Friday, June 29, 2007

3 Movies in Brief

In the last couple of weeks, I have seen three movies on the big screen. They all did what they meant to do, and did it quite well.

First I saw 1408, based on a story by Stephen King. I haven't been a big fan of Stephen King's for quite a while. Between the ages of 13 and 16 or so, I read most of his books and story collections that had been written up to that time. I found his writing very uneven and, after a while, mannered and predictable. When he was at the top of his form, he could be really terrifying. The Shining, for example, cost me a week's worth of sleep. Other times, his work struck me as trashy and exploitative. The movies based on his work have tended to highlight the latter tendency, I think. Besides which, I have fallen out of love with being scared stiff as a form of entertainment. I only subject myself to it now and then, for a change of pace. So I appreciate that 1408 scared a high percentage of the heck out of me, without leaving me feeling as if I had been psychologically abused and manipulated.

It's a story of terror about a writer (played by John Cusack) who specializes in books about haunted tourist traps. He doesn't believe in ghosts, but he writes about them and helps historic, "haunted hotels" hawk their wares. One day he gets an anonymous postcard advising him to stay in room 1408 at New York's Dolphin Hotel. Even after his publisher's lawyer forces the hotel to let him stay there, the hotel manager (an uncharacteristically dapper and soft-spoken Samuel L. Jackson) tries to dissuade Cusack from staying in room 1408, where dozens of people have died - and where no one has ever made it through a night alive.

Long story short, the room is evil, and it plays with Cusack the way a cat plays with a mouse, ransacking him mentally, physically, and spiritually. In case you like a good spooking, I won't spoil any more of it. Mostly a one-man show, and mostly played out in the confines of a hotel suite, this movie nevertheless puts both its star and its set through an emotional and structural wringer, making it hard to watch and hard to look away at the same time.

To lighten my mood after seeing this last week, I went back for another show and saw Evan Almighty. This is a sequel to the Jim Carrey flick Bruce Almighty, which God (Morgan Freeman) gives a TV news reporter (Carrey) a chance to prove whether he can run the world better than the Almighty Himself. In this follow-up flick, a minor (but memorable) character from the first movie takes center stage. Steve Carell's anchorman character, last seen losing his ability to string two words together in front of a live TV audience, has somehow gotten elected to Congress and vows to "change the world." Instead his wife and three sons quickly find out that he is the same Dad as ever (too busy to spend time with them) and a congressional crook (John Goodman) finds Evan easy to manipulate into supporting his bill to develop national parks. Things start to get difficult for Evan when God tells him to build an ark, and won't take no for an answer.

It's a nice, clean, fun-for-the-whole-family type of film. Both Jim Carrey and Steve Carell have made a career out of making flagrantly offensive and tasteless movies, but this series is a surprising exception. The theology is not specifically Christian (one of the few references to the faith of the New Testament is, for example, a sight gag where a theatre marquee says "Now Showing: The 40-Year-Old Virgin Mary"). It is more the kind of inoffensive, vanilla, popular religion one used to see on the TV series Touched By An Angel. God says, "I love you." He smiles gently and gives heart-warming advice. He turns out to be completely right, and all the characters learn a lesson. It says nothing that anyone could disagree with, though churchgoers will be pleased that at least (for a change) a movie isn't flat-out insulting everyone who believes in God. Which is pretty faint praise from a theologian, but hey - it's all done with a light touch and plenty of humor, including a montage of Steve Carell repeatedly hitting his thumb with a hammer and, miraculously, not saying anything unsuitable for general audiences.

Finally, today I went to see Ratatouille. This is one of this summer's movies that I have awaited most eagerly: a Pixar computer-animated feature directed by Brad Bird, who previously directed two of my favorite animated movies, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. This one was about a rat named Remy who finds his way to Paris and aspires to become a great chef. The jerk who put together the trailer for this movie should be whipped (flagellated, not pureed) with linguine, because the trailer gave away way too much of the film. Nevertheless it was a delightful comedy, full of appetizing imagery, romance, friendship, belly-laughs, and a good variant of the old "kid tells his Dad off and makes something special of himself against all odds" storyline.

The chefs, critics, and rats in this movie are voiced by such actors as Ian Holm (a.k.a. "Bilbo Baggins"), Peter O'Toole, Brian Dennehy, Janeane Garofalo, and Brad Garrett. It's a fast-moving, visually engaging tale, enhanced by beautiful Parisian skylines, expressive animated characters, and moments of brilliant visual storytelling (my favorite being the food critic's reaction when he tastes the titular dish). In short, Brad Bird proves once again to be either a filmmaking genius, or at least the team leader of a collective genius. The ratio of adults to kids in the audience (for a 7:10 p.m. show on Friday night, mind you) was far higher than most animated films, but this was a very responsive audience that shared many good-natured laughs and, as the end credits rolled, applauded the screen. The last film I saw that had such a warm reception was...let's see...The Incredibles!

OK, maybe there was a Harry Potter movie since then, but you know Harry Potter fans; just seeing the Warner Bros. logo accompanied by Hedwig's Theme drives them bonkers with joy. I'll have more to say on this subject in a couple of weeks.

Finally, there was a short movie preceding the main feature tonight. This has been Pixar's standard practice, and sometimes the short is just as memorable as the feature. Their new animated short was titled Lifted. It begins with a flying saucer appearing over a lonely farmhouse; a beam shines down on the bedroom window where a farmer is fast asleep; an alien abduction is about to take place. But almost immediately, it takes a wacky turn. Entirely without dialogue, the short subject was nevertheless full of wit and warmth.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Gagricultural Tackiness

Currently displayed on the ELCA church sign in my neighborhood: TRY SOME OF THESE FOUR-LETTER WORDS: LOVE HELP GIVE CARE

Here are some more: WORK WORK WORK WORK

To counter this ELCA church's moralistic tendencies, I would like to make a counterproposal. Here are some three-letter words that are much more in line with the basic message a "Lutheran" church should be noising around: GOD THE SON DID ALL FOR YOU. WHY LET SIN OWN YOU? THE FOE CAN NOT WIN. YOU MAY DIE, BUT GOD CAN NOT LET YOU LIE.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cain & Abel 3

I have way too many series of posts going at the same time. I finally killed off the A-Z composers thread, now it's time to kill another.

In my work for a certain Christian magazine which I shall not name, I and my co-workers have had to do some interesting things with art and imagery. Sometimes the results turned out a little funny. This is why one co-worker and I got a lot of laughs out of the phrases "kissy-face Luther" and "hair-replacement Jesus." And I can't imagine what could possibly top Photoshopping the Pope's head onto a surfer's body. (Amazingly, none of these masterpieces were ever published.) But now and then these odd assignments take an inspiring turn, and for me one such occasion involved a search for images of Cain and Abel. Here are some more of the paintings I found...

Here are a pair of tempera panels by Bertram of Minden. The first one depicts Cain and Abel making their offerings. God appears to be leaning decidedly toward Abel's offering, stretching down for a good sniff. In the second panel, Cain lets Abel know how he feels about this, using a club for emphasis. Abel looks very defenseless and even submissive, but that couldn't have been a happy moment for him. Perhaps the message of this diptych is: God's true worshipers can expect the violent jealousy of others; but when struck, they turn the other cheek. If anyone ever asks how often to turn it, or how far, the answer is right here.

Another before-the-fact picture is this relief by Jacopo della Quercia, showing the brothers burning their offerings on the same altar! Abel seems pretty caught up in his devotions, an opportunity Cain seems likely to exploit for nobody's good. Cain has his eye on little brother, definitely not the right angle to be looking during worship. But look above the altar; the flames from Cain's sacrifice seem reluctant to rise toward God, or perhaps God is smothering them with his hand. The message: be careful what you focus on when you come before God in worship.

Siegfried Detler Bendixen crafted this hand-colored lithograph of the two brothers. Once again, Cain is clearly directing his attention toward his brother's more successful sacrifice rather than God. His own altar isn't even aflame. He looks put out. Envious. He seems to be deciding whether a left hook or a karate chop will be quicker. I'm curious about the scallop shell on the ground, under the walking stick that may, in the end, be Cain's weapon of choice. Is this some kind of baptismal symbol? Nevertheless the message seems to be: "Is your eye evil because God is good?"

A little farther before the fact, here is James Tissot's depiction of Cain leading Abel to his death. Abel is just a kid! Another sweet, delicate, consumptive type, being dragged alive to his own grave by the brutish hand of his brother. It is a grim and savage scene, and you sympathize for the child whose life is about to end. In a way, this scene does the best job of depicting the tragedy of one brother slaying the other. Message: murder is a monstrous thing.

Go back even further before the crime. Here is Frans Pourbus the Elder's depiction of Adam and Eve with their young'uns. What cute babies they were together; such a pity one ended up murdering the other. And look, they had a cat, a dog, a monkey, and a goat in the household. Is that a cow in the distance? Message: evil can be done by nice, ordinary, well-brought up folks who had a happy home life.

Here is an idyllic 19th-century scene of the young couple, Adam and Eve, with their two cherubic sons. This time, instead of pets, the family has an interest in picking flowers. Somehow or other this picture is the one that hits me with the message: destructive envy can even find a foothold in a family that, between them, owns the whole world!

Some Flemish master did this more panoramic view of the Adam family's early years. They already have several children. Adam is working the ground by the sweat of his brow, Eve is making babies, and the boys (unless I mistake) are playing tag in the distance. And hey, feast your eyes on the unicorn! Message: being cast out of Eden may not have seemed so tough, at first. But just wait...

There are still other pictures showing the family life of the younger Adam and Eve and their small children, some of them with improbable details such Eve spinning wool on a spindle, the whole family wearing 16th-century garb, etc. For example, look at this picture by Domenico Fetti.

Here is one last picture of the young family that I found quite interesting; I'm not sure what to make of it. It is Charles Napier Kennedy's depiction of "Cain's first crime." I don't know enough about this painting to be able to say whether Cain's crime was feeding a lizard to a bird, or being upset that his brother was getting all the attention; that depends on which child is which, I suppose. This story isn't familiar to me. My Bible must be missing that chapter.

Next time I'll actually show some pictures of Cain murdering Abel. Brace yourself.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

More Composers: Z

At last! We reach the bottom of this extremely non-all-inclusive list. Along the way I have, consciously and otherwise, left out significant and even very good composers. One simply has to make an end somewhere. These three guys could all probably be left off this list without anyone noticing or caring, but I needed someone beginning with a Z, and they were about equally obscure...

Zarlino (Gioseffo) was a 16th century composer who wrote highly polyphonic motets and madrigals, all according to a set of strict rules which he set down in several important treatises on music theory. He developed a mathematically-precise system of tuning called just intonation, which was later refined (in the time of J. S. Bach) into the currently-used equal temperament. He also explained why parallel fifths are a no-no (hint: the upper voice disappears in the overtones from the lower voice).

Zelenka (Jan Dismas) was a Czech Baroque composer comparable in some ways to J. S. Bach. He was known for his daring harmonies and expert counterpoint. For the last 10 years of his life he composed church music for the city of Dresden. His surviving works include half a dozen exceptional Masses, four Requiems, oratorios, psalm settings, and instrumental works.

Zemlinsky (Alexander von) was a famous Austrian conductor who spent his last years in exile and obscurity in New York, USA. Best known for his Lyric Symphony on texts by Bengali poet Tagore, he also wrote operas, chamber music, songs, symphonies, choral music, and a ballet.

More Composers: Y

Yamada (Kosaku, a.k.a. Kósçak) was an important Japanese conductor who introduced many modern orchestral works to Japan. He composed over 700 art-songs (Lieder) and the most famous Japanese opera, Kurofune. He also wrote symphonies, string quartets, and other chamber and vocal works.

Ysaÿe (Théophile) was a Belgian pianist who composed a great deal of "impressionist" music, including symphonies, concertos, orchestral and chamber music, and a Requiem. Much if it remains unpublished. The picture is actually of his brother Eugène, one of the most celebrated violinists of the early 20th century and a composer himself.

More Composers: X

Xenakis (Iannis) was a modern Greek composer and architect. For some time he worked full-time for Le Corbusier and only composed as a hobby. He pioneered in writing computer-generated music, which is to say, he wrote the mathematical algorithms and on which the computer based the music. He also published essays on his findings about the mathematical properties of music.

And you thought I was going to skip the letter X, didn't you?

More Composers: W

Almost done...this is the last group of any significant size!

Walton (William) was a 20th-century British composer in whose music Romanticism and modernity kiss. Everyone has probably heard his two coronation marches, Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre, neither of which is particularly to my taste. On the other hand, I may have mentioned before that his First Symphony (Walton wrote two of them) is among my favorite pieces. He also wrote concertos for piano, violin, viola, and cello; orchestral Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, the important oratorio Belshazzar's Feast, some sacred choral music, film scores (often for films based on Shakespeare), and a poetry recitation accompanied by chamber ensemble titled Façade.

Warlock (Peter), whose actual name was Philip Heseltine, was a Welsh-English music critic and composer. He composed under the Warlock name, which (like Samuel Clemens' "Mark Twain" pseudonym) has stuck with his work. Contrary to popular dramatizations of his life, there is no conclusive evidence that Heseltine had multiple personalities. He was a strange guy, and no mistake; deeply disturbed and afflicted by depression, he gassed himself to death at age 36. Nevertheless he left behind a body of very interesting music, much of it inspired by Renaissance and Medieval material. His best-known works include the Capriol Suite and The Curlew (a song cycle with chamber ensemble). He also wrote some popular carols and transcribed early English lute works for performance by modern instruments.

Weber (Carl Maria von) may have been the first "great" Romantic composer. Some of his operas, such as Euryanthe, Oberon, and particularly Der Freischütz, maintain an important place in the repertoire. He also left behind a one-movement piano concerto (Konzertstück), two clarinet concertos and other works featuring the clarinet, and a well-known piano piece called Invitation to the Dance.

Webern (Anton) stepped outside to light a cigarette and was shot to death by an American soldier, weeks after the end of World War II. This cut short the career of the most seriously committed and uncompromising member of Schoenberg's circle of twelve-tone serialist composers. I have actually listened to every one of Webern's compositions, a claim I can make about no other composer; but as his entire ouevre fits on 6 CDs, this isn't a titanic achievement. I remember listening to them in one weekend when I was on dorm-lounge-monitor duty in college. Several people passing through the dorm asked me what they had done to deserve it. Webern's works are mostly short, atonal, harshly dissonant pieces derived from mathematically strict musical formulas, with little to no development in the classical sense; most of their musical interest lies in the arrangement of unusual tone colors, and in the timing and intensity of contrasting blocks of sound and silence.

Widor (Charles Marie) is best known for the Toccata from his fifth symphony for organ, which is most often played faster than Widor wished. Though he wrote operas, a ballet, and assorted vocal and instrumental works, his main contributions to the repertoire are his ten organ symphonies, of which the fifth and sixth are the most famous.

Wieniawski (Henryk) was a brilliant Polish violinist who composed very few works. But these works include two important, and fiendishly difficult, violin concertos. His other works are chiefly of interest to violinists, including the invention of the so-called "Russian bow grip," a style of bowing conducive to previously unheard-of feats of virtuosity.

Willaert (Adrian) was a Flemish composer who moved to Venice and founded the "Venetian school" of which Gabrieli and Frescobaldi were heirs; this school of composition specialized in spectacular works of choral music in which separate groups of voices and instruments dialogued with each other from different locations, and which helped give rise to the Baroque era in music. If your tastes lean in the direction of Renaissance polyphony, you will probably run into his name a lot. You may also hear some of his music; he left behind hundreds of sacred and secular works. Apart from that, I have to mention him because, when I was a kid, I ran an AD&D character named Willaert (who was, incidentally, a bard). This activity wasted a staggering amount of my time; if I had spent half of it practicing, imagine where I might be!

Wolf (Hugo) was a Slovenian-Austrian composer whose orchestral Italian Serenade pops up occasionally on classical radio; he also wrote chamber, piano, and incidental music, and even three operas, of which Der Corregidor gets revived once in a blue moon. Really, his reputation as one of the near-great composers of all time rests almost entirely on his hundreds of songs, or Lieder (to use a little German lingo), for vocal soloist and piano accompaniment. A charismatic and deeply troubled man, he created a harmonic language of his own to express his pains and doubts, and in the process brought a peculiar kind of perfection to the art of expressing the meaning of words in music. Look for collections of his songs; if the "greatest hits" type of album doesn't appeal to you, you can sometimes find recordings of an entire song-cycle, such as the Spanisches Liederbuch, the Italienisches ditto, etc.

ELW strikes again

So where was I in my bitchy analysis of Evangelical Lutheran Worship? Oh, yes! The "Meal" portion of the Holy Communion service!

The first act under the heading "Meal" is the collection of the offering. Coming from a tradition in which the offering precedes the prayers (hence such language as "Accept...our bodies and souls, our hearts and minds, our talents and powers, together with the offerings we bring before Thee..."), I am a bit surprised to see that the offering has become part of the meal. I can only guess at the significance of this, and my guess would be that some historical-liturgical nerds decided to restore some ancient custom in which the bread and wine for the sacrament was collected and brought forward. And the ELW rubric confirms my guess: "Bread, wine, money, and other gifts may be brought forward."

Let's not quibble about the fact that Luther and the Reformation left that custom behind, after concerned deliberation persuaded them that this "offertory" was inextricably connected with the Roman church's teaching of the sacrifice of the Mass. Let's not wonder at the fact that Lutherans these days are so hot to get rid of anything that "smacks of catholicism," even things that were never considered a danger to the gospel; yet here the very heart of the Papacy's abuse of the sacrament is being revived - in symbolic gestures, if not in words. No. Let's just sigh with admiration of the prettiness of this rubric that casts the offering in such a "sacramental" light. Though, to be sure, I forget exactly what is sacramental about highlighting the role our actions and contributions play...I think a more correct word would be "sacrificial." Hmmm....

Then the table is set, and the "assisting minister" leads the congregation in one of three prayers ("or a similar prayer"), because (A) the previous prayers, and the pages and pages of eucharistic prayers yet to come, aren't sufficient to drench the sacrament in prayerfulness; (B) the preface (now titled "great thanksgiving") is no longer prefatory enough, so it needs a preface of its own; (C) the "presiding minister" can't carry this whole thing without an assist from the "assisting minister"; and above all, (D) we don't want to fall into a rote pattern, so we have to make sure an infinite variety of options is available to us.

Actually, this little prayer is mainly a kind of dedication or, one might even say, "consecration" of the bread and wine that have been brought forward in the offering. And each of the three options given in the service includes a little plug for the poor and needy, spiritual and otherwise. Typical thought-form: "Thanks for all these blessings. Nourish us by them, and use us and these gifts to feed the world with the bread of life." What does this prayer actually add, except (just possibly) a vapor of vagueness about just what constitutes the Sacrament and why we should want it?

Then you get the "Great Thanksgiving" ("The Lord be with you," etc., all the way to "It is right to give our thanks and praise"). This is summarized by a wholly unnecessary rubric. How interesting that we are giving "our" thanks now, as opposed to giving "Him" thanks. If we try a little bit harder to expunge masculine references to God from the liturgy, we might succeed in castrating Him. Oops; I mean castrating God.

The proper preface (no longer labeled as such) continues with "It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should..." "Meet, right, and salutary" are gone because two of the three adjectives have lost their street cred. The one most likely to be understood in a moralistic sense remains, along with this "duty" business, which is really going to inspire those people out there who aren't 100% sure they want to praise God. Then, in place of "evermore praising Thee and saying," we now "praise your name and join their unending hymn." Ha! Just when you were sure they had left behind the male pronoun, you catch them saying hymn!

Then the presiding minister goes on to the climactic, consecratory portion of the communion service. Four options are given in the service itself, but as we saw in a previous installment, the book contains several more options for "Thanksgiving at the Table." I am guessing that their thinking on these prayers has, in general, been influenced by a word study of the term "Eucharist," which means "thanksgiving," and has led a number of liturgical scholars to the idiotic conclusion that the part of the rite most essential to consecrating the sacrament is the giving of thanks. Actually, though the narrative contained in the "Words of Institution" does mention that Jesus gave thanks over the bread and wine, Lutheran theology holds that it was Christ's Words "This is my body" and "This cup blood" that effected (and continue to effect) the sacramental union of body to bread and blood to wine. Thus, all the effervescent verbiage of these prayers does nothing except suggest that we enact the sacrament by our prayers, our thanksgiving, or our following Jesus' example, etc.

Version II, which appears in a shaded box, is the bare Words of Institution, followed by a rubric to skip to the Lord's Prayer (important because versions I, III, and IV between them fill up the next three pages). Versions III (Advent-Epiphany) and IV (Ash Wednesday-Day of Pentecost) are seasonal alternatives, while Version I (which begins in a parallel column to the left of Version II's simple, evangelical, historically Lutheran recitation of the essential Words) is of a more general application. They pretty much all do the same things. They approach God with flattering phrases and reminders of His (hysz) saving acts (version I even paraphrases John 3:16); then they recite the words of institution, about which no better can be said than that they are at the center (though positioning them at either the beginning or, preferably, the end might give them more stress). Then there is a versicle/response bit in which the response is invariably "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." Then follow more prayers.

The non-seasonal variant (Form I) admits that we thank God "not as we ought but as we are able," and asks God "mercifully to accept our praise" and to bless us through Word, Spirit, and "these your own gifts of bread and wine, so that we and all who share in the body and blood of Christ may be filled with heavenly blessing and grace," leading to forgiveness, being "formed to live as your holy people," and eternal life. After a concluding doxlogy the congregation responds with a triple Amen. The Advent-through-Epiphany alternate (Form III) recalls Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection, and adds, "We look with hope for his coming. Come Lord Jesus." Then it prays the Spirit to come among us, bless the meal, make "your Word take flesh in us," awaken us, fill us with light, give peace on earth. Doxology; Amen.

The Lent-Easter form (IV) prays for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit "on us and on these gifts of bread and wine." It asks God to "grace our table with your presence," but the immediate response ("Come, Holy Spirit") makes me wonder which is worse: interpreting the sacramental presence as a presence of the Holy Spirit (rather than the bodily presence of Jesus), or suggesting that this presence is the result of God answering this prayer (rather than the effective Word of Christ). Wait! I know! The worst is being purposely vague so that people believing either of these teachings, which are equally repugnant to the Lutheran confessions, can find shelter under these words! This prayer goes on to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Himself/hymnself to us in the breaking of bread, "raise us up as the body of Christ for the world, breathe new life into us. Send us forth, burning with justice, peace, and love." The doxological conclusion invites us to join specific saints (whose names can be inserted) as well as "holy ones of all times and places...the earth and all its creatures...sun and moon and stars" in praising God.

This language is all very fishy. I have heard one disgruntled ELCA theologian charge this liturgy with teaching that the sacrament is a sacrifice in which we, the communicants, offer ourselves bodily; and so by right of communion in the body of Christ, we participate in Christ's sacrifice for the world. If this charge is true, this liturgy has done no less than sell the largest body of Lutherans in the United States back under bondage to the Papacy and its anti-Christian Sacrifice of the Mass, the very first abomination of which Luther and the Lutheran Reformers hastened to cleanse the church. Of course it is probably possible to interpret these prayers without adopting that belief...but before one says it's all OK then, one should ask: What do these words suggest? Where did they come from and what did they mean in their original context? And what purpose is being served by pushing the Lutheran liturgy in this direction, and inserting these prayers into the simple, gospel-filled service of the sacrament?

But again, of course, the option remains of skipping all this ceremonial boilerplate and going straight from the preface to the Words of Institution (Form II) and on to the Lord's Prayer, with which option I could make this hymnal serve if I had to. But these Words have also changed a bit. Here they are in full: "In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks; broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and eat; this is my body, given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me. Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it all for to drink, saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me."

Observe: (a) "For the remembrance of me" replaces "In remembrance of me." Why? I don't know. I don't see any point to this change; on the contrary, I think "in remembrance" flows better, sounds more natural, and is completely clear, while the updated wording is a minefield of potential stammers, stumbles, and impious questions. It suggests that one should seek a theological significance to prefering this new wording over the old; and I can't imagine what profit would come from such a search. (b) The new wording doesn't quote Jesus saying "Drink of it, all of you," or anything of the kind. Instead it invents a novel narrative: "gave it for all to drink." (c) The insertion of "for all people" bit is scriptural and all - but who asked them to change the content of the Words of Institution, anyway? (d) What happened to "as often as you drink it"? What reason could there be for deleting them? And again, who asked these people to change the Words of the sacrament? (e) Clearly, in the world these liturgy nerds inhabit, people cannot comprehend advanced linguistic devices such as relative clauses. Otherwise they wouldn't have a problem with saying "when he had given thanks," "which is given for you," and "which is shed for you."

The Lord's Prayer appears in two forms. The second form, preceded by an "OR," is the version most Protestants learned, up until around the time of the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW; 1978). You know: "Our Father, who art in heaven..." When you see a made-for-TV movie in which people trapped in a sinking ship, elevator, hijacked plane, etc., join hands and pray together, this is the version they say. Yet by teaching the first form (left column, before the "OR," which begins: "Our Father in heaven...") to congregations and especially young people - and I know a good number of Lutherans who know only this version of the prayer - we are raising up a generation of linguistic cripples who will never be able to cope with, understand, or join in a non-sectarian, group recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

Yes folks, our own Lutherans, catechized under hymnals like this, will be the ones who mumble the words vaguely while a bunch of Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and probably even non-Christians enunciate the "who art in heaven" version clearly. And you ask why the Lutheran church is dying? The world will see us following along nervously, half a beat behind everyone else, and conclude that we are the ones who don't know, or care, what we believe, teach, and confess!

The Communion itself happens next. The minister welcomes communicants with one of two cute little phrases (or similar words), neither of which improves substantially on a silent nod of the head. While the bread and cup are being distributed, it's nice to see the response "Amen" suggested after "The body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you." It's also nice to see a rubric allowing the ministers to commune "either before or after others commune," which is more flexible than Lutheran Service Book on this point, more respectful of customs that vary between congregations. Put that down as my third positive remark on ELW. I do want the record to show that I was fair and unbiased!

During the distribution, rather than before it, "Lamb of God" may be sung, or/and "assembly song and other music may accompany the communion." After all have returned to their places, the minister "may say a table blessing," but for once, this all-inclusive hymnal omits even one suggested text for such a blessing. Then the "Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace," or "another suitable song," may be sung.

The after-communion prayer also includes three choices. The choice on the left is the familiar "We give you thanks, almighty God, that you have refreshed us" one, with some updated language. The middle version reinforces the aforementioned impression that this service suggests communion is about us sacrificing ourselves: "By your Spirit strengthen us to serve all in need and to give ourselves away as bread for the hungry..." The prayer on the right hints at the same thing from a different angle: "You have united us with Christ, making us one with all your people. Now send us forth in the power of your Spirit, that we may proclaim your redeeming love to the world and continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord."

Is there anything specifically wrong with these prayers? In themselves, no. However, when the Christian's hope for a sanctified life embraces so many things - when the need for the spiritual gift of loving our neighbor occasions a daily struggle against so many willful, selfish tendencies - hearing the liturgy continually harping on the single note of going out and doing mission work can wear a bit thin. I have a bigger concern with this language of "serve all in need" and "give ourselves away as bread for the hungry." What are we talking about here? Social ministry? Spreading the Word? Or have we perhaps become so confused about the meaning of communion in Christ's body and blood that we forget there is a difference between ourselves and God? Are we now the bread of life, etc.?

Before you can ponder these things, the service quickly goes into its "Sending" phase. This starts with "communion ministers" (i.e. sacramental deacons) taking the sacrament to shut-ins; a nice touch, perhaps. Or, perhaps, a rubric destined to stir up trouble by emphasizing one alternative, in the eternal controversy over what to do with the leftover sacramental bread and wine, and suggesting that alternative is superior to (for example) pouring the reliquiae down a piscina, burying it, or consuming it down to the last crumb of bread and drop of wine. I suppose we can at least be thankful the rubric didn't suggest sealing it in Tupperware and putting it in the fridge.

The rubrics suggest making announcements at this point, and even devotes an entire line of text to the idea of including mission-related information. "Affirmation of Christian Vocation (p. 84) may be used here," it says.

Blessing, i.e. Benediction, can take one of at least three forms, of which the middle form is the Aaronic benediction ("The Lord bless you and keep you...") which has heretofore been the typical conclusion of the Divine Service. Choice 1 is now "Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you now and forever. Amen." (Yawn.) The third choice is actually 3 blessings, each followed by an Amen; the sort of ending that catches semi-inattentive people starting to leave after the first Amen or two. It's like a movie where the last scene comes on screen about 10 seconds after the closing credits begin, so that a whole aisleful of departing viewers have to pause and turn around in mid-egress. It's that kind of benediction.

Then there is a Sending Song. Isn't it cute how absolutely everything has a new name? Ten years ago the phrase going around was "Hymn to Depart," though it always struck me as odd that a hymn should depart. Now it's "sending song," but whether we are sending the song or the song is sending us isn't quite clear. The rubric says "Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace" can be sung here, if it wasn't done earlier.

Oh yes, and then there is the Dismissal. The assisting minister may "send the assembly into mission" with one of four versicle-response forms. The response to all four is "Thanks be to God." Isn't this like that movie that had one ending after another, the last one coming after you were sure the movie had ended? There is something almost sadistic about this. One is tempted to scream: "Open the doors! Let us out of church already!"

Next time, I will wrap up my bitchy critique of ELW's Holy Communion with a brief analysis of its ten (10) musical settings, as well as the painfully ugly art that goes with it. Until then, I would like to remind my fellow members of a church that, just today, voted in favor (but not unanimously so) of switching from The Lutheran Hymnal to Lutheran Service Book: be thankful we didn't have to vote on ELW! On the other hand, it probably would have been a much easier decision to make...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

More Composers: V

Vanhal (Johann Baptist) was a contemporary of Haydn who wrote 73 symphonies, 100 quartets, and numerous other sacred and secular works. Many of his symphonies have been released on CD and bear witness that quality music in the classical period wasn't restricted to Haydn and Mozart. It is said that Vanhal's best music was written during bouts of mental illness.

Varèse (Edgard) was a French-American composer who experimented with electronic music and the possibilities of rhythm and tone-color. His most famous works include Ionisation (a piece for 13 percussionists) and Density 21.5 (a flute solo written specifically for a platinum flute). His Poème électronique, an eight-minute electronic piece combining a variety of musical and non-musical sounds and played repeatedly on over 400 speakers, was heard by over 2 million visitors to the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.

Victoria (Tomás Luis de) was the leading Spanish composer of the 16th century. He wrote poignantly expressive sacred vocal music, including motets, lamentations, and a Requiem. He was also a Jesuit priest, which should make him a big hit in St. Louis!

Vierne (Louis) was a virtually blind, French organist who wrote six organ symphonies, dozens of "fantasy-pieces" and "pieces in a free style," and other organ works, plus chamber music, sonatas, sacred vocal works, and an orchestral symphony. A legendary improviser, some of his improvisations were recorded and are said to sound like composed works. At one point Vierne nearly lost his leg in a traffic accident, but recovered enough to continue playing the organ - even until, toward the end of his life, he had to be carried up the stairs to the console. He died while playing a recital at Notre-Dame de Paris, musical to the very end. What a way to go!

Vieuxtemps (Henri) was a Belgian concert violinist and composer. Unlike Paganini and Sarasate, however, he did not specialize in writing or playing pieces that were merely a showcase for technical brilliance. He was an early champion of the more musically rich concertos of, for example, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, which many virtuosi of the time snubbed because they didn't spotlight the soloist enough. History has chosen in Vieuxtemps' favor. His own compositions include seven important violin concertos, as well as two cello concertos and three string quartets.

Villa-Lobos (Heitor) was a Brazilian composer who created a fusion of Latin American folk music and European fine-art music. His best known pieces are the nine suites of Bachianas brasileiras, written for different performing ensembles ranging from solo piano to full orchestra (the fifth, and most popular, is scored for soprano and 8 cellos). He also wrote numerous concertos, 12 symphonies, 17 string quartets, operas, guitar and piano music, an assortment of pieces called Chôros inspired by Brazilian street musicians, and tons of orchestral and chamber music. An extremely prolific composer, for a while Villa-Lobos acted as a kind of dictator over the musical culture of Brazil.

More Composers: U

Here's a short one:

Ustvolskaya (Galina), who just died last December, was a modern Soviet composer. A pupil of Shostakovich, she developed a very personal style and pursued it single-mindedly. She wrote five symphonies, six piano sonatas, a piano concerto, three "compositions" for various chamber ensembles, and other orchestral and chamber works. The symphonies all incorporate vocal texts, and her music is known for its insistent rhythms, tone clusters, and repetition, leading one critic to dub her "the lady with the hammer."

More Composers: T

This is the installment I have been dreading... There are so many composers with names beginning with T, and some of them are so easily confused! Let's just get it over with and hope that there is still time to enjoy a bit of weekend sunshine!

Takemitsu (Tōru) was a novelist, theoretician, critic, gourmand, and arguably the greatest Japanese composer of the 20th century. His works combine the idioms of eastern and western art music with jazz, pop, and modern experimentation. Besides writing many avante-garde concert pieces, Takemitsu also wrote musical scores for over 100 films, and won 4 Japanese Academy Awards for this work, including Ran.

Tallis (Thomas) was a 16th-century English composer who composed alternately Catholic and Anglican church music in the Chapel Royal under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary, and (for some 27 years) Elizabeth I. His music ranges from high Renaissance polyphony to simple, chorale-like tunes in four-part harmony. Among his works are settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the magnificent 40-part motet Spem in alium, and beloved hymn tunes such the canon popularly sung to "All praise to Thee, my God, this night," and the Third-Note Melody on which Vaughan Williams based his moving Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

Tan Dun is a Chinese composer who won an Oscar for his score for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His music often combines traditional instruments with unusual sources of sound, such as bowls of water, pieces of paper, and the bianzhong (a set of bronze bells used in traditional Chinese music). Some of his major works found great acclaim on the international stage, including operas written for Munich, Vienna, Tokyo and New York (most recently The First Emperor), and the Water Passion after St. Matthew as part of the Passion 2000 Project commemorating J. S. Bach.

Tárrega (Francisco) has been called "the father of modern guitar playing" and "the Sarasate of the guitar." His Romantic works mostly consist of guitar transcriptions of other people's piano music, but he also wrote some memorable pieces of his own, such as Lágrima, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, Capricho Árabe, and Danza Mora. The tune from his Gran Vals has become famous as the Nokia ringtone.

Tartini (Giuseppe) was an 18th-century violinist who wrote mainly sonatas and concertos for that instrument. His best-known piece is the freakishly difficult Devil's Trill Sonata, allegedly inspired by a dream in which he saw the devil playing a violin. He also wrote an important harmonic treatise that revealed how violinists could play double-stops in tune.

Tavener (John), not to be confused with John Taverner (!), is a modern British composer whose work is largely influenced by his Russian Orthodox faith. These include a choral piece The Lamb, The Akathist of Thanksgiving, a cello concerto titled The Protecting Veil, and the cantata The Whale. His Song for Athene was peformed at Princess Diana's funeral.

Taverner (John), not to be confused with John Tavener (!!), was a 16th-century English composer who, at one time, was reprimanded for associating with Lutherans, though he was let of lightly because he was "but a musician"! He wrote mainly sacred vocal music, including the motet Dum Transisset Sabbatum and a highly-regarded mass based on the secular tune "The Westron Wynde." A whole genre of chant-based instrumental music was inspired by another of Taverner's masses. Like Palestrina and Gesualdo, Taverner also served as the subject of an opera (this one by Peter Maxwell Davies).

Telemann (Georg Philipp) was a contemporary of Bach and Handel who, during their lifetime, was more highly regarded than they. How the mighty have fallen! Holder of the Guinness record as most prolific composer of all time (800 of some 3,000 works survive), his music fell into obscurity during the 19th century and has only been revived within the past hundred years. Now some of his pieces are regularly performed again, including the earliest known viola concerto, a concerto for two horns, several suites of Tafelmusik (music to accompany a meal), cantatas, and organ works. I have a book with some of his chorale preludes, and while they don't hold a candle to Bach, I like them well enough.

Thomas (Ambroise) was a French Romantic composer best-known for such operas as Mignon and Hamlet. They were among the most successful French operas of their time, though they are now heard only occasionally or in excerpts. I like the way Wiki describes them: they "enjoyed a long vogue, and...continue to have a certain following."

Thompson (Randall), spelled with a "p," was a modern American composer who wrote three symphonies, choral works such as a famous, sad-sounding Alleluia, a Nativity According to St. Luke, a Passion According to ditto, and vocal works based on texts by Thomas Jefferson and Robert Frost.

Thomson (Virgil), spelled without a "p," was a Missouri-born composer and close contemporary of Thompson. He wrote musical scores for some historical documentaries, and won a Pulitzer prize for his film music for Louisiana Story. He also wrote songs, piano pieces, operas (with librettos by Gertrude Stein), a cello concerto, and three symphonies, beginning with his celebrated Symphony on a Hymn Tune (the hymn being "How firm a foundation").

Tippett (Michael) was a leading English composer of the 20th century. He had a long career but, working slowly, left behind a modest number of works, including 4 symphonies, 5 string quartets, 4 piano sonatas, 4 concertos, and 5 operas, including King Priam and The Ice Break. He also wrote A Child of Our Time, an oratorio about the teenage assassin who allegedly provoked Kristallnacht.

Toch (Ernst) wrote 7 symphonies (of which the third won a Pulitzer prize), a piano concerto, songs, sonatas, chamber music, operas, and film scores, including Address Unknown. He is probably best known, however, for single-handedly inventing "Gesprochene Musik," or music for spoken chorus, with a humorous piece titled Geographical Fugue.

Tomkins (Thomas) was a contemporary of Thomas Tallis. He wrote sacred and secular vocal music, keyboard and instrumental pieces, in an expressive, Renaissance style that, in his lifetime, would have been regarded as very conservative. He composed more Anglican verse anthems than anyone except William Child. One reason he wrote music in a bygone style was that, for the last decade of his life, he continued composing even after church music was abolished by the roundheads.

Torelli (Giuseppe), whose brother Felice was a painter, was a Baroque composer who wrote 12 violin concertos, 24 concerti grossi, and no fewer than 30 trumpet concertos! A great violinist and teacher, he contributed to the development of precise violin playing and the composition of music that demanded it.

Tournemire (Charles) was an early twentieth-century French organist who was admired for his powers of improvisation. His L'Orgue Mystique, a collection of organ pieces for the whole church year, shows a gift for composing music that sounds improvised. He also wrote eight symphonies for orchestra, one symphony for organ, and some chamber music.

Turina (Joaquín) was a 20th-century Spanish composer who wrote operas, orchestral works, chamber music, songs, and pieces for guitar, lute quartet, and piano. Some of his better-known works are La oración del torero and the Danzas fantásticas.

Tye (Christopher) was a relatively minor English composer who flourished during the reign of Edward VI, though he continued to serve as organist at Ely Cathedral well into the reign of Elizabeth I. A few of his vocal works are now being revived and recorded by various choirs and even the Kronos Quartet, though I mainly mention him because of a priceless anecdote. When Queen Elizabeth complained that Tye played out of tune, he sent a reply saying "yt her ears were out of Tune."