As usual, I’m behind on some stuff at work. Since Christmas and the New Year both fall on Sundays this year, the much-needed break to catch up on life has been noticeably absent. Instead of a real breather, I’m sitting in my mother’s study here in Tennessee, cat in lap and coffee in hand, as the plans for next semester’s music at church are set into motion.
I imagine that a few Episcopal musicians around the country are doing much the same (give or take the cat), looking at lectionaries and readings to come up with appropriate hymn and anthem choices. The liturgical side of it is easy, right? I mean, the Church has had a good 2000 years to come up with some appropriate tunes for your SATB choir and electro-pneumatic box of whistles.
Wrong. What can my choir sing? What will my congregation tolerate? (What will my priest tolerate?) What length do the pieces realistically need to be? Is there enough rehearsal time? Can I be bothered? What if I tried something new? (N.B. Episcopalians don’t really “do” change) On and on it goes, the constant balancing act of providing tasteful and meaningful art that fosters contemplation and openness and complements the liturgy that you have to work with.
Ok, ok so I sound like I’m whining. The truth is that is actually part of the fun of the job. Exploration, looking for music, maybe finding something new and unexpected, or possibly resurrecting old chestnuts – it’s a scavenger hunt of sorts. More often than not, I’m in the business of finding new things for the choir. It’s a paid octet, four ladies and four gents, capable of singing a myriad of styles comfortably. But it’s only eight voices and it’s a small room. Victorian and Edwardian warhorses tend to sound prissy if lacking enough voices. Saccharine acapella counterpoint from the 16th century requires a big room for all the harmonies to float around and wash your brains with counter-reformation era piety. The unique challenge is therefore finding music for intimate forces to be performed in an intimate space – chamber music for voices, if you will.
Increasingly, I’ve found myself abandoning my Oxbridge chapel training and thinking about the various seminars and classes I had at Oberlin on music for the domestic sphere. These days, “Great “Western Music makes many of us think concert auditoriums, recital halls and large churches (especially with liturgical music). But as most musicians will tell you, before the era of TV or widely accessible public entertainment, much of the core of Western Music was written to be played in homes… or sung in homes.
Going back to the 16th century, in the days when the sacred and the profane were blurred, music was used not just as entertainment but also as a form of devotion. Being co-owner of the first music-publishing house in Europe, William Byrd was a major proponent of domestic musicianship.
Byrd was a good businessman. In 1575, he and Tallis had tried publishing a large set of church anthems in Latin, but the venture had virtually flopped. By 1588, however Byrd had picked up on where commercial viability of newly printed music would be: the Madrigal and the consort song. Nodding to the popularity of mouthy secular tunes, and their flexibility in performance, Byrd put together collections of English songs and sonnets which were totally flexible with regards to performing forces, and even bridging the gap between the sacred and profane. Printed in part-books, families could gather round a table with their voices and instruments, and could choose to sing or play any of the voices accompanying the main melody line. Multiple verses were included as to allow for people to pass the solos around or mix it up, and reprises were often included so that people could put down their instruments and all join in and sing at the same time. It’s beautiful music, yes, but it’s all the makings of a DIY jam session for amateur musicians.
This music is of course less likely to be performed in one’s home today. I know almost nobody with a full set of viols, a lute and a penchant for Elizabethan English who would sit around their houses, bonnet clad, to pray on a Tuesday afternoon. If I did, I would doubt they would have a family or indeed a sufficient number of amicable acquaintances with whom to make such music come off the page. That said, it’ll do just fine for my church choir. All the voices are easily reducible into a keyboard part (which they often did back in the day) and is low maintenance on the rehearsal front. While the Elizabethan amateurs were quite skilled, the level of complexity in the music isn’t sufficiently high to compete with the likes of Herbert Howells or Francis Poulenc – it’s intentionally uncomplicated.
There are problems: in the original editions, words and music were published separately… lining them up is a matter for interpretation (ahem, by me. not my choir). Also the musicians of yore used a slightly different notation system. And the font in the words looks funny. And the spelling situation is a tad iffy. So yes, instead of thinking about hymns or psalms or the normal boring stuff, I’ve been creating some editions for my choir to sing. It’s a lot of effort, yes, but the devotional poetry from that era touches a level of personal emotion that few religious poets have matched since.
Why do I use my paper, ink and pen,
And call my wits to counsel what to say?
Such memories were made for mortal men;
I speak of Saints whose names cannot decay.
An Angel’s trump were fitter for to sound
Their glorious death if such on earth were found.
Though not quite Shakespeare or Marlow, granted, there’s a personal touch that brings sacred parlance down from the loftiness and severity of something like scripture. There are angels trumpets and saints, but also everyday writing utensils and even colloquialisms like “wits” to label one’s common sense. There’s also a strange sense of defiance of scripture itself – paper and pen are for human memory, but that which lasts is what is spoken, word of mouth, person to person.
But another one of Byrd’s consort songs pops up on my iTunes list this time of year. Again, growing up in a house of musicians with an early-music-nerd mother, December’s soundtrack always included some of the early recordings made by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata. On the recording Sing We Noel, music from England and Early America is interspersed and combined to showcase New England’s musical progeny with some historical context. Indeed for me, the Christmas hasn’t really begun until I’ve heard The Midnight Cry or other early American hymns on the CD. But woven amongst the folk songs, carols and country-dances is a little lullaby by Byrd.
My sweet little darling, my comfort and joy,
Sing lullaby lully.
In beauty surpassing the Princes of Troy.
Sing lullaby lully.
Now hush, child, now sleep, child, thy mother’s sweet boy.
Sing lullaby lully.
The gods bless and keep thee from cruel annoy.
Sing lullaby lully.
Sweet baby, lullaby, lully.
I admit I hadn’t ever seen the music or text to this sweet, sweet piece until I was searching for music for my choir this week. I was pleasantly surprised to find it, but in looking at it realized I had misheard the lyrics for a while: I’d always heard the line “in beauty surpassing the Princess of Troy,” as what I assumed was a reference to the mighty Helen. Yet in all the editions I could find this week, they read “Princes of Troy.” As I read, more things occurred to me – yes, it’s a lullaby, but not sung by Mary, perhaps; “thy mother’s sweet boy” renders a strange ambiguity. “The gods bless thee and keep thee from cruel annoy” also seems odd – there’s being awoken from sleep, but what about the situation inspires cruelty or avarice?
Indeed, the lullaby isn’t really about Helen at all, but about the Trojan prince Ganymede. Most musicians know him because of Schubert, whose short song begins in one key and ends in another, taking little Dorothy from Kansas to Oz in just 4 minutes or so. It’s also one of the only examples of an open reference to male desire, prompting a myriad of questions as to Schubert’s “allegiances,” if you will.
He was the loveliest born of the race of mortals, and therefore the gods caught him away to themselves, to be Zeus’ wine-pourer, for the sake of his beauty, so he might be among the immortals.
(Homer, Iliad XX)
And when his feeling continues and he is nearer to him and embraces him, in gymnastic exercises and at other times of meeting, then the fountain of that stream, which Zeus when he was in love with Ganymede named Himeros (Desire), overflows upon the lover, and some enters into his soul, and some when he is filled flows out again.
(Plato, Phaedrus CCLV)
While such a reference may not be uncommon in visual art, the protestant inclination to separate the body from the soul has sort of sanitized the long held associations between beauty and divinity, the vulnerability of the soul and the body. There’s no beating around the bush here – Ganymede was taken by Zeus and made immortal because of his looks, history’s first “yes-boy” the Olympian harem, whose carnal self-sacrifice was not that mortification, but copulation.
Is Love a boy? What means he then to strike?
Or is he blind? Why will he be a guide?
Is he a man? Why doth he hurt his like?
Is he a God? Why doth he men deride?
No one of these, but one compact of all,
A wilful boy, a man still dealing blows,
Of purpose blind, to lead men to their thrall,
A God that rules unruly, God he knows.
Boy, pity me that am a child again,
Blind be no more, my guide to make me stray,
Man, use thy might to force away my pain,
God, do me good, and lead me to my way:
And if thou be’st a power to me unknown,
Power of my life, let here thy grace be shown.
Indeed, by contemporary standards, Byrd’s little lullaby is comparatively tame in the references to explicit male desire, and even the equation between Christ and Ganymede.
Take a look at some Thomas Traherne,
O NECTAR! O delicious stream!
O ravishing and only pleasure! Where
Shall such another theme
Inspire my tongue with joys or please mine ear!
Abridgement of delights!
And Queen of sights!
O mine of rarities! O Kingdom wide!
O more! O cause of all! O glorious Bride!
O God! O Bride of God! O King!
O soul and crown of everything!
Did not I covet to behold
Some endless monarch, that did always live
In palaces of gold,
Willing all kingdoms, realms, and crowns to give
Unto my soul! Whose love
A spring might prove
Of endless glories, honours, friendships, pleasures,
Joys, praises, beauties and celestial treasures!
Lo, now I see there’s such a King,
The fountain-head of everything!
Did my ambition ever dream
Of such a Lord, of such a love! Did I
Expect so sweet a stream
As this at any time! Could any eye
Believe it! Why all power
Is used here;
Joys down from Heaven on my head do shower,
And Jove beyond the fiction doth appear
Once more in golden rain to come
To Danae’s pleasing fruitful womb.
His Ganymede! His life! His joy!
Or He comes down to me, or takes me up
That I might be His boy,
And fill, and taste, and give, and drink the cup,
But those (tho’ great) are all
Too short and small,
Too weak and feeble pictures to express
The true mysterious depths of Blessedness.
I am His image, and His friend,
His son, bride, glory, temple, end.
John Donne also,
Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
(Holy Sonnet 14)
The deeper you dig, the steamier it all gets. But too often modern gender binaries can cause us look away from sentiments such as these: the human form and all its desires are encompassed in the divine relationships between a redeemer and one redeemed.
The secret sins that hidden lye within my pensive heart.
Procures great heaps of bitter thoughts and fills my soul with smart;
And yet the more my soul doth seek some sweet relief to find,
the more doth sin, with vain delights,
Alas, still keep me blind.
Thou see’st, O God, the strifes there are between my soul ans sin:
Thy grace doth work, but sin prevails and blinds my soul therein.
Wherefore, sweet Christ, thy grace increase, my faith augment withal,
And for Thy tender mercy’s sake,
Lord, hear me when I call.
I guess for me the other reason that I love delving into the poetry and music of the Elizabethan era is that it’s in some ways pretty relatable. I’m sure someone can lambast me with criticisms that this is not “gay” poetry, that “gay” did not exist, etc. I’m not arguing God was gay (though Byrd and Tallis probably were), but that metaphors of same sex desire are a pretty cool part of both the Church’s and Westen culture’s history. Where it factors in for me is on Sunday morning: a key element of an inclusive theology in the Episcopal Church is not merely acceptance or inclusion, but perhaps a recognition that the manner in which LGBT persons relate to each other and to their own bodies has always been on the table. Christ’s humanity as an object of physical desire makes us really uncomfortable; I know that I see this poetry, and it feels like a line has been crossed, like Lady Gaga riding on a motorcycle and having a threesome with Christ and Judas. Again, my own religious beliefs are complicated and probably don’t fall within any recognizable orthodox Christian canon (OK, I’m basically agnostic), but if Christians truly believe that humans are made in God’s image, it seems the imagery of God perhaps needs updating.
If in thine heart thou nourish will
and give all to thy lust,
then sorrows sharp and griefs at length
endure of force thou must.
But if that reason rule thy will
and govern all thy mind
a blessed life then shalt thou lead,
a fewest dangers find.
As any choral scholar or church musician will tell you, the interpolation of the profane or subaltern in evensongs and Eucharists is always a point for raising eyebrows, glances across choir stalls and smirks in rehearsals. There are tons and tons and tons of euphemistic references to secretions, orifices, penetrations, and everything in between. It’s funny because we force ourselves to assume these are just coincidences, even though when compared next to the really passionate contemporaneous poetry, the references are not euphemistic at all – they’re pretty damned explicit. Without sounding too overtly political and gay-rightsy, it’s also a tad affirmative, as Episcopal and Anglican musicians have their fair share of sexual minorities (and then some) among their ranks. For me, returning to Elizabethan poetry and music is a means of exploring and discovering some of the ways in which the imagery of the divine was not separate from the human experiences of desire and love.
Yet in spite of envy, this be still proclaimed,
That none worthier then thyself thy worth hath blamed:
When their poor names are lost thou shalt live famed,
When thy story long time hence shall be perused,
Let the blemish of thy rule thus be excused,
None ever lived more just, none more abused.
There are images upon images of Christ’s divinity – Constantine the Great saw Christ as Apollo, Monteverdi, as Orpheus. But in his little lullaby, Byrd chose Ganymede, no coincidental reference, but perhaps one of the most recognizable and meaningful metaphors for the awe of a physical incarnation in human form. There is no doubt that it’s complicated – the associations with Greek pederasty are more than problematic. Such problems face the gay world today, as a new film about Tom of Finland (http://tomthemovie.com/) presents problems of the roots of gay imagery in the 20th century in the dress and masculinities of the SS in World War II (yup, your chic gay friends really do have Nazi haircuts).
I thought that love had beene a boy, with blinded eies,
or else some other wanton toy, that men devise,
like tales of fayries often told,
by doting age that dies for cold.
Religion is certainly imperfect, but I suppose the Episcopal Church gets it right in celebrating the inconsistent and incongruous rather than sanitizing it. But I would challenge my fellow church musicians to take the time to use the music to explore and push the boundaries of how divinity is presented and displayed in music, not just for the sake of inclusion or a project in political correctness, but perhaps to simply recognize and celebrate the myriad of ways in which the human manifestation of God really did focus on the “human” part, and not just the “holy” part. While Zeus and Ganymede feel as if they push some limits, the poetry and references only risqué is you allow them to be. What if church music and the texts we choose were not only upheld the orthodox but incorporated the heterodox? Painters and poets do not have the position in churches that musicians do in choosing art week in and week out for people to relate to, be it with imagery of biblical stories, of nature, of femininity, of family. Why should sexuality be off the table? After all, one of the key tenets of any working relationship between faith and sexuality is “No shame, no blame. ”
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
(Love, George Herbert)