This is the last time I shall write the lead article for the Messenger as I will be retiring at the end of April, so I’m going to indulge myself by writing about something that gives me a lot of pleasure.
One of the things that has sustained me throughout my life, and continues to do so, is a love of music. It would not be incorrect to say that music has also inspired my faith, sometimes during periods when very little else has. As a chorister, singing in my home church, it was the beauty of Anglican choral music that fed my faith, and helped to lead me into ministry.
I think that I have developed my musical tastes over the years to the point where I can say that I enjoy listening to most music – classical, jazz, popular, et al – as good music, from whichever genre it comes, is worth listening to.
I have to confess to a tendency to get irritated with (what’s euphemistically called) modern Church music, especially some of the banal choruses that have replaced the more traditional and solid hymn tunes. When these new tunes are good, they’re very good. However when they’re bad they are usually little better than dirges, as jarringly painful to listen to as they are incomprehensible to sing.
On Easter morning the hymns that we sing are full of ‘alleluias’, as through the medium of music, suitably complementing the readings for the day and the liturgy, as we give our thanks and praise to God for the resurrection of Jesus. It’s a joyful day, when after the dreariness of Lent, a sombre-filled Holy Week and Good Friday, we ‘let our hair down’ and proclaim the goodness and faithfulness of God and the hope that the resurrection brings.
You might think that the foremost festival of the Christian Church would have a rich source of music with which to delight the ears of worshipping congregations, on this festive of all the festive days in the Church’s year. But most church musicians I’ve met over the years have all lamented the fact that the Easter musical repertoire is pretty sketchy. Unlike, of course, its other sister – Christmas – with its season packed full of musical delights, sacred and secular, too numerous to mention.
Music will have played an important part in many of your lives, I’m sure. Music is an outlet for our deepest longings and desires and expresses these in a way that words can’t.
I recently watched a documentary film about a piece of music, and the orchestra that performed it. Its performance lifted spirits and inspired hope in a city’s population at the darkest time in its history. The city was Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and the music was the 7th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich.
The composer wrote it during the siege of Leningrad, when the population were hard pushed to make ends meet, to stay alive, with many of them perishing through hunger, in what was one of the hardest winters in living memory. After its first performance the musical score was transported round the world and subsequently performed in war time London and New York.
In this documentary programme, survivors of the siege – now all quite elderly and frail – remembered when the symphony was performed in the war-torn and hungry city by a hastily gathered orchestra, many of whom were called back from active service to play it, and most of whom were physically weak through malnutrition. The loud speakers in the city were all turned towards the enemy lines so that they could hear Shostakovich’s symphony. One German soldier was later to remark that when he and his comrades heard the stirring music through the loud speakers they knew that they had lost the battle for the city. Such is the ability of music.
It’s a poignant Easter for me this year and I shall relish the music of Easter – sketchy as it may be – which nevertheless will stir the spirit and add a triumphant note to the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. I’ll also be giving thanks for the gift of music and for all church musicians – composers, soloists, organists, choristers – the unsung and often forgotten members of our congregations. They have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the beauty of our worship and to the enrichment of our spiritual life.
A very happy Easter to you all, together with the hope that you may know the joy of Christ’s resurrection this Easter and always.
(This article by Rev’d Robert Williams was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in April 2016)