Saturday, October 6, 2007

More Funerals

I had the honor to play the organ at two more funerals this weekend. I wasn't personally acquainted with either of the late ladies, but the contrast between the two groups of mourners profoundly struck me. The first funeral brought in only a handful of mourners, and really there was only one family member (a daughter) -- hence a very private, personal grief. The second service memorialized a lady who left behind a huge, gregarious family, and though I am sure she will be missed, there was almost a sense of fun at the post-service dinner. Clearly, it makes a huge difference to have a circle of friends and loved ones supporting you.

Tip for organists: Of several pieces I played between the two services, one that I played at both was H. Walcha's chorale prelude on Mitten wir im Leben sind (In the midst of earthly life). With a low E pedal-point through most of the piece, two-voice accompaniment in the left hand (8' and 4' flutes on the Great), and the chorale melody in the right hand (8' trumpet on the swell, with tremolo and the swell box closed), the piece has an austere strength that I found reassuring. The modal tune and harmonies have a steadily flowing, timeless sound.

The pedal point could be interpreted either as an ominous symbol of the stillness of death, or as a sound-picture of faith's unshakable foundation in the Gospel of Christ. And the piece uses a trumpet solo to unusual effect, not so much brightening the funeral atmosphere as giving voice to the solitude of personal sorrow, sobering thoughts of one's own mortality, and the quiet, plaintive prayers of a sore heart. Near the end of the piece, the pedal point breaks off, leaving the final phrase of the chorale to float in space without accompaniment, until the final note with its three bars of concluding harmony. This is such a poetic moment, creating a sense of loss in a remarkably simple way.

I used this piece at both funerals, as a prelude just before each service began. I would recommend it to any Lutheran organist. It's in the first volume of Walcha's four-volume set of chorale preludes. It isn't particularly difficult. But I consider it vastly superior to, for example, Flor Peeters's setting of the same tune in his Op. 100, Vol. 21 set.

Peeters opted for sophisticated, modern harmonies with a conscious, and probably symbolic, preference for cross-relations. One hears the composer striving to express something, while remaining at a distance. Meanwhile Walcha's version seems naturally and unconsciously eloquent. It is the voice of a man with nothing to prove, a man who understood loss intimately, and who didn't have to reach far to bring Luther's 16th-century hymn into a present-day context. Peeters gives us mood music; Walcha gives us fear and trembling, plus a touch of hope.

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