Monday, 22 February 2010

Music of the Resurrection

At the weekend we were in Shropshire where, on Saturday, we took part in a 'Come and Sing' performance of Messiah conducted by my father-in-law, who has just turned 90. However many times I have performed the work - I've sung it, played the organ for it, and conducted it myself - it never fails to stir me as it reaches its grand climax: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain...Blessing and honour, glory and power...Amen." Musically it can be explained by the succession of choruses building towards the magnificent final fugue, and, with orchestral accompaniment, the trumpets bringing the crowning splendour at the end. But, uniquely for a musical work, the work has great theological power as it tells the salvation story of Christ's birth, death, resurrection and ascension. First performed in 1742 the work seems to have universal appeal for people of faith or no faith. Maybe it is because although the text is selected entirely from the bible, the name of Jesus is hardly mentioned. For Christians the work obviously portrays the great hope of resurrection 'through our Lord Jesus Christ', but for those who are not Christians the music still evokes tremendously inspiring feelings of 'something better'. If salvation could come through music, I'm sure this is where it would be found.

Whether performed by amateurs or profesionals, accompanied by full orchestra or organ, in the concert hall or the church, Messiah is surely the greatest and most popular of English oratorios.

As we were driving back through the increasingly heavy traffic of the M40 and M25 we listened on Radio 3 (always my station of choice in the car) to my favourite Beethoven symphony, No. 3 'Eroica'. The performance was preceded by a fascinating talk in which the speaker drew out the themes of death and resurrection - this time the death of the archetypal hero. When Beethoven started writing the symphony he was inspired by the heroic liberating acts of Napoleon Bonaparte, and dedicated the symphony to the great leader. Famously, though, when Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Beethoven scratched out the dedication as he felt the revolutionary hero had turned tyrant. The symphony can be interpreted as 1) the portrayal of the hero (Napoleon), 2) a funeral march: the death of the hero, or the heroic ideal, 3) a new birth - the music of the scherzo brings life and joy, and finally 4) the hero remade in which reason and enlightenment triumph over tyranny. This is shown through the use of fugal writing - so often used by composers from Haydn onwards to bring reason and order to the climax of great symphonic works. I found it a compelling interpretation, but of course the very nature of music means that the story it tells can be interpreted in many different ways.

Messiah is powerful not just for the music, but for its story of God's saving acts through Jesus Christ. Beethoven's 'Eroica' symphony is powerful both for its music - amazingly radical at the time of its first performance in, I think, 1803 - and for its portrayal through a universal medium of a universal message of hope and the rebirth of heroic ideals.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Music of the North

No, not Scotland, but the snowy expanses of Finland. I've just got back from hearing the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing the 6th and 7th symphonies of Sibelius. Like Mahler who told the conductor Bruno Walter not to look at the mountains around him because it was all in his music, so Sibelius seems to capture the essence of the northern European wastes of Finland. There is something about his music that paints pictures of bright snow, ice crystals, cold water, gloomy pine forests in the mist, and dark mountain peaks. But at the same time it is playful and full of positive energy.

Like many great artists Sibelius was wracked by self-doubt, to such an extent that the last 30 years of his life were virtually silent musically. But he had become a hero of Finnish independence from Russia, giving his countrymen that stirring orchestral piece Finlandia, and in 1940 he was voted by the audience of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra their 'favourite living composer.'

I've only lately come to appreciate the music of Sibelius. Maybe because it takes some time to unfold, and you're never quite sure where it is going. Tonight's performance was all the better for the fantastic playing of the LPO. In their encoure - 'Valse Triste ' - I've never heard such quiet playing from orchestral strings before: absolute pianissimo. It even stopped the audience coughing - you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The debate about assisted suicide

Here is a link to a thoughtful blog by my erstwhile friend at theological college, Doug Chaplin:

I believe that if we are to be heard on the floor of the debate it's vitally important to continue to argue in the language that most people speak, that is the language of secular human rights and pragmatism, even though as Christians our motivation may come from somewhere higher.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Right to Live

Three things strike me about the current debate about assisted suicide, or 'the right to die' as supporters put it. The first is the way that celebrities, such as Sir Terry Pratchett, pronounce on the issue in such a way as to give apparent weight to the argument. Thank goodness that it is not up to them but to parliament to decide on changes to the law and so far parliament has voted twice against making assisted suicide legal.

The second thing that strikes me, as the Archbishop of York pointed out today on BBC's 'The World at One' is that for the majority of people in the two-thirds world, the question is not about the right to die but the right to live and the struggle to keep alive. It seems to me that the debate about the right to die is essentially a wealthy middle-class preoccupation - one that is only an option to those who can afford to choose it. In the face of the poverty of some Central American countries such as Guatemala where it is not unknown for the police to get rid of the problem of street children by killing them, it seems rather obscene to be talking about the 'right to die'.

My third reflection is about the so-called 'quality of life'. Although it is incredibly hard to see someone close to you suffering, or to suffer yourself, that doesn't deny that in suffering there can be a good quality of life. What makes us human is not just what we can do for ourselves, but the fact that others can do things for us. Most of the time we prefer to be active, but sometimes we have to be passive and to receive from others, and receive what life deals out to us. William Vanstone, in his book 'The Stature of Waiting' draws on the example of Jesus as one who was handed over to others to become the passive victim of their hate, and in that experience was able to give dignity to passive suffering.

I'm sure this is going to be a debate that gathers momentum. I suspect that the majority that support assisted suicide do so because they haven't really thought through the issues of where lines are drawn and what the dignity of life is all about. My fear is that if legalised killing is allowed it opens a slippery path to the possibility of getting rid of those who are a burden to their families or to the state. It's not very far from there to the 'final solution' in which the state rids itself of those who are a drain on resources or are seen as being unnecesary or unwanted.