Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia

Today is the Feast of Saint Cecilia, a Roman martyr who suddenly began appearing in hagiographies in the fourth century. Her association with music seems to derive from a line in the Golden Legend which describes how, on the day of her wedding (a wedding she did not want, having consecrated her virginity to God), while instruments played ("cantantibus organis"), Cecilia sang to God silently in her heart, asking Him to keep her pure so that "I might not fall into confusion." A misinterpretation of this line became the source of much of Cecilia's iconography, which has her playing the instruments, usually the organ. Raphael's 1514 painting of Cecilia with SS. Paul, John the Evangelist, Augustine, and Mary Magdalene (above) -- all saints who underwent profound spiritual change -- shows Cecilia holding a portative organ upside-down and backwards, the pipes slipping out of their frame, at the moment she hears the singing of the angels: the moment, as it were, of her own conversion; broken instruments (the instruments of profane, earthly music) lie at her feet. Franz Liszt was entranced by Raphael's painting when he saw it in Bologna in 1838, writing in to a friend, "Isn't that virgin, ecstatically transported above reality, like the inspiration that . . . fills an artist's heart -- pure, true, full of insight?"

The definitive scholarly work about Saint Cecilia is Mourning Into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia by Thomas Connolly, with whose friendship in the past two years I have been particularly blessed. Connolly has postulated recently that Cecilia may have been a member of the Roman Jewish community of early Christians, which would explain a great deal about the ancient liturgy of her Station Day in Lent, which uses passages from the book of Esther. I took her name at my confirmation (a sacrament I received in adulthood) because of her association not only with music but also with profound spiritual change. May she bring blessings to all musicians today!

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

-- W.H. Auden

Friday, November 16, 2007

Casting Artificial Pearls Before Real Swine

I'm grading student papers in fulfillment of a big assignment that I prepared my class for over the course of three weeks -- roughly seven classes in all -- with readings, discussions, listening, and in-class practice assignments. The papers are on the whole so bad that I'm not sure whether to be angry at my students or at myself. Some of them have missed the mark by such a long shot that I wonder if they are innately unable to understand or appreciate an aesthetic that's not native or familiar to them. It raises all kinds of questions in my mind about the validity of teaching music or writing at all. Does beauty, especially if it's presented in difficult or abstruse terms, have any meaning in our world? Is it important that people learn about the artifacts of beauty that make up our shared cultural heritage and spur us to a greater understanding of our humanity? Or not?

That said, two of the papers I've read are outstanding. One is by an Italian national who is consistently one of the best writers and most original thinkers in my class.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

From the Salon to the Carmel

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of another “musical saint,” Fr. Hermann Cohen (1821-1871, pictured above), known in religion as Père Augustin-Marie du Très Saint Sacrement. Hermann, a brilliant child prodigy pianist from a liberal Jewish family in Hamburg, came to Paris at the age of thirteen to further his studies, and became the friend and protégé of Franz Liszt. Liszt gave him the pet name “Puzzi,” meaning cute or darling, and Hermann grew his hair to his shoulders in emulation of the master and made the rounds with him of the fashionable salons of Paris It was in the salons, he later wrote, that he discovered the mid-nineteenth-century philosophies of

"atheism, pantheism, Fourierism, Saint-Simonism, socialism, riots, the massacre of the rich, the abolition of marriage, terror, sharing of goods, the common enjoyment of all the pleasures; these notions soon found a place in my fourteen-year-old head . . . . I soon became one of the most zealous propagandists of those sects which had vowed to renew the face of the earth."

In Paris, Hermann also became hopelessly addicted to gambling. He and Liszt eventually parted ways after Hermann was accused, most likely unjustly, of embezzling Liszt’s concert proceeds. Hermann’s career continued in England, where he became the recital accompanist of the superstar tenor Mario (scruples about his noble birth discouraged this singer from using his last name).

Little by little, conscious of a great spiritual longing, Hermann was drawn to the Catholic Church, and was baptized in 1847. He entered the Carmelite novitiate in 1849, and was ordained a priest in 1851, a remarkable act considering his recent baptism, and one which required a papal dispensation. Hermann (now Fr. Augustin-Marie) was soon well-known throughout France and the continent for his fiery preaching, and in 1862 was asked by Pope Pius IX to restore the Carmelite order to Britain. He sailed for London, where he established several convents and led the first Marian procession England had seen since the Reformation. Fr. Hermann also initiated the practice of nocturnal adoration, which soon spread throughout the world.

Fr. Hermann died in 1871 of smallpox contracted while ministering to wounded French prisoners of the Franco-Prussian war at Spandau Prison. I had heard that his cause for canonization is being examined, but a Fr. Hermann scholar I know has reason to believe that the process has stalled at the Vatican. For more, see this article which originally appeared in the Journal of the American Liszt Society in 1994.

Friday, November 9, 2007

"The Minor Prophets"

Many years ago, I think in 1991 or 1992, I read an essay in Harper’s by Michael Lind that impressed me deeply. I don't remember the name of the article, and have only a vague idea now of what it was about -- something to do with political power structures being opposed to communitarian values, if I recall -- but the writing was so captivating and beautiful that I wanted to read more (I soon found, however, that I couldn't continue reading Harper's; its editorial tone of unredeemed despair was just too depressing). Lind was at the time a young right-of-center think-tank intellectual from Texas who wrote like a poet. Thus I was delighted this morning when I opened up my web browser, whose homepage I am forced to confess is set to the web page of the NPR radio program "The Writer’s Almanac," and found that the poem of the day is by Michael Lind. This means that Garrison Keillor will be reading it on the air tonight in his gentle, world-weary baritone. It’s a good poem, too (to read it, go here and scroll down to today's date). Perhaps Lind is reviving the tradition of the policy-wonk poets of China’s literary golden age.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sanctify My Soul

Last weekend I saw the movie Bella, which has gotten a lot of press in the Catholic community. I thought the film needed a good bit of editing, but I enjoyed it for many reasons, among them that it is a beautifully-filmed movie about New York; that it represents an intersection between the art house and the pro-life movement that’s pretty hard to find anywhere; and, not least, that it has an amazing soundtrack. When I got home I did some googling to see if the soundtrack was available on CD, but it’s not. I would see the film again just to hear the music, which is employed with great skill, and in my opinion served the story better than a lot of the dialogue did. There is one moment that I found particularly poignant, when the two main characters return to Penn Station on the Long Island railroad early in the morning; a wonderful Nina Simone cover of a spiritual, “Sanctify My Soul,” is playing on the soundtrack, and I thought that Dr. Simone’s combination of sophisticated musical restraint and heartfelt-if-slightly-intellectualized singing was a great choice.

I have my doubts about whether this film will play in Peoria. It’s too arty – and the heroes are Mexican immigrants, and we all know how that’s been going lately. But if you get the chance to see it, go – it has a few flaws, but it's excellent.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Musical Saints of Helfta

November 22, aside from being a singularly tragic day in American history, is the feast day of the Roman martyr Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose name I took at my confirmation. I love that her feast falls at the denouement of autumn, when the beauty of the season is mostly past and everything is gray and barren; it cheers the heart. But November also marks the feasts of some other remarkable “musical” saints, a trio of women from the thirteenth-century Saxon monastery of Helfta, a Benedictine abbey that was a sort of hothouse of visionary nuns: Mechthild of Hackeborn (November 16), Gertrude the Great (who shares her feast day), and Mechthild of Magdeburg, whose feast day is November 19.

All of these nuns were party to visions of Christ in which musical sounds and imagery played an important role. Gertrude the Great, for instance, wrote of a visitation by the Lord in which he told her: “Listen to me, beloved, and I will sing you a song of love that is quite different from those sung by profane courtiers,” and then proceeded, in a voice that Gertrude calls indescribably sweet, to sing the following words to the hymn tune Rex Christe factor:

Amore meus continuus,
Tibi languor assiduous,
Amor tuus suavissimus,
Mihi sapor gratissimus.

(My continuous love,
Your persistent languor;
Your very sweet love,
a most pleasing savor to me.)

Mechthild of Hackeborn, the abbey’s choirmistress, was renowned for her own beautiful voice; her sisters in religion referred to her as “God’s nightingale.” She received a revelation in which Christ extended a harp from his sacred heart, explaining that the harp was himself, and the strings were “all chosen souls which are all one in God through love”; then Christ, the “high chanter of all chanters,” struck the harp and led “all the angels with delectable sound” as they sang the hymn Regem regum Dominum.

Mechthild of Magdeburg’s mystical writings are well known, and have been studied and appropriated by both feminist and Jungian scholars. The record of her revelations, the book The Flowing Light of the Godhead, is also filled with remarkable musical imagery, including a vision in which Christ tells her: “Oh, dear dove,/Your voice is string music to my ears./ Your words are spices for my mouth./ Your longings are the lavishness of my gift.”

I find the musical mysticism of Gertrude and the two Mechthilds of Helfta quite thrilling and encouraging. Their aesthetic – a sort of ecstatic rigor that, like all mystical writing, from Rumi to St. John of the Cross to William Blake, uses the language of poetry and eros – is so very far removed from our present understanding of holiness that it strikes me that many present-day orthodox Catholics would find it dubious and unsettling at best. But it seems to me an antidote to the both the meandering confusion of liberal Catholicism and the joyless legalism of modern-day traditionalism, and I'm happy that the Church in her wisdom has seen fit to honor these three nuns.