A candid discussion exploring a sensitive landscape.
On this rainy Sunday morning in Fresno, California, I was surfing You Tube, looking for a spiritually poignant musical offering, and I knew there was one particular posting that was a source of inspiration. I had once replayed it to the point that my index finger was aching from so many mouse pokes.
It was ? "Verum"--one word that lingered in my foggy memory, amply retrieved to reap a reward. Out popped Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus" sung by the Vienna Boys Choir-- a to-die-for performance.
A musician friend of mine used the word "kill" when she described music such as this. Yes, it can kill you in a way that makes an indelible impression. It sears your heart with longing for more...
According to Wiki..
"The hymn's title means 'Hail, true body,' and is based on a poem derived from a 14th-century manuscript found in the Abbey of Reichenau, Lake Constance. The poem is a meditation on the Catholic belief in Jesus's Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and ties it to the Catholic conception of the redemptive meaning of suffering in the life of all believers."
From Mozart's musical imagination sprung this Revelation, channeled through boys' choirs around the world.
So what's happened to the Muse in modern-day churches and religious sanctuaries here in the US?
A few of my friends from the Christian community had invited me to their houses of worship to sample a service or two.
In all honesty, I'd been repeatedly disappointed by the music. In one instance, three electric guitarists ascended the stage and stood beside two saxophonists. A mobile white screen descended with verses that rolled by as congregants relied on the lead guitar for prompts. The temperament was Rock Around the Clock-style, though there were a few humble ballads thrown into the mix.
In truth, I needed something <em>more</em> to cloak the powerful sermon, delivered to spiritually needy people packed like sardines into the sanctuary. It wasn't exactly a Crystal Cathedral that had a nice orchestral ensemble serving up wondrous music. No doubt they had the means to engage high caliber vocalists to woo congregants toward the Lord. (though their financial records scandalously revealed otherwise)
The Messiah would be the kind of spiritual nourishment I required.
Here in California's Central Valley I always looked forward to the yearly Christmas-time "Sing-Along" at the First Presbyterian Church in the downtown area. The choral conductor, a very able musician and her choir put on quite a Messiah spectacular, at least for the holidays. We sang "Hallelujia!" from the rafters, ending the season. What happened during the rest of the year was unknown to me.
Here's one of my Messiah favorites:
Temple Beth Israel used to be First Presbyterian's neighbor to the left, housed in an incredible space with a domed ceiling, acoustically desirable plaster walls, and lots of wooden seats to give nice reverb, but it succumbed to a pressure-bearing momentum to move to the upscale northwest part of town. In the relocation, a California ranch-style construction replaced what was a sound-alike Carnegie Hall with majesty inside and out. Even the Torah that was encased behind velvet draped curtains, endured a painful transformation. It became enclosed behind what looked like plastic-coated sliders that you see in showers. Surely a backdrop for the movie, <em>Psycho,</em> but not appropriate to the temple.
I ruminated about Beth Israel before its relocation, having performed a few concerts right on the Bima, a narrow "stage"-like area, that barely accommodated my exported Steinway "M" model grand. In fact I nearly fell into the pit after playing Beethoven's" Pathetique" Sonata. But at least I had the Torah beside me as a source of comfort. It was red velvet encased and above me were Hebrew Commandments. A spiritual feast for a musician!
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I recalled the good old times, when the temple imported a community of Christian singers to drape the somber Yom Kippur Service (Day of Atonement) in gorgeous music. The service was florid and penetrating, but I wondered why the Rabbi and Board of Directors couldn't secure a minion of Jewish Congregants to intone the musically riveting "Kol Nidre" among other heart-throbbing offerings. It was always a haunting mystery. And then there was the electric organ in the balcony above the singers that just didn't jive with Beth Israel, though I knew that Temple Emanuel in New York City had opted for an organ, making its service a bit more like an Ethical Culture escapade with a Unitarian flavor.
Back in my Performing Arts High School years, one of my close friends from Russia, Olga Dolsky, a fine pianist, took me arm-in-arm to her Russian Orthodox Church way downtown in the biting cold of winter. I was immersed in the most awe-inspired music I'd to that point absorbed in a religious sanctuary.
A world renowned choir pumped out works of the great Russian composers amidst icons, stained glass, and a Bishop(?) sprinkling incense down a narrow aisle. I was intoxicated! And no wonder. The choir had hot-selling recordings that were internationally celebrated.
Those were the days!
I often wondered where Olga landed? She had aspirations to become a conductor.. maybe a first, for that time.
Finally, after all this deliberation, if I'm starved for religio-musical solace, I can always tune into the Vatican on Christmas eve to get a dose of a boys choir singing "Ave Verum Corpus," or any number of Latin Mass inspired offerings. I'd put aside all the sex abuse, and let the music resound on its own apolitical terms.
In the last analysis, it makes no difference whether you're Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Buddhist. Music soothes the savage breast and is in dire need of spiritual resuscitation in many religious sanctuaries far and wide.