Friday, February 1, 2013

Easter, out of season

I've been sort of depressed lately. Here in Illinois it has been very cold and very dark for most of January, added to which my wife has been in Europe researching this month so much of the time it is just me and the cat.

On Monday an interesting thing happened. I was at the library to find a completely different piece of music when I saw a volume of organ works by Alexander Guilmant. I get uncomfortable when a book at the library stares at me so I had to do something about it. Realizing that Mr. Guilmant has a pretty big name in the world of organ literature and that I had never actually played anything by the man, I picked up the volume and started to page through it. The very first piece caught my eye. "This doesn't look very hard" I thought. It was 10 pages long--on the other hand, it seemed about the difficulty level of the Dubois Toccata, a festive and effective piece which I had discovered last summer and learned in about two days.

I took it to church and started to practice. Up until then I'd been having one of those days when nothing seems to be any fun and joy is not to be had anywhere. But this piece just leaks joy and exultation in vast quantities, and besides, with the organ going full blast (I normally learn new pieces with only a few stops and add the color once I've gotten the hang of the basics) how could my mood not be elevated?

Then I remembered that I hadn't yet decided what to play in church for next Sunday, and suddenly this seemed a good choice!

Not being one to leave well enough alone, however, I went home and did some googling and found out something about the music. It is an "offertoire" and, according to the title, it is based on "O filii et filiæ," which is an old hymn of the church--nearly six hundred years old. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (itself celebrating its hundredth anniversary, by the way), it is a hymn that expresses the "mystery of the resurrection." Which, of course, makes it an Easter hymn, and we haven't even started Lent.

Here's the hymn tune. Listen.

The way that this hymn expresses mystery is itself curious. It is cast in the minor mode. Minor key music will play a significant role in the musical selections the choir director and I choose over the six weeks of Lent, that season of penitence and sober contemplation of sin, mortality, and all the other ponderous things some of us would just prefer to avoid. But for Easter itself, that festival of resurrection--on that day, when the triumphant shout is heard, "Christ is Risen!" and, for the first time in a month and a half :  "Alleluia!"--on that day, it is not likely the minor mode will find much of a home. And yet, here it is, in an Easter, not a Lenten, hymn.

Do you suppose that caused Mr. Guilmant any concern? I raise this question because I think it did present him with a problem, and because of the way he solved it.

The piece begins with a joyful dance in a major key. Cleverly, our composer has chosen to base that opening section, not on the first phrase of the hymn, but on the second. That's because the second lacks that tell-tale minor third that irrevocably casts the music in that mode. The second phrase, taken by itself, could be either major or minor (in fact, it's the only part of the tune that doesn't give itself away like that). Guilmant surrounds the bit of tune with major key music, and a bumpy waltz. There's plenty for the feet of the organist to do, also.

 After a minute and a half, there is a transition. The music gets quieter, and prepares us for the entrance of the tune itself, in its minor key. It starts at 2:11 and begins a series of 3 variations. Then, at 4:13, the jubilant music returns. But like any composer touching the profound, Guilmant doesn't make the minor key just disappear. About five minutes into the piece there seems to be an epic struggle which goes on for nearly a minute. The harmonic pallette keeps expanding, becoming something else again and again and refusing to just settle down into a cozy major chord.  Finally, it veers into the triumph of the opening. But right as we head into the final turn, there is the tune, pealing out one last time, in minor again! And then those last four chords--so dissonant, so tense, so agonizing. Organists love chords like these, actually, because they produce a kind of awesome, terrifying noise you can't get on any other instrument. And just as surely, they lead us to that final ecstatic shout on a G major chord which I can't help but hold for at least ten seconds.

What the composer has done, then, is to put the whole tune, with its sense of mystery, in the middle, in the heart of the piece, and surround it with music of joy and exuberance--our reaction to it.

What that fascinating speculation doesn't do, however, is give me an excuse for playing an Easter offertory on Transfiguration Sunday, the week before Lent begins. And for that, I'm going to have to get homiletic. In other words, just as pastors do, I'm going to have to reinterpret the available facts in light of new events, to give a new focus to old material. Don't look shocked. Jesus did it, too. And Paul.

The story of the Transfiguration is not only a joyful occurrence (there are some Biblical scholars who think it began life as an early resurrection story, but that is out of our depth), it is the last chance we will have to gather ourselves before the season of Lent. Suppose you didn't know where that hymn tune came from or what it is for. Might you hear the middle section, begun amidst the celebration, as a foreshadowing of the days ahead ("the Son of Man must be killed....")? Suppose we take the foreshadowing idea a little further, and use the beginning and end of the piece to remind us of the ultimate goal of that season even before we begin it. Be prepared, for the days ahead will be difficult, but after that will come the fulfillment, and what a party!

I like the idea of looking ahead. I also hope it holds water, because this is the second time this year I've played something out of season and I'm hoping they don't take away my Liturgy Licence. There is also, of course, the old justification that every Sunday is a "little Easter," even the ones in Lent, celebrations of the Resurrection. I've often thought that was more of an excuse to avoid the more painful dimensions of existence by skipping right to the good part every week, as if Guilmant had left out all of those dissonant chords before the end. But sometimes we need an Easter out of season. It helped me banish some personal darkness this week, and I hope it does some good for you, too.

Happy Easter!

Guilmant: Offertoire sur "Fillii"

(offertory based on "O sons and daughters," let us sing!)

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