Friday, August 9, 2013

Reflections on a masterwork

Psalm 84:1-2, 4 (NIV)

How lovely is your dwelling place,
   Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
   for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
   for the living God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
   they are ever praising you.
During my senior year of high school I had an opportunity to join the school choir. And by opportunity, I mean I had first hour open and opted to sing for a year instead of add another academic course. Rather than get waist deep into teenage nostalgia, the salient point is my year in choir allowed me to become deeply familiar with the fourth movement of the Brahms German Requiem, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.” The common English translation for the title is “How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place.”

Far be it from me to get into the musical and liturgical history behind the song or the Requiem as a whole. That’s what the Internet is for. (Or, you know, college.) One note I gleaned from some research this afternoon is the traditional Roman Catholic requiem liturgy is more of a prayer for the dead, while the text Brahms used (from Luther’s German translation of the Bible) is more about the comfort of those still alive. I’m very certain I did not pick up on that subtlety in high school, but even if I had I doubt it would have dulled my appreciation for what I consider to be an absolutely beautiful composition.

The words in the English translation we performed are quite similar to the three verses of Psalm 84 cited as the liturgical basis for the movement. I have little to no experience with or exposure to the other six movements, so I can’t comment beyond my familiarity with the fourth. But I absolutely loved rehearsing and performing that piece, feeling it was a chance to thank God for the gift of music in my life.

As much as I loved the piece in high school, I don’t know if I fully appreciated how it moved my soul until more than two years later. I was sitting in my college dorm room in December 1999, watching TV when many of the national networks aired coverage of the funeral of the six firefighters who died battling a warehouse fire in Worcester, Mass. As part of that service — attended by the president, vice president and the state’s two Senators, among other dignitaries — a choir performed this song form the Requiem.

Within merely a few opening notes I recognized the composition. I listened intently for the duration, and probably sang along, at least under my breath. I was amazed at how quickly everything came back to mind, and even more so at how experiencing the music in its intended setting deepened my appreciation and understanding. Even now the opening strains are enough to bring the entire work to mind, and I think at least as much about that December morning in Greene Hall as I do the dozens of first-period rehearsals with Mrs. Ramsey.

Masterworks such as this contribute to my earnest desire for my children to take the same interest in music as their parents. I have pledged to not force them, but I still hope they’ll come to music on their own and develop a sincere appreciation for its transformative power, its uses in prayer and worship and the way it helps teach and strengthen a sense of community. How lovely that would be as well.

A prayer for August 9:

Lord, thank you for the gift of music. Thank you for the talented composers you have blessed and inspired. Thank you for the dedicated performers who are committed to elevating the art to its highest form. Thank you for the unequaled emotions I experience when fully immersed in just the right piece at just the right time. Please help me find ways to bring my children into this world, but to do so with their willingness and desire, not my own. May I as well be ever praising you. Amen.

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