Holy Week, again. This year, it seems quieter, more internal and maybe that has to do with the way we have approached it this year. Our sermon series “Number Your Days” and our Wednesday Night Words series on Death and Dying have been thought-provoking and have encouraged personal searching and evaluation. It is, after all, the season to ponder just what all of this resurrection and atonement stuff means in our own lives.
That said, all is not quiet and solitude. As we begin our walk alongside Jesus through betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection, those of us in the Music Department at Calvary, along with our friends on the Mission Board, are busy getting ready for our annual fund-raising concert for the Shalom Scholarship Fund. This year we are performing music by George Philipp Telemann, music of a personal, contemplative nature…in keeping with our themes for the season. If you are interested, below are the program notes for this Friday’s performance.
The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, once wrote: “It is not the act of a good disciple to flee from the Cross in order to enjoy the sweetness of easy piety.” Tonight, we do not flee.
We’ve called our program Number Your Days after the words of the Psalmist: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (90:12).” For those of the Christian faith, Good Friday is a yearly reminder of the hour of our own death and the possibilities of the days we have before us and our responsibility to use them well. As Christians, we gather with Jesus in that hour of his physical death, when he as the God-Made-Flesh completes His human journey. We weep for his humanity and for our own, as we wonder what is next. But even in our sorrow and our fear, we know that there is a promise in His suffering, a promise of hope and light for us. And if we are not practicing Christians, we gather simply because we are human ourselves and experience in that humanness the same trials and challenges that are part of Jesus’ story on this day.
Tonight we perform music by George Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), one of the lesser-understood giants of the German Baroque and early Classical period,because the music he created fits our contemplative theme. Telemann composed works that were highly personal and meditative. For example, his series Der Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst containing 72 cantatas written as meditations on texts from Paul’s Epistles was created specifically for performance in the home as private devotional music.
We offer tonight a series of works, each meant as a personal expression of the meaning of life and death, our own mortality, and the possibility of Resurrection.
Music of the German Reformation and the German Baroque
Martin Luther, the guiding hand of the German Reformation, believed in the power of music and said it most simply: “I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone…the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music (Preface to Rhau’s Symphoniae, 1538).” Is it any wonder that this faith context created a wellspring of sacred music, such as the music of J.S. Bach ( who wrote over 400 church cantatas), and the music of C. H. Graun (whose Passion setting we performed on this series last year), and the over 1000 church cantatas written by the composer of tonight’s program, George Philipp Telemann.
German Baroque music was all about the message. If you have ever attended a Lenten or Good Friday service and sung the great hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, you have participated in the theology of the German Baroque hymn writer and poet, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). If you have ever sung the great reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” you have stood in Martin Luther’s own musical theology. The textual and music choices of each of these composers give us a clue to their own theology or at the very least the theological context in which their works were commissioned.
In our present day, cantatas such as we hear tonight rarely appear in a liturgical setting. Even if the performance we attend is set in a church, as it is tonight, we generally will experience this music in a concert setting. But in the composer’s day, each cantata was written for a specific liturgical purpose: some to follow specific readings, some to preface the sermon, some to follow it as a repetition of the theme (worship services lasted several hours, even on an average non-festival Sunday). A cantata in the 18th century usually had several movements, like an instrumental sonata, and included both arias and “recited” text, or recitative. The voice was accompanied by a solo instrument and keyboard, or by a group of instruments. Larger cantatas might include several singers, even a chorus or participation by the congregation. During the season of Lent, instrumental music was banned from service so Good Friday and the performance of one of the great Passion settings would be the first time in weeks that anything other than unaccompanied singing had been heard in service.
One other thing you might notice about the music of the German Baroque: as you listen to the music tonight and read the translations, you might say to yourself, “Wait, that music sounds a bit cheery for all this talk of dying.” Tonight’s music shows the theological influence of the early Pietist movement, a particular theology that grew in the shadow of German Lutheranism. Pietism emphasized the personal relationship with God, through prayer and faith practice. For many Pietist writers, prayer and the act of singing were tools used to enter into that God-relationship, a relationship that was, in their terms, an all-encompassing embrace. Pietism speaks of a faith that is spiritual, individual, and includes all the senses. And that union between Man and God that is fundamental to the Pietist view was a beautiful, joyful thing to be sought after and desired, even when uniting in the moment of death. The sweet music of Telemann and other Baroque composers is an expression of that particular understanding of faith.
The Composer, George Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Today, we hardly think of Telemann as a composer of vocal music. And, as early as the 19th century, his work was considered insubstantial and at its worst, derivative; he was discounted because he wrote “too many” works (we know of around 3000). A major composer of the German Baroque and early Classical periods, he was friends with George Friedrich Handel, and colleagues with the younger C. H. Graun and Johann Adolphe Hasse, and contemporaries with both Johann Sebastian Bach and his son, C. P. E. Bach. Telemann was apparently a self-taught composer, and disappointed his family when he abandoned the study of the law for music making. He composed for the great churches in the greatest German cities of the time: Eisenach, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Frankfurt and Hamburg, with much of his vocal material created for Frankfurt and Hamburg. After 1715, he took an unusual step in his day and began to publish his own compositions. While living and work in Hamburg, his contract required the delivery of two new cantatas for each Sunday service and a new Passion setting for Lent, as well as composition for the secular celebrations of the city. He was responsible for the musical life in all five major churches. At the same time, he was required to deliver a new cantata cycle for the churches of Frankfurt.
Telemann was a great lover (and writer) of poetry; two of our works tonight set texts by famous theologian/poets of his day, Matthaus Arnold Wilckens (1704-1759) and Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756); the other two set texts believed to be Telemann’s own creation.
In his lifetime, his music was known throughout Europe. His music was performed regular until the early 19th century, when it all but disappeared. Telemann’s vocal music is only now beginning to see resurgence as scholars and performers work to create performable editions of the many works that remain. In particular, the work of Frankfurter Telemann-Gesellschaft has been invaluable in the recovery of much work and in the continued revival of Telemann’s music.
On a Personal Note: Seven Years Ago…
Seven years ago, before I was a member of this community, when hardly anyone knew anything about me, the wonderful, loving and faith-filled members of this church welcomed my proposal for the first Music for Good Friday concert. That night, we performed music by Pergolesi and Donizetti, and we remembered: we remembered the events of Good Friday, and the man who brought music into my life again, my first teacher, Michael Patterson.
Seven years later, we are here again, singing, playing and remembering, remembering the ever-present sacrifice of this day, remembering the years of worship and faith that have lived for so many years on this corner in Washington, DC. This community of saints has, over and over again, taken a chance on my crazy ideas – they have nurtured me and hoped for me and laughed with me. These seven years with this community have opened my eyes so that I might see and my ears that I might hear, as the favorite old hymn says.
I am most grateful for the chance to make wonderful, meaningful music here, with all that has meant to my own life and my own spiritual journey. The fact that this program exists is a testament to the amazing openness and faith of this congregation and the spirit and guidance of its inspiring pastor, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, and to the dedication of its staff, its lay leadership. The hard work of our Mission Board, our music staff and our guest performers, and most especially, our talented and energetic music director, Dr. Cheryl Branham make events such as these possible.
For me personally, tonight is a little death of its own, because after seven amazing years of Good Friday concerts, this will be my last. The formation of my own faith that has been guided by this community is leading me in directions I would have never imagined, something that is both exciting and frightening all at once. Sometimes, to make space for something new, we must release something we cherish, and that is where I find myself on this Good Friday. I had no idea, seven years ago, where I would stand on this night. Next spring I will be busy working towards the completion of my degree at the Virginia Theological Seminary, but rest assured that I will take every possible moment to raise money to support tonight’s cause, the Shalom Scholarship Fund, a mission I believe in with all my heart.
As performers, we feel blessed by the opportunity to speak through music, especially the opportunity to speak for those whose voices are muted and ignored. We hope that if some part of this evening’s music moves or inspires you, you will consider helping these students who thirst for education, who thirst to honor the sacrifice about which we sing tonight.