Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Theology and Music

I remember being surprised when I discovered the priest at the church in Patmos was also the choirmaster. He looked at me, a complete stranger, when I appeared at choir practice, introduced by the hotelier from Chicago, the owner of the hotel where we were staying on that small Greek island in the off-season, February 1997. And he said two words "maggiore, minore"? And I replied with major and minor thirds. I was younger then and I could sing them without wobbling. And he said - "You - sit here!" and directed me to a place beside him where I could receive instruction. I sat through the entire session, watching the others tape the whole rehearsal so they could learn it at home. The priest had not had someone there who could sing and hold the drone - so that was a good job for me, for I could neither read Greek nor read their strange chironomic notation above the text.

But there it is - all Orthodox priests have to be musicians. They continue the liturgical empire. Well - and so do the Anglicans. I have a couple of new projects starting - who knows how long they will take? But I have interested production staff, performers, composers, and arrangers here and all have now been introduced to the performing of the music of the Bible as deciphered by Suzanne Haik Vantoura.

What does music do to our reading?  I read with a slightly more constrained meaning. I hear what might not have been obvious. Yet it is too early for me to be sure. There is much I have not sung. But maybe the melodies even of difficult parts will surprise me as did the melody for Deuteronomy 8 which left me considering the tenderness of God's spokesperson, Moses.  In this passage, keeping 'the law' is phrased in the recognition of the distance which separates the rich from the needy. I.e., when the needy get rich, they tend to forget God. And God is wounded, ... The music says that. It is not the least bit threatening.

So below is a sample of the possibility of reading the Bible as music. Even when you are sitting down and reading it by yourself.  What if you sang it out loud instead of reading it silently?

Audio source here

This is David's lament over the death of Absalom - performed imperfectly at sight by me at an experimental discussion among team members. I am very grateful for my fellow performer, baritone Richard Bailey, who is also a fine recording technician. Technique will not cover up my ancient wobble - but you will get the point.

And here is the text with annotations - observe the accents (not the vowels) under the letters (the scale) and over the letters (the ornaments).

וַיִּרְגַּ֣ז הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ
begin on E, rise a fifth on the munach, dip on the revia
וַיַּ֛עַל עַל־עֲלִיַּ֥ת הַשַּׁ֖עַר וַיֵּ֑בְךְּ
continue on the B then down a major 6th to D (tevir) then up a minor third to F natural (mercha),  rise to the G# (tifcha) and come to rest on the atenach (A). It, like the text, is an upward progression.
וְכֹ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר בְּלֶכְתּ֗וֹ
continue on the A and rise immediately to the B (another munach) and continue, dip on the revia and leave it unresolved.
בְּנִ֤י אַבְשָׁלוֹם֙ בְּנִ֣י בְנִ֣י אַבְשָׁל֔וֹם

return to the B (resolving the revia) and rise to the C (mapach), continue to the last syllable of Absalom and observe the qadma - a 2 note ornament up a tone, back to C then B (munach) observing the 2 note ornament down (zaqef qatan) again on the third syllable of Absalom.
מִֽי־יִתֵּ֤ן מוּתִי֙ אֲנִ֣י תַחְתֶּ֔יךָ
return to the tonic, then up a minor sixth to observe the mapach. Note how the shape of this line exactly repeats the shape of the prior line with qadma-munach-zaqef.
אַבְשָׁל֖וֹם בְּנִ֥י בְנִֽי׃
finally, from the B down a minor third to G# (tifcha), then down the minor third to F natural (mercha) and finally home on the tonic (silluq).

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