Friday, May 22, 2015

sleepers, awake?

A lot of Americans probably are hoping to sleep in this weekend. Sometimes it seems as though the church is designed to help.

I've been having a lot of pointed fun lately pointing out the difference between the story of Pentecost and the low tolerance level many of us church folks have for anything that isn't eminently predictable and repetitive. Still, our church's creative team has managed to come up with ways that dramatize the events of this unusual story, and though there have been internal disagreements about how much chaos is a good thing (the choices this year seem to be between very little and considerably less) we have actually taken the congregation out of its routine for the last four or five years now. Now the question is whether that breakout is itself becoming routine.

Back when it looked like this year's disruptiveness was going to be at an all time minimum, I found what might actually turn out to be an effective offertory. It is a piece by Max Reger, a prolific composer who had not had the privilege of a Faith UMC performance during my tenure (or very likely that of any of my predecessors). It is called simply, "Pentecost." (or Pfingsten in German)

Reger's Pentecost is an essay on a standard Pentecost hymn, "Come Holy Spirit." That is, it would be standard if you were Lutheran or lived at least a hundred years ago. We're Methodists in 2015 so the only time the congregation hears this hymn is when I play an organ piece based on it; I wish we could sing it as well. It would help to make it more alive and more immediate, and more experiential.

The piece begins softly, and remains that way for much of its length. But a couple of minutes into the piece some strange stirrings cause the music to rush and to suddenly grow louder. A climactic and awesome, or earsplitting, chord--depending on your appreciation of harmony--ends this wild passage and we return to the depths of quietude, though without the sense of repose we had before.

I have to confess some worries about keeping listener attention at this point. Loud and vigorous are also easier to sell that soft and slow, just as foods with more fat and sugar go over better than those with mere nutrients. I am reminded grotesquely of the beer commercial with the bored audience snoozing through a piece of deathly slow, basement registered "classical" music, until the guy opens the beer and cool rock music breaks out; people start dancing and enjoying themselves.

I wonder--who will notice that as the piece rolls on, something is stirring; at first, ominously, vaguely, then, after the music resets itself to the halcyon opening of the hymn and starts again, it begins to grow in majesty, until, by the end, the organ is blasting out the final phrases, and, if you've fallen asleep (our pastor would say "come back to me to hear this....") you awake to find that, whether in the dark or in secret, the hymn has grown to a mighty statement that can no longer be ignored. The question is will we be looking for it? Helping it to happen? Or ready to hop on board once it is a demonstrable success?

I meant the music--at first. But I see my subject, like Reger's has swollen. It is no longer a hymn to soporificism. It is a hymn of praise. It is the church--triumphant?

Reger: Pentecost (op. 145, no. 6)

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