St. Nicolas Day!

December 6, 2016 at 11:30 am

Saint Nicolas? Oh, you mean SANTA CLAUS!


He’s the patron saint of materialism, putting chocolate in shoes, and giving cheap plastic toys to undeserving brats … right?

 St. Nicolas is one bad-ass saint; the legends about him range from the mildly interesting to the outrageous. The legend from which Santa Claus comes originated as Nicolas giving a poor man coins to pay for his daughters’ dowry, thus preventing them from being forced into prostitution; in order to be discreet, Nicolas tossed the purses through a window and into the man’s house at nighttime. It is also said that he punched the leader of the Arian heresy at the council of Nicaea (a meeting where the early Christians sought to clearly define their faith, resulting in the Nicene creed). Just your typical meeting of bishops, ending in a brawl, that’s all. And then, the greatest legend of them all … the pickled boys.


There’s a famine throughout the land – everyone is hungry. A desperate cook kills three boys, butchers them, and pickles their flesh. Nicolas shows up in town, and the people offer him some tasty meat. Nicolas, in a vision, realizes what is being served – he stops the feast immediately. He calls to the barrels containing the pickled boy flesh, and the meat comes back together and becomes three boys again. Naturally, the resurrected boys begin to sing the praises of God.

Benjamin Britten wrote a cantata based on the legends of Nicolas in 1948. He could have ignored  these impossible-to-believe legends and produced a work of religious piety. Instead, Britten sets the legends in a fun way which pokes fun at the exaggerated medieval stories and the difficulties of modern faith. The result is in a marvelous work which is both pious and frivolous, serious and fun, sincere and goofy.



Two Organs are Better than One

November 20, 2016 at 3:59 pm

How do you fill a massive cathedral with sound? A really loud organ. But, if the organ is too loud, how do you accompany the choir? Easy – build another organ.

Believe it or not, it is not uncommon for large churches to have more than one organ. Even so, there’s not exactly a wealth of music written for two organs. First of all, these organs tend to be placed far apart (there’d be no point in putting two organs next to each other); this means that they two organists would struggle to stay together, musically. Second, these organs tend to be designed with very different things in mind (there’d be no point in building two identical organs in the same building); one will often be the “main” organ for solo repertoire, while the other will be a “choir” organ for accompanying. Or, one will be designed for Baroque repertoire and the other for Romantic, and so the two instruments would sound like oil and water.

There is, however, a unique piece for two organs and choir which makes a strong argument for this instrumentation – the Messe Solemnelle of Louis Vierne, longtime organist of Notre Dame. The choir sings with the softer organ in the chancel, and the loud organ gets the play the fun parts, a football field away, in the west gallery.

French organs are known for their fiery, dark, thunderous sound (they are also known for never, ever being in tune). I often wonder what it was like for a 19th century French farmer to come to the Paris and hear the organ at one of the cathedrals. I imagine they may have needed new underpants after the experience.

Things I love about this video: 1) this is a REAL MASS, not a concert performance; 2) The French mispronunciation of Latin; 3) you can hear the two organs get out of sync with each other if you listen carefully; 4) the last chord is held so long that you can see the singers taking extra breaths to get through it.


November musings

November 12, 2016 at 9:36 am

We humans naturally compare our lives to the world around us – the start of life at spring, the fruits of summer, the autumnal decline, the dead winter. We find these cycles in many different aspects of our lives, not to mention our own existence. November, therefore, might be a time when we prepare for death, Thanksgiving, like a joyous last meal. Some people find this morbid, but, I find it comforting. Why else would we devote so much time and energy surrounding the end of our lives if not to bring some peace? We have religious practices to prepare us, social rituals to go through to help us through the loss of a loved one, and of course, art!

Johannes Brahms was utterly heartbroken when his mother died; he nursed his spirit back to health by writing what has become one of his best-loved works, his German Requiem.

Brahms’ mother died in February 1865; by the end of the year, he had written most of the Requiem. It is not a liturgical work – it is better described as a sacred concert work. It is a collection of Bible verses, sung in German, that gently take the listener through the stages of grief. Eighteen months later, Brahms completed a movement for soprano solo – some say it is his mother’s voice, singing from heaven:

And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice …
s one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.

Perhaps Brahms had finally come to terms with his mother’s passing.

It is necessary to note that Brahms was an agnostic; still, he chose to set religious texts. I don’t think this is that bizarre, really. Plenty of people with no religious beliefs will arrange for a religious funeral for themselves or a loved one. Even if the belief isn’t there, comfort can be found in moving through the rituals. You don’t need to understand German or be a Christian for this music to move you to tears. It is simply a human work – which I believe is exactly what Brahms intended.

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.