Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Five: Music of the Spheres

Songbird, at RevGalBlogPals, writes, "...It was the same Martin Luther who said: "I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor." On this Friday before Reformation Sunday, let's talk about music. Share with us five pieces of music that draw you closer to the Divine, that elevate your mood or take you to your happy place. They might be sung or instrumental, ancient or modern, sacred or popular...whatever touches you."

Oh dear. Only five?!?

When I read the instructions for this morning's Friday Five, I immediately raced over to my music-box (one o them fancy 4-in-1 things) and put on my CD of "Sing Lustily & With Good Courage" by Maddy Prior with the Carnival Band (CD-SDL 383, copyright 1990 Saydisc Records, England). The recording, commissioned by the BBC for the 250th anniversary of John Wesley's spiritual awakening at Aldersgate, takes its title from Charles Wesley's "instructions for singing," found in most Methodist Hymnals and also posted in the choir room of the United Methodist church in which I grew up. Look up the full instructions when you get a chance-- they're a delightful read and, even now, an excellent set of instructions for group singing.

The lusty, courageous singing and instrumentation of this recording are a real, well, EAR-opener for anyone who thinks "traditional" hymns are dreary and boring. They were, in the 18th century, a rather shocking innovation. Not only did they stray from strict adherence to the texts of biblical psalms, they often employed tunes that verged on being rambunctiously secular. But that wasn't all that upset the BigWigs and Hie-Heid-Yins. As Andy Watts says in the liner notes, "What made the hymns so different form the old metrical psalms was their expression of personal religious thoughts and feelings in vigorous, emotional language. They spoke of God's love for sinners, salvation for the individual, the liberating power of Jesus, the inner experience of the Holy Spirit, strength to withstand oppression and the promise of future glory. This was abhorrent to most of the Anglican Establishment and the ruling classes."

So, with my customary delight in doing things abhorrent to the ruling classes, here's my list of five:

1.) "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing." Once you get past the ridiculous mental image, it's a wonderful tune of upwelling joy. I always heard it as confirmation of a multilingual path towards spiritual truth-- that no single tongue, no single voice or language is sufficient to teach us all there is to know about God's Grace and God's ongoing involvement in Creation.

2) "Be Thou My Vision" This mystical hymn wraps itself around me like a warm embrace from my spiritual and cultural ancestors. The tune, "Slane" is an old Irish one, dated at least to the 6th century. The hymn's imagery echoes old Celtic praise-poems and travelers' prayers of protection. Curiously, it also represents one of my few quarrels with the move to "inclusify" and democratise the language of American hymnals. I much prefer the old words, in which Jesus is proclaimed "High King of Heaven." Admittedly, the reference is lost to American singers, but this refers to the old hierachies of the Celtic Lands, in which many small local kingdoms deferred to a "High King" as their ultimate leader and wise arbitor. With all the petty kingdoms and tiny idols we modern folk worship, I still find it meaningful to understand Jesus as a wise leader whose stories and virtues inspire us to extend our gaze beyond our own navels.

3)"Lift Every Voice" (words: James Weldon Johnson, music J. Rosamund Johnson, c. 1921) Unlike "Be Thou My Vision," this anthem emerges from a struggle outside of my culture and ancestry, but I do not love it less. It makes me feel connected to the deep and powerful "soul-force" of the African-American freedom struggle. When I sing it, every breath re-embodies the truth that "an injury to one is an injury to all." The forceful rhythm draws my footfalls into a greater march. The music lifts and even shoves my spirit upwards and onwards. This anthem holds me accountable for my own role in the great drama of justice-seeking.

4)"Freedom Come-All-Ye" (Hamish Henderson) Many Scottish folk continue to call for this song to be named the new National Anthem of Scotland. It was written by one of my personal heroes, a Scottish soldier whose wartime travels to Africa and experiences of shared suffering somehow moved him to transcend hatred and bigotry, to love "the fellowship of man" MORE fully and deeply. (I use the gender-specific term on purpose, as Henderson's experience was truly one of brotherhood with his fellow soldiers.) Here, he has taken a pipe tune from the First World War, "Bloody Fields of Flanders," and put Scots words to it that draw a connection between Scotland's own history of struggle and oppression and the South African struggle against Apartheid. (Henderson was a long-time correspondent with Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment.) It's a visionary masterpiece that has become one of my own "get-my-courage-up" songs.

5)"The Joy of Living" (Ewan MacColl) Ewan wrote this song in his own struggle to come to terms with the approaching end of his life. I learned it from the singing of Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre, two Scottish tradition-bearers who knew MacColl very well. Their recording of it was played at my grandmother's funeral. Just now, I keep this song in mind as I mourn the crossing over of another dear one, my friend Bruce. I think Bruce and Ewan would have gotten along famously--they shared an intense desire to live each day to its absolute fullest, to do all the good they could in their years' span.

(Image sources: Language Tree from here. Celtic Mandala from here. MLK art from here. All other images copyright Mainecelt 2009.


Auntie Knickers said...

Wonderful -- very much agree with 1-3 and thank you for bringing #s 4 and 5 to my attention.

Sally said...

What a wonderful list, Be Thou my vision is such a favourite of mine that I tend to overuse it...

Purple said...

Thanks for some historical information. Enjoyed your play.

MperiodPress said...

It is always a pleasure to read what you have to say- both for the content and the style! Thank you for this and for reminding me about Lift Ev´ry Voice. I do love that one...

Songbird said...

I first heard about the Maddy Prior CD through one of Cathy Stevens' posts when we used to have Music Mondays. Love it!