FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 07/08/2013

Music for The Coming Year

January 24, 2013  Volume 6, Issue 1

Faith + Ideas = an conversation with the faculty of Gordon College

By Susan Brooks, Sandra Doneski, and David Rox

At the beginning of a new year, musicians—like us—are sometimes asked what music we return to during the challenges and celebrations we’ll no doubt encounter in the coming months. It’s a hard question. Many of us are drawn to various types of music, or we come back regularly to specific composers for direction or fortitude.

Some musicians, though, don’t necessarily gravitate to any one type of music, one that fits all or which benefits everyone who listens to it. A piece of music that touches us yesterday may not impress us the same way today. In fact, the types of music—both new and old—that can speak to us often surprise even the most renowned musician. So to run to one type of music or one specific piece can feel like shutting off one’s soul from “the language of God.”

A famous conductor was once asked, “What is your favorite piece of music?” He replied, “The one I am working on right now.” That can be our experience as well.

Still, there are some works we want to recommend for 2013, pieces that help us learn to listen and develop both musical ‘muscles’ as well as empathetic hearts. Some celebrate a perfect union of soul, spirit and emotion, blending text to music that enhances both. But make no mistake: they are not all for pleasure. While music can certainly inspire and sooth, direct and instruct during days of uncertainty, some songs also help us confront our mortality in ways we are not always aware of but certainly benefit from.

With that in mind, consider Guillaume de Machaut’s Notre Dame Mass from the 1360s, believed to be the first setting of the Mass text composed as a complete unity by one composer. Bach’s St. John’s Passion or Mozart’s Don Giovanni both remind us of the vulnerable human condition, yet with the good news that the bad guys don’t always win.

Then there are the pieces that speak of life seasons. Beethoven’s Ninth (Choral) Symphony, Schubert’s song cycle, Die Schöne Mullerin, Wagner’s The Ring Cycle or Brahms’ symphonies all move us through memories and images and changes that define our collective journey. These, too, can be companions in any new experience.

Gustav Holst’s otherworldly work The Planets can take us into new places. And Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time can be transforming, especially when you realize it was written in a Nazi prison camp and based on the Book of Revelation. Among Messiaen’s fellow prisoners were a violinist, a cellist and a clarinetist, for which he wrote the piece; it was first performed for of an audience of prisoners and guards in freezing conditions. The Quartet is not easy to talk or write about, but perhaps that is the point.

Even in the darkness of a concentration camp, or in a day when the news overflows with stories of conflicts, shootings or hurricanes, music can become a balm. Often, we need comforting voices, lots of them, brought together with each part contributing to the whole. Ottorino Respighi’s symphonic poem The Pines of Rome and Javier Busto’s “Ave Maria” both can offer respite and almost immediate perspective.

As does Gwyneth Walker’s arrangement of How Can I Keep from Singing? One recording of it by the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus (now Anima Singers) is as exuberant as it is joyous. The repetition of the motive and phrase, “How can I keep, how can I keep, how can I, can I, can I keep from singing?” is set by the composer in such a way that the listener is drawn in and given energy to press on.

Walker’s lyrics—along with those of the old Quaker hymn—speak of courage, faith and perseverance. And the artistic expression of these young singers combined with their beauty of tone and the powerful arrangement speaks beyond words every time we listen to this work.

Of course, there are many other compositions, songs, stories and movements that can speak of the courage or inspiration we’ll need for a new year. Whatever the music, may it provide the opportunities for reflection, meaning and response we’ll need in the days ahead.

Susan Brooks is professor of music (voice) and director of performance activities; Sandra Doneski is associate professor of music, director of the graduate program in music education and artistic director of children’s choirs; David Rox is professor of music (trombone) and director of bands.