Monday, March 14, 2016

In which I give my congregation the Byrd

Listen to William Byrd's Pavane

One of the two most received compliments I get from my congregation, at least of the non-generic variety ("enjoyed the music this morning, Michael!"), is that people really appreciate having notes in the bulletin, in which I tell them something about the music I'm playing on the organ or piano that morning and why I chose it for that service. I think communication with the congregation is important, and while music itself is an effective means of communication in some very special ways, it is also a foreign language to many, and, in particular, people don't know the organ literature at all, so it is nice for them to learn something about it. I'm told, for instance, that it makes the music "more meaningful." That's a direct quote from a woman yesterday.

It reminds my of something Paul wrote, when he said he'd rather "speak five words of instruction than 10,000 in a tongue" which could apply to music, at least as far as many people are concerned. So it helps to be an intermediary. That's what the pastor does with the scriptures, after all. Why shouldn't the organist also have a homiletic function?

Yesterday, however, I fell down on the job. Actually, I've had a busy and involved schedule lately, and the piece I chose to play for the start of the service required very little practice, and while it seemed that it might fit the situation (Jesus' farewell discourse, deep into Lent) I wasn't sure how well it would fit.

Then I started to investigate.

A pavane is generally a slow, somber dance. But the term itself, though of uncertain origin, has, among its possible meanings, a resemblance to the Spanish term for "peacock."

Peacock, huh? Funny, we were talking this morning about the Holy Spirit being a parakeet. Wrong bird, but pretty close, and...

[uh, Michael? That's Paracleete, with an L. It means "comforter" or "helper." A parakeet is just a bird that says back to you what you've told it to say. Not the same thing.]

Right. So, now that I've gotten Mr. Byrd's bird to be of the proper species, what does it matter? Well, birds mean things. Actually, practically everything means something, if you know something about the Middle Ages and/or religious symbolism. I had a suspicion about that, so I looked it up. Do you know what a peacock is associated with?


It is pretty interesting that this slow, solemn, sad sounding dance has an association that seems 180 degrees away. And, given that that relationship seems to be purely etymological and symbolic, it is a very subtle relationship. In other words, what you hear is sorrow, and the presence of death, but if you listen beneath the surface, and know the hidden meanings of things, you find something very different.

I like subtle, personally. After my discovery I even wondered if I should keep it to myself. That does seem out of touch with our chosen gospel writer for the season of Lent, however. Whereas Mark shows a Jesus who is very secretive about his purpose and doings, John's Jesus likes to spell everything out with long discourses about himself and his mission and what his disciples need to know and to do.

So I'm spelling it out. But if you listen to the piece again, you won't hear it. It still sounds like melancholy--Jesus saying farewell to his disciples, preparing for a difficult journey to a place where they cannot go. But, for those who know, all is not exactly what it seems to be. Only very silently and without announcing its presence does that nugget reveal itself--if you notice it.

We are less than two weeks from Easter now. But deep inside the belly of Lent. And, if you know your liturgy, the way forward is going to get very rough. There's Palm/passion Sunday, and Holy Week, and candles and darkness and crucifixion. It is the way of sorrow.


listen again to William Byrd's Pavane

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