“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) Letters to a Young Poet
Liturgically speaking, February always brings thoughts of Lent, but perhaps never more so than this year, when Ash Wednesday falls on February 10th. From a musical perspective, our Epiphany season has been quite busy and fruitful. Our Epiphany Sunday afternoon musical events went very well, and we are grateful to all who participated and attended. However, the liturgical year does not leave us much time to reflect on things passed, it beckons us forward into the season of Lent, a time of repentance and introspection.
Whether you are a traditionalist or a moderate when it comes to your Lenten observance, Lent is the most solemn season of the year. This season is expressed well in the seldom heard original second verse of,
Abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out
life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim,
its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all
around I see--
O Thou who changest not,
abide with me.
Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847)
From a musical perspective, our services will take on a different nature – a more solemn, older quality that is conducive to thinking of “hard teachings.” We sing older texts, speak the psalms, and delve into hymn lyrics that help us reflect. All the theological reasons for this liturgical change are best left to those more educated that I in these matters, but I would like to focus on their musical implications.
Music is beautiful and uplifting, correct? Yes, but without getting into a heady philosophical discussion of what makes beauty, suffice to say that Lenten beauty is different from Christmas, Easter, or even Advent beauty. Lenten beauty tests us. Lenten music tends to be austere at times, but is almost always very serious in its portrayal of the ideas of temptation, wickedness, sacrifice, and death. Many church musicians (and worshipers) seem not to know what to do with Lent. If one presents “sad” pieces, how will the congregation still feel uplifted? Some of these questions stem from a disconnection as to the nature of musical beauty. Would one say Michelangelo’s Pieta, a depiction of Mary holding the deceased Christ in her arms at the foot of the cross, lacked beauty? I would go so far as to say it is uplifting to the mind and spirit. Compositions that feature elements of “sad music” have the ability to gather up our “negative/sad” feelings into themselves, giving us release. To me, Lent stands out as the one season devoted to the darker side of beauty, in an effort to help us truly understand and experience Holy Week and Easter – the ultimate joy.
Musically, we will certainly still have familiar, uplifting hymns and anthems featured this Lent, and we also have a great concert series lined up for Wednesdays at noon (and a Thursday “bonus” concert). However, when you hear works that focus on the sadder side of things, like Mozart’s Ave Verum or Stainer’s God So Loved the World, I hope you will allow them to aid in your Lenten reflection through “change and decay” toward Easter joy.
Finally, I wish to address the quote at the beginning of this month’s article. Rilke likens our adversities and demons, if you will, to princesses in disguise. He implies that those things which pain us are, at their core, hurting and in need of love. I think this is an excellent analogy to describe how we hope our music will aid us in worship this Lenten season. By being unafraid of solemnity or even a little sadness, maybe our dragons can finally begin to rest. Lent is right around the corner, and perhaps it is, “[...] only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.”