Celebrating the Spirituals: Sober but Serene on Serious Themes

I’ve often been impressed at the capacity of the Old African American Spirituals to treat of serious matters in a clear yet almost joyful way. This is true even of very serious concepts like sin and judgment.  Look at some of the creative lines all from different spirituals:

I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.

Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out! 

Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven aint a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!

Where shall I be when the first Trumpet sounds, Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead, Oh where shall be when it sounds. How will it be with my poor soul, Oh Where Shall I be?

Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!

The last one was a gloss on 2 Peter 3 and all of them  are deeply scriptural and serious appeals to the human soul but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late.

Given all the reticence to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) songs like these may help to re-open the door to necessary conversations between preacher and  congregation, parents and their children. They are a valuable resource. The lines above can be found in the following songs listed in the same order as the quotes.

  1. Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land (as well as a number of old spirituals)
  2. Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
  3. I Got Shoes
  4. Where Shall I Be?
  5. Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
  6. Didn’t it Rain Children!?

I want to conclude with a creative spiritual about the Last Judgment that is featured in the video below. Note that it is rich in Biblical references, it is joyful, a toe tapper and makes a serious point along with a wish: “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin Fare You Well!” First the text (with phonetic Spelling) and then the video:

I’m Gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Der’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Chorus:In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
    Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,
Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Do you see dem coffins burstin,  do you see dem folks is risin’Do you see dat fork of lightenin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

There are many good version of this out on You tube I have picked this one because the words are easiest to hear. Enjoy!

The Beauty of Music

Laura wrote a post on the beauty of food a few posts below. Her reflection prompts mine also on the magnificence of music.

Where does music come from if not the soul? Animals do not sing. Oh perhaps the birds do sing in an ambling sort of way that sounds more like communication than true song. But only the human person has produced the majesty of music and surely it emerges from the deep mysterious places of our soul. Music can stir, it can call forth tears, it makes us swell with healthy pride and exuberance, it can instill joy, provoke our deepest thoughts and it make us want to dance. Music unites, it also divides, some love what others hate, it can make you mad, it can make you sad, it can make you glad but seldom are we merely neutral as to it’s quality or influence.

The genius and variety of music is astonishingly remarkable: from country to classical, modern to medieval, blues to ballads, solos to symphonies,  jazz to jewsharp, renaissance to rap, and polyphony to parade music.

And consider this, music is unique to the human person. In the Bible, only once does it mention that God sings (cf  Zeph 3:17) and NO WHERE does it mention that angels sing. But Father, but Father, of course angels sing! Sorry, despite the notions of popular culture the Bible does not describe that angels sing. Even in the classic Christmas scene where we think of the angels singing Glory to God in the Highest and On Earth peace to men of good will, the text does not say they sing this but that they say it! (Look it up at Luke 2:13). So singing is a special trait of human beings and part of our dignity. Angels say, they cry out and declare (cf Rev 5:12) but only humans sing. And to some extent only humans grasp it. I have often marvelled at how unaffected by a great song my pets have been. I can be tapping my toe, be moved to tears, filled with zeal  by a song and the dogs and cats I have had just lie there bored. Proof again that music is distinctly human and requires an immortal, God breathed soul to grasp it.

Music is the soul’s way to exhale, to express itself beyond words. It bespeaks the soul’s longing, its sighing, its joy and its sorrow, words are optional.  Appreciate anew this miracle of human existence, this unique gift to the human person, this flash of beauty and dignity in the soul of every human person.

Here are my two favorite scenes from the movie Amadeus, a movie about my favorite composer, Mozart. In video one, his rival Salieri describes the exquisite and subtle beauty of a Mozart Sonata. In video two Mozart is working to compose part of his Requiem at the words Confutatis maledictis flammis acribus adictitis, Voca me cum benedictis (When the wicked are consigned to woeful flames, call me to be with your blessed ones). Watch as the notes come forth from his very soul, his soul exhales and sighs, the notes! It starts slow then builds.

The Inner Life of the Pipe Organ – King of Instruments!

In my first three years of college I had a summer job working for a Lewis and Hitchcock and company that built and serviced pipe organs. What a great job it was! I went all over the city helping to tune and repair pipe organs in some of the grandest churches of the area, both Catholic and Protestant. When you build and service Pipe Organs you have to know a little of everything: electrical, HVAC, carpentry (for the casework), plumbing (for the pipes and tubing that supply the wind), electrical motor repair (for the blower), even leather work for the air reservoirs and pipe valves. It also helps to know music and architecture to bring it all together. It was a great job it was. I learned so much.

These days, Pipe Organs are still being built but more often Electronic Organs are chosen by churches. Truth be told, with digital sampling, the sound of the newest electronic organs isn’t bad. But nothing beats the sound of a true pipe organ, the king of instruments.

When I was young and in high school I was a rock ‘n’ roll fan. It had to be loud and in your face. Then one day I walked into a large church and the organist was practicing with all the stops pulled. The loud organ shook the building and resonated through my very body. I was hooked! I said, “I have to learn to play that!” And I was off on my adventure. Alas, I am no virtuoso but I can play hymns well and I do all the footwork. I love to play the organ and make the whole build shake with the big 32 Foot in the pedal.

The first video shows you some of the basics of how a pipe organ works. The second video shows you the work of a true virtuoso as he plays Boellmann’s Tocatta from Suite Gothique. This was the piece that I heard that day over 30 years ago that hooked me on the pipe organ as the building shook all around. The greatest virtuoso is the organist and you will see why! Not only does he play all sorts of notes with his hands and feet, he’s also switching back and forth to different keyboards, controlling the volume with the black pedals at the center of his feet and switching stops using the toe buttons above the pedal keyboard. It takes ALOT to be a good organist.

Dance Time

Every now and then I hear the Old Latin Mass described as a somber affair. Many think only dirges are sung and that everything is quite subdued. Granted a low Mass can be rather quiet as the Priest whispers much of the Mass. But a sung Mass in the Old Rite (Extraordinary Form) can be quite elaborate, especially if the Choir sings in polyphony (harmony). Some of the greatest music in history was composed during the Renaissance in a form known as Renaissance Polyphony. It is a kind of harmonic singing that features four or more independent melodies sung simultaneously in rich harmony. Much of this Church music was written in Dance Time such that you can almost dance to it!

Enjoy this brief video of the Angus Dei (try not to tap your toe) and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. The song was recorded at the Oratory of St. Francis De Sales in St. Louis – one of the most beautiful Churches in the Country. (See photo above). The text is Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis, dona nobis pacem (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…grant us peace). Enjoy a beautiful sample of Renaissance Polyphony.

Pentecost Sequence Hymn – Veni Sancte Spiritus

There are several Feasts of the Church wherein a “sequence”  hymn may be sung.  The sequence hymn is sung Just before the the Alleluia (Gospel acclamation). The feasts with sequence hymns are these:

  1. Easter – Victimae Paschali Laudes (To the Paschal Victim give praise)
  2. Pentecost – Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit)
  3. Corpus Christi – Lauda Sion (Praise O Sion)
  4. Our Lady of Sorrows – Stabat Mater (Stood the Mother sad and weeping)
  5. All Souls – Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)

Since today is Pentecost we ought to sample the sequence hymn for today: Veni Sancte Spiritus. Here is the Latin text and a translation (fairly literal) of my own.

VENI, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
COME, Holy Spirit,
send forth from heaven
the rays of thy light
Veni, pater pauperum,
veni, dator munerum
veni, lumen cordium.
Come, Father of the poor;
Come, giver of gifts,
Come, light of [our] hearts.
Consolator optime,
dulcis hospes animae,
dulce refrigerium.
Oh best Comforter,
Sweet guest of the soul,
Sweet refreshment.
In labore requies,
in aestu temperies
in fletu solatium.
In Labor rest
in the heat, moderation;
in tears, solace.
O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.
O most blessed Light
fill the inmost heart
of thy faithful.
Sine tuo numine,
nihil est in homine,
nihil est innoxium.
Without your spirit,
nothing is in man,
nothing that is harmless
Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.
Wash that which is sordid
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.
Make flexible that which is rigid,
warm that which is cold,
rule that which is deviant.
Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.
Give to thy faithful,
who trust in thee
the sevenfold gifts.
Da virtutis meritum,
da salutis exitum,
da perenne gaudium,
Amen, Alleluia.
Grant to us the merit of virtue,
Grant salvation at our going forth,
Grant eternal joy.
Amen. Alleluia.

Here is the trational Gregorian Chant of this sequence:

And here is a rather nice modern version of the same text:

Time for a Little Prelude and Fugue

Here is Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F Major BWV 556. Bach wrote these in a collection of Eight Little Preludes and Fugues. Which was designed for organ students. This one is my favorite in the collection. The footwork of the Prelude is easy but the running triplets in both hands  are a challenge to play well and at tempo.

By the way the organ used here is known as a “tracker” It works with an entirely mechanical action of levers and trackers much like the manual typewriters of old. Occasionally in this piece you can hear the mechanical action “clacking” in the background. Trackers usually require stronger fingers and a more certain touch of the fingers and feet, again just like the old manual typewriters required a stronger and more certain touch. (Are you old enough to remember manual typewriters?) OK, enjoy this short sample of the music of the pipe organ.