Song of the Angels by William Adolphe Bouguereau
I could love a Christmas without a sumptuous feast, the twinkling lights or a pile of presents topped with a glittering tree. But Christmas can only really happen for me if I hear the divine harmony. This week, I heard the angels singing again and again. , and like Dante, I felt transported to higher and higher realms of glory. First, chanting psalms with pilgrims at the Benedictine retreat- then hearing my dear friend Robin O'Brien serenade labyrinth walkers with Hildegard of Bingen and her own beautiful rendition of the Song of Songs. Saturday saw the extraordinary performance of Handel's Messiah by the American Bach Soloists in Grace Cathedral: a model of vocal and instrumental purity and unbridled joy in one of the most magnificent sites in the Bay Area. But the highest heaven came in the exquisite a capella concert given by Chanticleer at St Ignatius Church in San Francisco on Sunday evening. In the darkened sanctuary, the low bass drone brought chills to my spine as far off a high, clear voice of incandescent innocence began to chantVeni Veni Emmanuel. . Gradually a tiny candle appeared as the procession of twelve men in tuxedos with beaming faces came to offer their hearts and souls in song. It was the first of many moments that evening that brought a lump to my throat.
The high point of the concert was discovering the antiphons of Arvo Part. This Estonian has long been my favorite living composer, and I often use his music as a mirror for teaching TS Eliot's last masterwork, the Four Quartets. After years of studying composition in the line of the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Part reached a dead end. Like Beethoven, he exiled himself to a several year period of silence and a creative moratorium before being reborn as a creative artist. While Beethoven was plunged against his will into the throes of his deafness. Part went to an Orthodox monastery in the remote woods of Estonia where he sunk into the slow rhythms of chanting and studied 14th century polyphony. When he began to compose again after a few years, it was with a new voice: staggeringly stark and beautiful which truly mirrors TS Eliot's lines in "Little Gidding:- " complete simplicity costing not less than everything",
Part's Morgenstorm, written in celebration of Advent, was a revelation. As one of the Seven Magnificent Antiphons, it is intended to be chanted before and after the Magnificat on December 21, the Winter Solstice. .The ancient text is such a beautiful, eternal plea:
O Radiant dawn
splendor of eternal light,
sun of justice,
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.
Part has:one half of the chorus singing in a major key, the other in a minor key- perfectly poised between light and dark, pain and delight. The music is spare, aching, heart rending: music to bring you to your knees as you hold one hand full of grief and the other full of hope, evoking the eternal cycle of life and death. It is truly the song of angels: not sticky sweet and sentimental, but music that points to a bigger vision and a deeper truth that just might change you. Jungians and alchemists teach that the journey into the soul requires us to be ability to endure profound tension while Dante writes that the journey to Paradise requires the ability to bear greater and greater beauty. Music like Bach and Arvo Part help us to do this in a very physical, concrete way . In experiencing the radical pain of intense dissonance, and then discovering the unbelievable sweetness of hearing the clashing harmonies dissolve and blossom into the most open and expansive and liberating resolution, it is a practice of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "costly grace". an embodiment of what Eliot called "echoed ecstasy/not lost, but requiring". It is the Nativity sculpted in sound: discovering the holy , the radiant and the wondrous in the simplest of places surrounded by darkness and suffering. Divine harmony- what Christmas is all about .