Them Bones

April 14, 2008 at 12:46 am Leave a comment

by Roon Lewald

In the Bonn suburb of Endenich, a few blocks away from the mental asylum (now a museum) where Robert Schumann ended his days, our “Trini” choir at the Lutheran-Evangelical Trinity Church is in the last few weeks of rehearsing Antonin Dvorak’s long and (for us amateurs) rather challenging Mass in D major. Now that our grasp on the music is tightening and I’m getting a good overall feel for it, I’m once more taking off on a church music trip. Sacred music has always been where I really live, and never more so than as a performer, if I may thus inflate my status as the elderly, white-haired guy among the basses on the extreme left of the very back row, half-hidden behind the tallest of the altos. With my limited taste range, I have so far been best acquainted with the Palestrina-to-Schubert mass repertoire. I have such large gaps in late 19th-to-20th-century works that I have always rather dismissively associated Dvorak with classic-pops performances of the New World Symphony, rather than with serious church works.

I am now getting impressed with Dvorak’s handling of the mass. Of course, the very words of the mass as such are enough to curl your toes as their frugal Latin syntax and rich, open vowels resurge from the bowels of early mediaeval Christianity. The Latin mass – an archaic, dogmatic petrefaction of moribund faith in a dead language? Perhaps so. But even in this second millennium A.D., them bones can yet clothe themselves in living flesh to resurrect the treasury of spiritual experience encoded within them by the ancient church fathers some 1,500 years ago. The thing that works this Lazarus-raising miracle is the music, of course. And since a chorister submerges his ego in the group persona of the choir to create a communal conduit for the words and music , they fill his senses and surge through his vocal system on the way out. This is the singer’s privilege: nano-seconds before his voice expels the sounds which allow the listener to experience the living reconstitution of all the spiritual, cultural and artistic meanings compressed into them by the combined genius of the church fathers and the composer, the performer himself is already being vouchsafed that revelation far more directly and completely: like a tide, it possesses and floods through his mind, soul and vocal system as it surges out.

And that is why amateur choristers are prepared to attend weekly rehearsals in a congregational centre where those who smoke are politely but firmly asked not to do so for a whole hour or more; why they chatter or fool about like schoolkids until the choir leader pulls them up; why they are willing to repeat ad nauseum the same old “problem” sequences of tricky runs, flats and sharps until they finally have them pat; and why they’re willing to forget that all those rehearsals are going to end up with only one or two performances before church audiences which are sometimes rather sparse and only mildly appreciative.

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Entry filed under: Lewald.

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