Friday, May 31, 2013

Meditating on the Trinity

Last week, for Trinity Sunday, I played a couple of golden oldies by Michael Praetorius on a hymn prescribed for the day. These pieces are a long way from what I played last week--about 400 years older, and more subdued. I don't recall any compliments on the music after the service, either. They weren't meant to be impressive, but reflective.

Praetorius: O Blessed Light of the Trinity

Some of that will, of course, owe to the interpretation, which I will admit was probably not historically correct. The reason for that has to do with the construction of the organ. In the beginning, in the days of the Roman Empire, when the pipe organ was just starting out (it dates back to the 3rd century B. C.) it would have been small and portable, with only one bank of pipes, and probably would have sounded a lot like the piece you've just heard. But by the Middle Ages, builders were expanding the organ. In an age when large and unwieldy armor was in and Giorgio Armani was out (or, more correctly, not "in" yet), organ builders attached several ranks of pipes together and provided no way for the organist to chose to play some but not others, thus stopping the air flow to some groups of pipes and being able to change the sound of the organ at will. This is called "blockwerk"--everything together in one great block. It was all or nothing, which meant the instrument was loud all the time. Pretty subtle.

Later on, organ builders began liberating these ranks for one another. I'm not very informed about this history and am not sure when it occurred in each country and to what extent, though I suspect Mr. Praetorius had an organ that was capable of such tonal variations. He championed the idea of "polychoral" performances, which basically meant contrasting ensembles, both in choral performance and when writing for organ. Apparently this was still something of a innovation in his day because he attended a conference of organists from all over the German states in which he expressed this idea: it was a chance to discuss all the latest ideas with his colleagues, and this was apparently the hot compositional item of the day.

Whether Praetorius himself would have performed the piece the way I have (a recording I stumbled across on the internet recently takes a much more "blockwerk" approach, and is five times louder) it seemed to me, using the resources I have to draw upon, that this simple registration,which uses only an 8 foot flute stop, lends itself well to a contemplative, mystical quality.

But just like last week, when I mentioned the irony of celebrating Pentecost with a Babbel of languages, I'm not wholly comfortable with this idea, either. And the problem, for me, is the context.

A year or so ago, driving through the Midwest, I was listening to a Catholic radio station. The fellow on the radio was complaining about how the church had taken a wrong turn during the 60s and 70s. All of these radical troublemakers, he said, stirring things up trying to get equal rights for this group and that group, and talking about social justice and all of that rot, instead of just concentrating on those good old core doctrines. Somebody called in to defend some of that social action and he told them basically that they should just knock it off and "meditate on the Trinity." Now, it does seem like it is possible to care about the plight of your neighbor, to seek justice in the world, and to meditate on the Trinity. But here, as far too often, the two were very pointedly set in opposition to one another. Meditation was supposed to be a substitute for action. Don't complain about anything, people, leave the driving to us. Contemplate the majesty of God while another factory in a poor county collapses and kills hundreds of people because somebody didn't want to be bothered building it up to code because it would cut into their profit margin (which seems a little short-sighted now that production has stalled). Don't say anything, just read your Bible and think about Divine mysteries. And if your neighbor gets unsafe water and inadequate food, or doesn't get a voice in his or her government, or a decent wage, or the same legal rights as everyone else, or is treated like the enemy because they don't practice the dominant religion or have the wrong complexion, just...calm down and think about how terrific God is. And stop bothering us about that other stuff.

For some reason, I don't think the Trinity would be all that impressed.

Last week our pastor spoke about Memorial Day, and spent quite a lot of time advocating for peace, and not the "gee I wish we had some" variety, but the kind you have to really work for, the kind you have to wage, just as you wage war. If I'd known that a few days earlier I might have been able to cobble together some peace music (I have a few ideas under the topic in my "church music ideas" document). But one can't always plan too far ahead, and at the moment we don't really know what he is going to talk about from one week to the next, so I noted that it was Trinity Sunday and planned accordingly. So while he was crying out for peace, there I was meditating. On the Trinity.

I hope it helped some people. It bugged me, because I couldn't help noting the juxtaposition I outlined above, the one where doctrine is a substitute for living like an actual Christian instead of being a "healing teaching."

"Peace, peace!," cried Jeremiah. "But there is no peace!"

No there isn't, Virginia. But we can pretend.

Praetorius: O Blessed Light of the Trinity, verse two: This morning, God, We Praise You

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