Friday, December 21, 2012

A little Light on a dark day

This isn't the last time you'll hear me on this blog or elsewhere saying that a church musician needs to be flexible. But that virtue was made all the more necessary in the case of Jan Peterszoon Sweelinck.

As I told my congregation in October, Sweelinck grew up in Catholic Amsterdam in the late 16th century. He was mentored by a Catholic priest and then given the post of organist at the "Old Church." A year later, the Protestants came to town.

They didn't just set up shop across the street and try to compete with the Catholics for spiritual customers. Instead, they took over the church, and the town, and required everyone to become Protestants...or else.

At least they didn't smash the organ. One of the things Protestants liked to do in those years after the Reformation was destroy anything that they associated with Catholicism, which pretty much included all vestiges of art and music. Somehow they made it a short trip from Luther's 95 Theses,  which complained about the church's literal selling of absolution for money, to the Regulatory Principle, which said that if it wasn't expressly spelled out in the New Testament, it wasn't acceptable in worship. Since there is nothing about pipe organs in the New Testament, these were out.

It didn't take the leadership in Amsterdam to figure out that there might be a small problem with this zealous approach. The congregation was expected to learn a whole raft of new hymns, and, being average churchgoing types, they weren't likely to pick up on them really quickly unless somebody played them through for them a few times so they could listen to them. So Sweelinck got the job of playing the new hymns for the congregation--before the service began. And, while he was at it, he made brilliant compositions out of them, which seemed to be tolerable to the relatively enlightened Protestants of Amsterdam.

What's curious about the piece I'm going to play for you today, however, is that it is based on a Catholic chant. Did Sweelinck write this prior to the Protestant takeover? Or was it later, because it reflected something of his artistic heritage and he wanted to do it (in which case, was it never heard in his church?) I pose the question, but I don't know the answer. However, if you haven't visited's Godmusic page this week, here is what I told my congregation about the music:

Our theme for Advent this year is "light," which is why this selection was chosen. However, it is not "liturgically correct:" the detailed procedures of the Catholic church required that this ancient chant be sung at  Compline during Lent. Compline is the last "office" of the day, when the monks are getting ready for bed, which may explain why it parts of it read like a sinister ancestor of the child's prayer "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep." The text begins amiably enough: "Christ, who art the light and day, You drive away the darkness of night, You are called the light of light, For you proclaim the blessed light." Later the prayer asks to keep us free from sin and not to let "the enemy snatch us away" while we sleep as well as to keep our souls awake and vigilant. The hymn concludes with a doxology of praise to God. Sweelinck has set three verses of the chant, for the second of which I am employing the trombone stop on the pedal to bring out the melody; the third uses full organ.

Sweelinck: Christe qui lux et dies (Christ, who is the light and day)

It seemed an appropriate selection for this blog, on the shortest day of the year, and the longest night, December 21st, the Winter Solstice

Merry Solstice. May some light shine in our darkness. I'll see you on Christmas Eve.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.