Friday, March 15, 2013

A Musical Mountain (part three)

This is part three of a six-part series. Here are parts one and two.

I said on Monday that we were going to take a music detour. That's because after introducing the dramatic, tense opening theme and the subdued, lyrical theme and having them hold the floor for about five minutes, Franck give us an entirely different melody, with a different character, as a tender interlude during the middle of the large piece before hurtling on toward the majestic conclusion as the two earlier themes continue their opposite aims. Which one will dominate, we will wonder, as the tension builds.

But for now, a respite. And a chance for theological reflection. In past years on Palm-Passion Sunday at the conclusion of the service, I have played Marcel Dupre's Crucifixion movement from the Symphonie-Passion. Given the programmatic name, it is not surprising that it is a hair-raising, dramatic piece with a single narrative arc and a terrifying climax, followed by a numbing conclusion. We leave the sanctuary in darkness and silence afterward and you can hear why.

Franck's piece comes from the same larger tradition but is cast in quite a different vein. We sing a piece of music in our church which contains a reference to the "wrath of God" which one of our pastors has changed to "love of God." This emphasis on God's love rather than God's wrath could be said to have its musical reflection in this year's selection. As the altar gets stripped and the sanctuary darkens it won't be simply dissonant, tense music that is heard, but also this:


Much as I labelled the theme we encountered in part one of the series the "suffering" theme, I'm calling this one the "for God so loved the world" theme. It is actually contained within this broad, spacious middle episode, and after it leaves, we won't hear it again. Remember, we are using our homiletic imaginations here. It isn't that Franck actually specified that that was what he meant when he wrote this piece. Also, as we're labeling things this way we are also listening for the musical argument. One of the things that bothers many musicians is the thought that we'll be so busy hearing our own meanings in a piece of music we'll forget about the music itself.

About halfway through this long, luxurious episode come a few bars of something we've heard before:


that something is our "sacrificial suffering" theme, the slow Choral-like tune we discussed back in the first blog, only now it has been transformed into a major key. Music's ability to make these transformations could prove fertile ground for theologians. You'll also want to keep your ears on what Mr. Franck does with that theme in the next two installments of this series.

The music swells, building on thematic scraps from the seemingly endless melody we heard at the start of the section. Grandly it sings out in a triumphant major key, and then suddenly shifts to minor where we get another glimpse of the "suffering" theme in the soprano....


and finally, no longer much a "hint" and more of a baseball bat--the theme booms out in the pedals...


before we are at last poised on the brink of what seems like a cosmic battle. Now the music reaches its loudest point yet--but that final chord isn't a final chord; it lurches us forward to meet the final struggle....

on to part four

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