Friday, February 22, 2013

Speaking figuratively

This week in church I'm playing a piece by Jan Sweelinck based on the hymn "I Call to You, Lord Jesus Christ" (or, in the original German, "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ." Mr. Sweelinck lived from the latter 16th and into the early 17th centuries. He lived in Amsterdam for most of his life. He wrote organ music. He didn't own an IPOD or have a website. Or go to Disney world. What are the chances that a 21st century American is going to get something out of his music?

And yet that is my quest this week as I try to communicate with my congregation in a way that will at least stir some sense of understanding, if not appreciation, for the music of this seemingly remote individual. After all, I didn't really feel a sense of familiarity or understanding when I began learning the music, and I've had a lot more experience in musical matters than someone who walks into a church on Sunday morning and hears a piece by Sweelinck for the first time. To me, being able to communicate something that will help remove the barriers between the listener and the composer is important. But how to do it? And, can't the music just speak for itself?

An interesting question early this week led to some interesting results. While playing the piece through I started to wonder why the composer kept shifting gears so often: now the accompaniment was rapid, now slow, now jumped around, now was a series of smooth runs. What was making him change his mind so often? And yet, for all that, the hymn tune remained.

I had a little suspicion of what might be going on here. A number of composers of the time, particularly when they wrote music with words, or, in this case, music related to words in which the text is silent (ie, it is based on a hymn which you sing, but it is for organ alone so the words of the hymn are only implied) subscribed to the idea that you could invest those words with meaning depending on what you did with the music. Known as the "doctrine of figures" the idea was that if the notes when up it meant something, or if they went down it meant something; if they jumped around or were very active it meant something, and so forth. In its most extreme form one could get the idea that putting a composition together didn't involve creativity at all, and that, when faced with a concept, all you had to do was look up the "musical word" that meant that idea and you were all set. I don't think it really worked that way, though it might have tended in that direction.

I have to say I don't think because I am not much of an expert on this doctrine of figures. I've read about it here and there but I've had trouble locating any good sources that really explain it in detail. A few composers of the time wrote extensive works about the idea, complete with a compendium of musical analogues, and I hope eventually to get my hands on them and find out a few things. In the meantime, though, I've been going through middlemen.

It's rare that when I go online to find something out I get so enlightened so quickly, but, as it happened, an organist/scholar in Canada had posted a fascinating video in which she played the same piece I'm playing on Sunday, and, as each line of the silent text goes by, not only does she put the words on the screen, in Dutch and English, but her thoughts on what Sweelinck is doing, and why. Since I am new to this particularly field I don't know how certain she can be about it--how much is scholarly intuition or creative insight? But I have to admit it is intriguing. My favorite part of the video (and the music) involves a line from the last verse in which Sweelinck suddenly (at 8:15 in the video) switches to a triple time dance texture at the words "if temptation comes, Lord, defend me." Why there? Well, for many a religious soul in those times (and ours) dancing was worldly, sinful, and generally a bad idea. So apparently, summoning up a dance was a good way to remind us of a temptation we'd do well to avoid.

There are other ideas present in the music--times when the notes wander up and down aimlessly, times when they have jagged edges to represent negative emotions--all explained in this video. I'm linking to it here because I think it might well produce a kind of aha moment for you as well, and show something that we didn't realize was there. Sweelinck is indeed praying his way through this music, taking the text of the hymn as the basis for everything he does; it is not just an exercise in pretty music or finger digitation.

But to a larger question, because a few of you musicians out there will no doubt think all of this unnecessary. Shouldn't it all be obvious? Should we ruin the music by explaining it?

The composers of the time seemed to feel that explanation was unnecessary  and that what they were doing would be obvious to anybody. Perhaps they were being presumptuous. There are times, of course, when the notes go up or down or do something particularly sensational, that it does seem that most people would likely react to it pretty much the same way. People do that with marches and minor key music, flashy toccatas and erudite fugues. But it can quickly become a question of just how similarly we react and just when is a musical idea too subtle to admit that same idea to everyone regardless of preconditioning?

I've decided not to assume too much--after all, I didn't know most of this was there until I went looking for it. And I've decided part of my role as an organist is to help other people find these things, too--to appreciate their heritage, and to get something out of what we are doing on Sunday morning, as well.

Which is where the last sentence of my program notes took a turn this week. So far this may seem like a fairly learned exercise, of the understanding, and historical knowledge. But Sweelinck wasn't interested in making musical analogies for their own sake. He is setting a prayer to music. That isn't about simply knowing the words--it goes beyond that. It is about meaning them. Making meaning--in music, and in the hearts of the hearers.

Here's the video: Enjoy!

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