Archive for September, 2014

Into the Autumn: Brahms and Bach

Rehearsal of Brahms Requiem, Seattle, August 30, 2014

Rehearsal of Brahms Requiem, Seattle, August 30, 2014, conducted by Hartwig Eichberg.

One of the themes of Compline is remembering our mortality — and several experiences have kept this subject on my mind over the last three weeks.

On August 30, I sang in a performance of the Requiem by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). It was not given in a church or concert hall, but at an intimate gathering at the home of friends Al and Janet Berg. Thirty singers rehearsed the piano-four-hands version, had dinner, then performed the work from beginning to end without pause. Since then, one section of the Requiem has been playing over and over in my head; it’s the beginning of the second movement:

Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. (I Peter 1:24)

You may well remember how this goes, but if not, there is a lovely performance of it here by the Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir of Denmark (click on “SHOW MORE,” then on the “10:07” link).

I particularly love how Brahms presents the first sentence of the text, sung in unison by the choir in a slow, somber, triple meter. Then comes an orchestral interlude which builds and builds until the choir repeats the text at full volume — powerful and inexorable, as if to say, “No, no — death comes to us all – we can’t escape it!”

A week after singing the Brahms, I attended my 50th high school reunion — a serious reminder of how quickly time passes, as well as a joyous celebration of life and common memories, especially of classmates who have died. I also thought of Carl Crosier, whose Requiem Mass was taking place in Honolulu at the same time. I had written about Carl in my previous post , and the service booklet and music for his Mass (which included the traditional Gregorian Requiem chants, sung by a women’s schola) can be found here.

The following week, at the beginning of Compline, we sang “The duteous day now closeth” (words by Paul Gerhardt, 1648,
translated by Robert Bridges, 1899). Its three verses speak of gratitude at the end of the day, the beauty of the universe, and our “mortal blindness,” in which we lose sight of life’s preciousness and meaning:

The duteous day now closeth,
each flower and tree reposeth,
shade creeps o’er wild and wood:
let us, as night is falling,
on God our Maker calling,
give thanks to him, the Giver good.

Now all the heavenly splendor
breaks forth in starlight tender
from myriad worlds unknown;
and we, this marvel seeing,
forget our selfish being
for joy of beauty not our own.

Though long our mortal blindness
has missed God’s lovingkindness
and plunged us into strife;
yet when life’s day is over,
shall death’s fair night discover
the fields of everlasting life.

The melody of “The duteous day now closeth” was originally a secular song of parting called “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen,” by Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450–1517), but the version we sang was harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Bach knew it as the Lutheran chorale, “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” (“O world, I must leave you”). Here is the first verse:

O Welt, ich muß dich lassen,
ich fahr dahin mein Straßen
ins ewig Vaterland.
Mein’ Geist will ich aufgeben,
dazu mein’ Leib und Leben
legen in Gottes gnädig Hand.
O World, I must leave you, I travel from here along my way to the everlasting fatherland. I will give up my spirit so that my body and life lie in God’s merciful hand.

From the Gerhardt text, to the Isaac tune, to the Lutheran chorale text — in so many ways this hymn sums up the thought that we need to be mindful that life passes quickly, and we should live as though this day might be our last. Perhaps Johannes Brahms had this in mind, when in the final year of his life he wrote the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, which include two settings of “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen.” It was, as some say, his final goodbye.


Remembering Carl Crosier (1945-2014)

Carl-largeJust four months after the death of Peter Hallock, founder of the Compline Choir in Seattle, we mourn the passing of Carl Crosier, Peter’s business associate and chief executor of his estate, who died on August 28. Carl heard Compline as a student in Seattle in the 1970s, and, after leaving the mainland to work in Hawaii, formed a choir at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu to sing the service. Carl retired as director of this choir about three years ago, and I did a feature on the Honolulu connection in January of 2012. Since then, the service has been discontinued, but I’m still keeping an opening for Hawaii on this blog’s new tab, “Where to experience Compline” as a reminder that this was the first of many choirs modeled after Seattle’s Compline Choir.

You can read more about Carl, his many accomplishments, and his memorial services in his wife Katherine’s blog. But I would like to tell one story, which comes from my book, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline. It is about our experience together during a trip to England in 2000. I’ll quote from the book, along with a few editorial notes in brackets:

* * * * * * *

“In 2000, the Compline Choir made a trip to England; it wasn’t an ordinary choir tour, but rather a pilgrimage to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary since our founder and director, Peter Hallock, had been a student in Canterbury at the Royal School of Church Music. It was in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral that Hallock and his fellow students would sing Compline, mainly for the benefit of hearing the chants resonate in the wonderful subterranean space.

When we visited Canterbury Cathedral we sang our office of Compline in the choir stalls of the Cathedral for the general public. As the service progressed, I recalled that Canterbury was founded by monks, and that Compline would have been sung every evening in this place, with the same chants, over 900 years before. It seemed as though the same spirit passed from those ancient voices to the students in 1950, and through Peter Hallock to us, and on to many choirs throughout North America.

Having completed Compline, we had arranged in advance to process down to the crypt, where we would sing, just for our own group, one of Peter’s anthems. I was reminded of the medieval custom to process to another chapel after Compline to sing a special anthem, and felt again a connection to those that had gone before. [We processed two by two, with Carl and I leading our respective columns.] We walked silently past the altar, marking the spot where Thomas Becket had been murdered in 1170, then downstairs to the crypt. We gathered in the middle of the chamber, under the low stone arches, in the final resting place of many of the saints. I thought of the columbarium in the crypt of St. Mark’s in Seattle, where the remains of friends and acquaintances lie. We had arrived at our pilgrimage destination.

Canterbury crypt

Crypt, Canterbury Cathedral

The anthem Peter had selected was a composition he had written nine years before, using the words of a prayer fashioned from the ending of a sermon given by John Donne: “Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven.” This poem and the occasion of our singing in the crypt at Canterbury has always been linked together for me as a meditation on our dying:

[You can listen to the music on this link]

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
Into the house and gate of heaven.
To enter that gate and dwell in that house,
Where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
No noise nor silence, but one equal music;
No fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
No ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
In the habitation of thy glory and dominion,
World without end, Amen.

It was only years later, in writing this book, that I sought out Donne’s sermon<1>, and found out how much it says about life and death.

The sermon that Donne preached that day was on Acts 7:60: “And when he had said this, he fell a sleep.” Lent had just begun, and Donne began his sermon by saying “He that will dy with Christ upon Good-Friday, must hear his own bell toll all Lent.”<2> The verse from Acts comes at the end of the life of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose last words, as he was stoned to death, were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” and then, having uttered these words, he died – or, in the King James version – “he fell asleep.” Donne seizes on this short verse of Acts to make two points: first that we must be something, answer some calling in our lives, and live out our days following the example of a person of integrity, such as Stephen [and Carl]; and second, that having done our best, we will not die, but sleep the sleep of Stephen, a blessed rest until the Resurrection.

We began by thinking of sleep as a little death, and we end by a vision of death as but a sleep. As darkness is succeeded by light, so sleep is followed by waking. Donne concludes his sermon as follows: ‘ They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkenesse nor dazling, but one equall light, no noyse nor silence, but one equall musick, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equall communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equall eternity. Keepe us Lord so awake in the duties of our Callings, that we may thus sleepe in thy Peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility which thou affordest us here, to an Actuall and undeterminable possession of that Kingdome which thy Sonne our Saviour Christ Jesus hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible Blood. Amen.’

May we experience eternity now, in this life, a foretaste of that “one equal music” and “one equal possession,” when we awake from the great sleep.”

* * * * * * *

And may the souls of Carl and all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.

<1> John Donne, “A Sermon Preached at White-hall, February 29, 1627 [1627/8],” in The Sermons of John Donne, vol.8, no. 7, edited by E.M. S. Simpson and G. R. Potter, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956; digital publisher Brigham Young University, 2004-05).
<2> Ibid., 1.