not only designate the sanctuary, but might be “an epithet for the heavens”.  The psalm is wonderfully recripocal — we take the time at night to bless the Lord, and the Lord will bless us.  The fact that this psalm comes at the end of a cycle of fifteen “psalms of ascent” along with the night imagery makes it a natural end-of-the-day prayer.

A portion of Psalm 4 occurs as part of the Jewish Bedtime Shema, and I refer you to an excellent blog posting on this ritual by Paul Kent Oakley in his blog Night Prayers.  I knew that the Christian offices were built on the foundation of Jewish fixed-hour prayer, but I have only just begun to explore that history.  The “Shema Yisrael” (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One”) is the most important prayer in Judaism; the whole passage, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, is worth quoting:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NRSV)

The command to recite the Shema “when you lie down” is at the heart of Jewish prayer at the end of the day.  In the Bedtime Shema, after the psalmody, which includes Psalm 91 (the other psalm prescribed for Compline by St. Benedict), comes a threefold repetition of verse 4: “Quake, and do not offend.  Speak in your hearts on your beds, and be still.” (Alter translation, p. 11).  Another part of the Bedtime Shema could almost be a paraphrase of Psalm 4:

If you will only heed his every commandment—that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul— then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshipping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly from the good land that the Lord is giving you. (Deuteronomy 11:13-21, NRSV)

I find it interesting that although Psalm 4:7 only mentions grain and wine (Alter translation: “You put joy in my heart, from the time their grain and their drink did abound”), the writers of the Latin Vulgate (or perhaps the Greek Septuagint from which it was translated) must have had the passage from Deuteronomy in mind when they formed the more poetic “more than when grain and wine and oil increase” (see the Latin in vs. 8 of the chant pictured).

And for our last thought before we close our eyes tonight, we could hardly choose better than this:

I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.

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Presentation of the Lord in the temple

The Presentation of the Lord

The Presentation of the Lord

On February 2 was the feast of The Presentation of the Lord – it has a special meaning for Compline, so I will focus my thoughts on it this week.

The second chapter of the Gospel of Luke tells the story of how Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to “present him to the Lord”; it was also to fulfill the rite of purification forty days after childbirth.  I’ll let the gospel continue the story:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-32, New Revised Standard Version)

“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38)

The story of Simeon and Anna has two strong ideas which are central to the Office of Compline; the first is the message of Jesus as a light to enlighten the nations.  Simeon echoes Isaiah 49:6: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  The whole “Song of Simeon”, whose Latin beginning was Nunc dimittis servum tuum in pace, was placed in Compline in the Roman Rite as a Gospel Canticle just before the Preces (prayers), a position comparable to Benedictus at Lauds and the Magnificat at Vespers.  During Compline, as the light turns to darkness, we turn to Christ our light.  Whenever I sing this canticle I am always reminded of the Presentation, which is also called Candlemas.  Before the beginning of the Mass, there is a procession during which the Nunc Dimittis with its antiphon Lumen ad revelationem gentium is sung, and beeswax candles are blessed.

It’s another feast of light at a time when winter is at its midpoint; celebrated 40 days after Christmas, on February 2, it is about halfway through the 90 days of winter.  To underscore it as a turning-point, the Marian Antiphon sung at the end of Compline changes to a new one, Ave Regina Caelorum.  The images of light continue on February 3, St. Blaise’s Day, when in the Catholic church people have their throats blessed by the priest, who holds two crossed candles over their heads or throats.

The other deep symbol of the Nunc Dimittis for Compline is that of Simeon now able to die in peace because he has seen the Savior.  In Compline, we prepare for sleep, but we also prepare for that greater sleep which is death.  We, like Simeon, are able to let go, and rest in the hope of the Resurrection. I am also moved by Luke’s inclusion of both male and female elders in the story.  Not only is Christ’s light and resurrection available to all peoples, there is no distinction in gender or rank (always take note whenever “widows” are mentioned!).

I’ve updated this post so you can listen to a setting of the Nunc Dimittis by William Byrd, on the website that accompanies my book, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (2013). Also, a lovely contemporary composition by Johannes Eccard (1553 – 1611) tells the story of the Presentation; you can listen to a recording of it here.

May the last verse be our prayer today: Help now thy servants, gracious Lord, That we may ever be As once the faithful Simeon was, Rejoicing but in Thee; And when we must from earth departure take, May gently fall asleep, and with Thee wake.

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