Friday, April 29, 2016

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord

What was he thinking? What was in Francois Couperin's head while he was writing "Mass for the Parishes?" Specifically, what did he have in mind for the 2nd verse of the Sanctus, which happens to be what I'll be "feeding" my congregation this weekend. I'll be doing it in absentia, thanks to our playback system. I actually recorded it in December, while working my way through the entire mass, most of which you can hear at pianonoise on the Listen page. And since our pipe organ was rewired in 2014, it can record any data from the console, included stop changes, swell and crescendo pedal movement, and of course, all the notes. So even though I'll likely still be in the hospital for a second cycle of chemotherapy, I can still share music with my congregation, which feels pretty good.

It also hasn't stopped me from asking questions, one of which I shared with the congregation, courtesy of the church bulletin. The question was: why? Given that solemnity in worship was the order of the day, and still often is, in worship, given that this was the Catholic Church in the 18th century, and given the tight guidelines laid down by the archbishop for any organist who wrote a mass, which surely would have not encouraged much levity, what would be the cause of such a light, pleasant little piece? I'll let you listen to it before I prattle on too much. It's only a minute and twenty seconds:


Couperin's Mass is, mostly, much more solemn than this. Even the Gloria, the part of the Mass which is filled with praise for the glory of God, spends most of its time in a minor key. So this seems odd.

First, a little background. Couperin's Mass would have been part of the Mass celebration of the Catholic church. The way that worked, was that monks would have chanted each verse of each part of the mass, starting with the Kyrie (confession), then the Gloria (praise), the Credo (statement for beliefs), the Sanctus (glory to God), the Agnus Dei (communion), benediction and dismissal. The organist would play a short piece after each chanted verse, alternating with the singing, except for the Credo, during which the organist was forbidden to play (hence there is no Credo section in Couperin's Mass) and making up for it with a long offertory afterward.

Part of what would determine the character, as well as the key (and the mode--major or minor) would be the chants that came before. Another thing that the organist was required to do was to use the chant melody in at least the first verse of each section, per orders of the archbishop. Keep that in mind.

Now I'll try to touch on a huge subject very briefly. It has to do with appropriateness in church music. We'll at least limit it to French organists. We'll start with the most egregious example I can think of. Lefebure-Wely wrote music for his church that even his fellow organists thought sounded much too cavalier and popular. But he was popular with his parishioners; priests could clench their teeth all they wanted. Here is his most famous postlude:


Lefebure-Wely comes much later than Couperin, however, about 150 years. He lived after the French revolution which tried to stamp out the Catholic Church in France, and after Napoleon halfheartedly brought it back. If there was ever a time for cynicism in France, this was it. Let's get a little closer to Couperin.

Before the revolution (though he lived through it as well) was a fellow named Balbastre. He was very popular with his congregation, too, playing jigs and waltzes during masses, and annoying the priests, who sometimes forbade him from playing, despite the fact that whenever he did, the church was always packed. Was it jealousy? A sense of injured propriety? He didn't seem to be taking the mass that seriously, after all. Here is a set of variations he wrote on a Christmas carol:


This was also a tradition in France. And while Balbastre was born only 9 years before Couperin died, we can trace the tradition back to the generation after Couperin, by way of Daquin, who also wrote a pretty jiggy version of a Noel. He was born 26 years after Couperin, so we're getting a bit closer.


Then there is Nicolas deGrigny, who was born only 6 years after Couperin, and wrote this gigue-like verse of a hymn to the Holy Spirit:


So it is not like the French couldn't cut a rug--or a gigue--even in church. The priests may not have liked it, but they don't seem to have been able to stop it. Still, Couperin, seems to have been relatively well behaved. The last section of his massive offertory from the same mass is nearly in the same style as the deGrigny we just heard, but the mass is mostly pretty somber. If you're in the mood, you can hear most of it in the listening room in the organ section, under Couperin.

And then there is the fact that there are two Sanctus pieces. I don't know exactly where they fit, but the first one might fit after this text:

"Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Power and Might. Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!:


That's pretty majestic, actually. Full stops and lots of heavy sound. But then the Sanctus goes on:

"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!"

Now is it possible that the composer wanted to change the mood to one of joy at the coming of the Savior, as opposed to the majesty and glory of an awesome, and fearsome, God?



As usual, I'm left asking more questions, and without the time to really delve into the subject, aka read books and articles and generally do more research. I've a feeling I'll be getting to that, especially as I have less time to play the music. And as musicologist sometimes don't ask these questions it may take time to connect with more curious souls who are interested, not just in the music itself, but how it worked in its original context. The same way people can spend all of their time wondering how the Bible speaks to us today without wondering what it was intended to mean to its first hearers (which is after all much harder to find out).

This weekend, my congregation gathers around the communion table, and, without realizing it perhaps, speaks those same ancient words that form the Sanctus, as old as the oldest Catholic Mass, still preserved in our Methodist worship. And the piece I'll be playing in absentia during communion is nearly in the same place it would have gone in Couperin's church, only a little later and without the chanting and the incense. There is a connection, but it is of course not an unbroken tradition. This is a varied world, and the poor priests who try to make it uniform never manage to succeed in quelling a variety of styles, innovation, exuberance, and criticism for their efforts. But things don't entirely fly apart, either. There is still a center. And, if we look hard enough, we can still find it.

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