MUSIC: Before The First Note—Getting Centered by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Before The First Note—Getting Centered by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

Whenever I am about to give a sermon or lecture or perform on the flute, I first need to get “centered.”  Conductors and organists know all about this.  Think of choir rehearsals.  People arrive with many things going on in their lives: a fight with their boss, a sick child, a job interview, results from a medical test.  The amount of mental and bodily energy they have to support their voice on pitch with an unforced, clear sound is not much until they get centered.  Or think of performing on the organ.  You sit there for a moment and, before the first note, you get centered.  You turn on the blower, take a deep breath, release from your mind all the other things you need to do, set your stops, position your hands and feet, and begin.

The need to be centered became especially vivid to me when I was asked to preach at a service of worship featuring the Mass No. 2 in E Minor by Anton Bruckner (1824–1896).  I read several biographies and books of musical analysis and listened to a fine recording of the work.  I found Bruckner’s story to be a parable of what it means to become centered in one’s life and art.  Bruckner is one of history’s legendary organists.  Upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna, Bruckner said, “I cannot find the words to thank you as I would wish, but if there were an organ here, I could tell you.”

Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic.  His mother had a beautiful soprano voice and sang in the high masses of their local church.  As a small child, Bruckner often sat on the organ bench next to his father, who played for the services.  After his father died, when Anton was only twelve years old, his mother took him to sing in the choir and to live in the community of St. Florian, a monastery with a magnificent organ.

In his adult years, during times of stress and exhaustion, Bruckner often returned to St. Florian to find again his spiritual and artistic center.  As one of his biographers writes: St. Florian “reflects virtually every facet of his musical output: the glory of its baroque architecture, cradled in the gentle hillside of the Upper Austrian landscape, the fervor of its cloistered and mystical Catholicism, the sound of the great organ,  the memento mori atmosphere of its dark and narrow catacombs and crypts.”

Another scholar, trying to get at the essence of Bruckner, writes about the composer’s attempt to recover “the lost spirituality of our world.”  There are dangers in trying to reclaim a lost spirituality.  Chief among them is that we might become antiquarians, turning our lives into a costume drama of the past, keeping the customs of our forebears without the juice of their earlier vitality.  When we turn to religion and art in order to recover a lost spirituality, we need to open ourselves to new creative possibilities while at the same time honoring the treasures of the past.  And that is exactly what Anton Bruckner learned to do through long years of strenuous study.  He found his center as a composer who drew upon the great musical traditions of the past, but without imitating them.  He blended them with his own harmonies and rhythmic structures.  Listening to Bruckner we are simultaneously in touch with much older elements of plainsong and polyphony and his own unique musical idiom.  It is as if we hear all at once the great cloud of witnesses from the past and those who are alive and singing for us at this very moment.

The next time you find yourself getting ready for a rehearsal or performance, you might recall Anton Bruckner’s life and work.  Contemplate the enduring reality you touch when you take time before the first note to get centered, and your music then flows from the deep dear core of things.

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