The organ prelude, Prayer of Christ ascending toward the Father, is by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a Parisian organist and composer who's unique musical language was a defining force of 20th century western music. Most people who know of Messiaen seem to think of him as an anomaly - a highly individualized composer from "left field". However, Messiaen stood on the shoulders of the French Romantic organist/composers who came before him. Messiaen simply extended the Romantic sounds, mixed them with new non-western elements, and expanded the old forms until they broke into something entirely different. A lover of birds, Messiaen would walk in nature, listen to birdsong, and write it down in musical notation. Much of his music actually includes these birdsongs from around the world! The prelude this Sunday comes from The Ascension Suite, a multi-movement work originally composed for orchestra and transcribed for organ by Messiaen himself. This particular movement bears the stamp of Messiaen's "music of adoration". As you listen to the colorful (and sometimes dissonant) harmonies, try picturing Christ's Ascension and the beautiful prayer he prayed for us. Messiaen's music makes no sense without mysticism. As the piece goes on, the music gets higher and more intense until it reaches its apex - the very last chord. Personally, I believe this symbolizes that heaven is the highest goal, highest fulfillment, and that the work of Christ is not yet finished - it continues in us. Rather than writing music in sentences and paragraphs, Messiaen composes in colors. He blends tones together like an Impressionist painter blends colors. I don't often play Messiaen because I know it's not everyone's "cup of tea", but it is good to occasionally open the door to his mystical world.
Our offertory anthem is, A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing. These ancient words for Ascension, penned by the Venerable Bede (673-735), are coupled with a very old hymn tune. The tune, Deo gratias, is also known as the "Agincourt Hymn". It was composed during the 15th century to celebrate English victory in the Battle of Agincourt. The original lyrics sing the praises of Henry V and repeat the refrain, "Deo gratias! (Thanks be to God)". This tune will sound unusual to you because, rather than composed for church use, it is in the Medieval secular form of an English Ballad. Regardless, it is great fun, and its victorious strains coupled with Bede's text make for a good Ascension anthem.
Our Music Ministry strives to be diverse in its offerings, and on special days like Ascension Sunday, we put extra time and thought into our selections. This is important because, while the Easter season is replete with reasons to celebrate, these special days have spiritual significance in our lives as Christians. How better to observe them than with an eclectic mix of old and new works from across the globe? Happy Ascension Sunday!