Friday, November 20, 2015

Authorized fire?

I figured if I looked hard enough I could find it. But not yet.

Somewhere in the Old Testament I am pretty sure there is a passage which describes a man who brings an offering to the Lord. And not just any offering, but an animal he has raised himself from birth. The kind of home-made, time-intensive, give of yourself kind of offering you would think God would prefer over the sort of I'll-just-pay-for-this-one-over-here ready made kind that didn't take much time or thought. But it's just the opposite. God rejects the offering because it didn't come from within the temple. Apparently you weren't allowed to bring your own animals into the temple long before you couldn't bring your own food into the stadium.

Am I remembering that right?

When I tried to look up the reference I was beset with a number of contradictory references to offerings. Many of them were indeed concerned with when and where; stern reminders abounded that God would punish persons who failed to make the appropriate offering at the appointed time; one rival Israelite tribe managed to avoid internecine strife (ie., slaughter) by agreeing not to use a competing place of offering so that the one in Jerusalem could remain the only legitimate one.

Then of course there are the prophets who question whether burnt sacrifices are necessary at all; maybe God would much rather we behave ourselves for a change, or show mercy to others rather than wiping them out because they aren't doing things to our liking.

But those are the prophets. The priests, who control the church, also control the sacrifices. And there are rules. Oh there are rules. Aaron's own sons got killed, not because they didn't offer anything to God, but because they did it with unauthorized fire. Whatever that means--probably they did it on their own without consulting the proper chain of command. Throughout the Bible, and throughout the history of the church as well, there is a definite anxiety to make sure that the authorities have control over the rites of the offering. As David Plotz observes in "Good Book," the Bible clearly comes down on the side of the minority control of religion. When the Korahites want to know why everybody can't be priests, why Moses gets to be in charge, they are put in their place (killed).

And for the last 2000 years the Catholic Church has taught that there is "no salvation outside the church." Martin Luther notwithstanding. Especially him! And if you thought that spiritual copyright claim had lapsed with time and a little ecumenical understanding, recall that a few Advents ago, when the church changed the Mass a little (horror!) they made clear that the passage "peace to men of good will" meant you had to be Catholic to be of good will.

And on it goes. Protestants have plenty of strict regulations too, much of the time, and often will find ways to assert that you have to be a member of their particular brand or it doesn't count: you aren't saved. The very word religion means "to bind" and it doesn't really matter if that concept bothered Jesus not a little; we do it in His name anyhow.

I bring all this up because I think it might be the solution to the mystery I posed in the bulletin last week as I played an offertory by Francois Couperin. His "Mass for the Parishes" is one of only two large organ masses he wrote, but he is still regarded as a major composer for the organ. I've been working my way through this little epic. It is patterned like other French organ masses of the period. I suspect that is because, in order for it to be used in the mass at all, it had to follow the stipulations of the church at that time and place.

The organ portion of the mass here has five kyries, nine glorias, nothing at all from the credo, one offertory, a couple of sanctus verses, two from the agnus dei, a benedictus a deo gratias (thanks be to God).

The only piece that seems to get regular play from organists is the offertory. And, strangely, that is the longest piece in the mass. I mentioned that in my notes to the congregation. Since it was stewardship Sunday this seemed like a good time to emphasize the offertory. The pastor joked afterward that we could have passed the plates twice!

But why is the offertory the longest piece in the set? In the mass, it is the credo that is by far the longest; a thorough statement of beliefs that many composers have made much music over (not always the best music) and which often stretches to incredible lengths, particularly if you make an entire piece out of each clause.

And yet, in Couperin's mass, the organ is silent. This is apparently because the organ was not permitted to alternate with the sung portions of the mass here. In other sections of the mass it gave the chanters a break to breathe, to meditate, and the organist could provide contrast and majesty of a more voluminous kind to balance the serenity (or boredom) of unrelieved plainchant.

And then, just as the Gloria is suppressed during Advent, or the Alleluia during Lent, the organ is released from its 'season of penance' and given a chance to speak fully during the offertory. Apparently, this is why Couperin lavished the bulk of his art on this part of the mass. Because he was allowed. It was authorized.

It took me a bit of online searching to find anybody who wanted to take up this question. Most organists just play the piece because it is a great piece and don't wonder about things like this, and I don't know the musicological literature well enough. But I did ask. And, fortunately, my offering last week in church was authorized. I am lucky to have supportive pastors who did not assume I am trying merely to show off by playing a long offertory. Besides, I'm not sure my congregation enjoyed it as much as I did anyhow--which is just as well. Some weeks I would prefer not to have everyone speak well of me (but that's another biblical reference for another time).

I can imagine a lot of religious traditions where what Couperin wrote would not be welcome. A French overture, concluding with a gigue, in a church! Too dancelike, or too grave, or both! And too French! We all seem to have rules--preferences that we often ascribe to the Divine--for what is and is not authorized as an offering. And then we often say the best gift is ourselves, but as we've seen, often that falls afoul of religious regulation as well. Our species has a long history of that--rejecting each other's offerings, often claiming that God has rejected them, too. I wonder what He thinks of Mr. Couperin.

I mentioned that Couperin only wrote two masses, one for the parish churches, and one for the convents. Both of these were published when he was twenty. He doesn't seem to have had much interest in religious music after that, at least for the organ. Do you suppose it was all those rules? Or was religious music just not fashionable enough to sustain Mr. Couperin's interest? I'll have to do some reading. In any case, he was organist for 55 years, and never published another piece of religious music for organ. Hmmm.

Couperin: Mass for the Parishes -- Offertory 


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