Recently, I’ve had the occasion to drive up and down the beautiful stretch of I-65 between Mobile and Atmore that crosses the Five Rivers Delta. The natural beauty of the woodlands, wetlands, and the rivers gave me the feeling of being part of something larger. In a way, one might call it a sacramental experience, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and a visible experience of the invisible God. In the face of such natural grandeur, my mind turned to a poem titled, A Farewell, likening a river to eternity and reflecting on our own mortality.
Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea, Thy tribute wave deliver;
No more by thee my steps shall be, Forever and forever.
Flow, softly flow by lawn and lea, A rivulet then a river;
Nowhere by thee my steps shall be, Forever and forever.
But here will sigh thine alder tree And here thine aspen shiver;
And here by thee will hum the bee, Forever and forever.
A thousand suns will stream on thee, A thousand moons will quiver;
But not by thee my steps shall be, Forever and forever.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Our sacred music is also like this river and this poem. When we sing our hymns and hear anthems and instrumental music by great composers and poets of old, we observe a river of art, beauty, and faith on which a thousand suns have streamed and will stream. We may not observe this flow of faith forever in the flesh, but, as Christians, we believe that after we die we may become a part of these traditions, this river.
When choosing music for the month of May, I’m keeping the spirit of this Easter season in front of me. During Easter, we celebrate the reality of our victory over death and our participation in eternity. We celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism, the Ascension of
Christ into heaven, and the fire of Pentecost. Our hymns and spiritual songs mark seasons of faith just as surely as the new flowers mark the spring. However, there is still room for new things and new traditions!
As the prelude on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 17, the Sunday after Ascension Day, I will play
Prière du Christ montant vers son Père (Prayer of Christ ascending toward his Father) by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). This piece symbolizes Christ’s prayer for us before his ascension in a vivid way. The music literally rises from low to high. When some think of Messiaen’s music, they imagine dissonant tone clusters that offend the ears, but this music isn’t like that at all. While his music is on the more mystical and surrealistic side of art, Messiaen uses each note as a separate color and then blends these colors together to create new ones. Because of this approach, his music doesn’t function like a hymn tune or a work by Bach. Instead, Messiaen’s quiet music often has a static quality that symbolizes timelessness. Messiaen himself was synesthetic (meaning that when hearing sound he actually saw colors in his mind). A pupil of the French Romantic school of organ playing and composition, he inherited the traditions of such giants as Franck, Widor (of the famous toccata), and Vierne. Messiaen’s music flows from this sensibility even though it expands the musical language these composers used and defines the 20th century “sound”. Messiaen was a deeply spiritual person and served as the organist at La Trinitié church is Paris for over 60 years!
Like Messiaen, we strive during this continuing Easter season and through Pentecost to rejoice in the vibrant colors of our faith all around us. Even though our present form must come to an end one day, we can take courage in the words and music of those gone before us. They stand as a testament to the ebb and flow of our lives and our art. In Messiaen’s own words, “My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith.”