Monday, May 14, 2012

Sacred music

My lovely wife and I had the opportunity to hear the Apollo Chorus in Chicago perform Rachmaninoff’s Sacred Vespers over the weekend. The Apollo Chorus bills itself as the oldest volunteer choral society in the United States. (It was founded in 1872, 25 years after the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but Utah did not become a state until 1892; I do not know if that is the technicality that allows the Apollo Chorus to claim to be oldest or if it's organzing as a choral society or some other reason.)

As I sat in the sanctuary of the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chestnut Street in downtown Chicago listening to liturgical music of the Russian Orthodox Church, I contemplated the role of music in my own worship. Does music bring the spirit? Does the spirit inspire the music? Or is my response to the remarkable artistry in Rachmaninoff and Brahms and Bach and others simply emotional? (Or technical?)

I thought about this again as we played yesterday evening the CD my wife received for Mothers Day, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Glory. The CD features traditional religious music such as Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy," but also more modern fare from Leonard Bernstein and John Williams.

I was taken back in my memory to sitting in our living room in Hiroshima on Sunday evenings years ago, listening to Kiri Te Kanawa sing Gounod’s “O Divine Redeemer.” For many Sundays in a row, I’d recreate the same scene: The kids were in bed, the room was dark, and Hiroshima’s city lights danced on the windows that covered two walls of the room. Was it in this song I began to understand the atonement? “I pray thee grant me pardon, and remember not; remember not my sins.”

When I was on my mission in Germany, one of my sisters wrote to me from time to time with quotations from German composers who wrote of their own religious devotion and religious experiences in writing their music. It’s clear to me that at some level, these artists seem to be more than just excellent technicians of their craft; at least I hope that it true.

Rachmaninoff, when he wrote his “Sacred Vespers” (also titled “All Night Vigil”, because the 1 hour and 15 minute set of music is part of a larger religious service designed to include Vespers (night prayers) and matins (morning prayers)), did not have a close relationship with the church, but the religious text and chant origins of the music certainly suggest his religious feeling.

The music of this work, like so many other religious works, is for me as mysterious as the subject matter. In some movements, the chant restricts the melody to what my sister-in-law calls compact melodies, and in others, Rachmaninoff recreates the pealing of bells in the voices of the choir.

Excellent music well performed is a wonderful gift to those who hear, including, I believe, God.


  1. An extremely minor point within this wonderful post, but under the reasoning relied upon by the Apollo Chorus in defending its superlative, I suppose we can't say that St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest city in the United States simply because Florida was not admitted to the union until 1845.

  2. In fairness to the Apollo Chorus, I didn't ask THEM why they think they're the oldest. It may be that they are the oldest choral society (the program note says they are the "oldest volunteer choral society in the nation") and that there is some technical difference between that and however the MoTab was organized.

    Whatever the case, I can say that the 125-voice Apollo Chorus is terrific -- I've heard them perform live twice -- and so is MoTab with 360 voices.

    (As for St. Augustine, Florida, I have no opinion...) :-)

  3. Thomas, reflecting on your comment, I've updated the post so it doesn't look like my reasoning is the Apollo Chorus' reasoning. Thanks for encouraging that clarity.