Music As Prayer

MUSIC: Music For Facing Temptation And Wild Beasts by Thomas H. Troeger

December 11, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I have always liked the conciseness of the Gospel according to Saint Mark.  While other gospel writers expand and elaborate on a story, Mark’s version is often as succinct as possible.  The temptation of Christ in the wilderness, the gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent, is a case in point.  Matthew and Luke each enumerate three different temptations and include dialogue between Jesus and Satan.  But Mark reduces the story of temptation to a single verse: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan: and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him,” (Mark 1:13).  Wilderness.  Temptation.  Wild beasts.  Angels.  In four dramatic images, we feel the strenuous challenge that [...]

MUSIC: The Perfect Registration by Thomas H. Troeger

December 4, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I have always enjoyed hearing organists search for the perfect registration when they sit down to practice a piece of music.  Sometimes I am playing my flute with them; other times they are playing with a choir or entirely alone.  Often, they will talk to themselves, as if they were two people at once: the performer and an independent critic making judgments about the timbre and blend of the sounds.  “Let’s try this,” they say as they pull out a particular mixture of stops.  Then a few measures later, they lift up their fingers and feet, exclaiming: “No, that will never do.  Too much bass.  We need a little more brightness.”  They push in some stops and pull out new ones.  This time they play farther [...]

MUSIC: Escaping The Hubris Of The Present Moment by Thomas H. Troeger

November 27, 2017

From: Music As Prayer How easily we are tempted to think that our present generation is superior to the generations that have preceded us.  We learn about cruel practices of the past and judge them as barbaric while congratulating ourselves on being more civilized.  We read about the ignorance of the past and dismiss it as folly while priding ourselves on how knowledgeable we are.  We study tools and machines from the past and describe them as primitive while reveling in the sophistication of our technology.  We see fashions from the past and assess them as quaint and dated while admiring the newest style as chic and smart.  It all adds up to what I call the hubris of the present moment, an arrogance that fails to see that we share [...]

MUSIC: Children Of Process by Thomas H. Troeger

November 20, 2017

From: Music As Prayer When I was a teenager, I studied the flute with one of the instrument’s great teachers, John Oberbrunner.  I learned all the Handel sonatas and then all the Bach sonatas.  I played most of them in church services, and later in recitals during my college years.  But when I began to study theology, I put the instrument away for many years. Now I am playing again, and I have been revisiting some of those sonatas.  They are the same collections that I used forty years ago, but it seems the music has changed.  I play and I find in the music things I never knew were there before.  I begin to think Handel and Bach must have sneaked out of the cloud of witnesses and fiddled with their compositions in the [...]

MUSIC: The Necessity Of Beauty by Thomas H. Troeger

November 13, 2017

From: Music As Prayer During this time of economic distress I find myself reading the business section of the newspaper with a degree of interest I have never before taken in such matters.  Being a rank amateur when it comes to economics and often puzzled by the technical terms, I plow through editorials and analyses hoping to gain at least a small grasp of the causes and possible solutions.  But there is always a sharp debate about policies and strategies, and there are even profounder questions about whether or not we ought to try to return to the consumer-based economy that has fed our prosperity since World War II. Amidst all of the financial turmoil and the toll it is taking on millions of families, individuals, and communities, I [...]

MUSIC: An Antidote To Cognitive Imperialism by Thomas H. Troeger

November 6, 2017

From: Music As Prayer The columnist and commentator David Brooks has written that one of the major ways we are changing as a culture is in how we understand human cognition.  We are coming to see that our varied ways of knowing need to be integrated.  Brooks begins one of his columns by observing that an exclusive focus on rational ways of knowing distorts who we are as human beings.  It makes us what he calls “divided creatures.”  In a culture of divided creatures, things operate this way: “Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect.  Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.   This has created a distortion in our culture.  When we raise our kids, [...]

MUSIC: Musical Hometown by Thomas H. Troeger

October 30, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I will never forget when I returned for a weekend to my hometown forty-seven years after my graduation from high school.  The buildings and streets were almost exactly as they were when I left, but no one whom I had known while growing up was there any longer.  Yet the place was alive with memories for me.  My wife and I walked all around the village, and nearly every street corner and building, nearly every view of the surrounding hills and the lake awakened some story from me.  I gave her a guided tour based on personal memories.  “They used to flood that sunken, empty lot with water to make an outdoor ice rink in the winter.”  “I had a friend who lived there at the mouth of the river.  We [...]

MUSIC: Study Tour Of The Human Soul by Thomas H. Troeger

October 23, 2017

From: Music As Prayer When I was a teenager, I purchased a copy of a book about J. S. Bach and his music.  In the back of the volume, just before the catalogue of his works, were pictures of autograph manuscripts, period etchings of the composer, and some black and white photographs of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where Bach served as cantor from 1723 until his death in 1750.  When I was learning his flute sonatas, I would often open the book to those photographs and etchings and imagine myself playing with Bach accompanying me.  It was a fantasy that drew me deeper into the delight I took in his music, and out of it grew the dream that one day I would visit St. Thomas Church and hear some of Bach’s music played in the building [...]

MUSIC: Wrong Notes In A Splendid Performance by Thomas H. Troeger

October 16, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I particularly remember one lesson from years ago, when I was seriously studying the flute.  I was playing for my teacher, John Oberbrunner, a major work that I was about to perform in public.  We had agreed that I was to play the piece all the way through, as I would in the performance, and then he would respond to what he had heard.  I do not now recall exactly what the piece was, nor do I remember the whole of my teacher’s response.  But I have never forgotten one thing that he said.  I had played a dotted half note just before a rest of several beats, and I had forgotten that it was supposed to be a sharp, not a natural.  During the measure’s rest that followed the wrong note I lifted the flute [...]

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

October 9, 2017

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, [...]

MUSIC: The Rhetoric Of Breath by Thomas H. Troeger

October 2, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I once attended a concert and master class featuring soprano Emma Kirkby, one of the preeminent singers of renaissance and baroque song, accompanied on lute by Jakob Lindberg.  The concert was splendid, but even more intriguing to me was the master class and Kirkby’s work with a young tenor of obvious potential but whose voice sounded veiled and stiff.  There was the promise of loveliness in his sound, but somehow the voice did not blossom in the room.  The musical phrases, though sung accurately, lacked the flow and pliability that the recitative and aria required. Kirkby began to work with the tenor on his breathing.  During the first stage of the process, she did not have him sing but rather had him say [...]

MUSIC: Silence As The Prelude to Sound by Thomas H. Troeger

September 25, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I recall reading an article in the newspaper about an organ that was rescued from destruction.  The instrument was moved from one church and rebuilt by another church that had not possessed a pipe organ for many years.  I was struck by the clever way the congregation raised money for the project.  “For $300, someone could adopt a single ‘chimney flute’ pipe high in the organ’s superstructure.  For $100, a donor could adopt a single key on one of the console’s three manuals.  Adopting a stop knob was cheaper: That cost only $50.  Adopting a pedal key was the least expensive: Only $25.  Reading those prices, I imagined different members of the congregation listening attentively to [...]

MUSIC: The Freedom Of Constraint by Thomas H. Troeger

September 18, 2017

From: Music As Prayer There are notes our voices cannot reach and our instruments cannot play.  Even the king of instruments is not the king of every sound.  Any one organ has only so many pipes.  To sing or to play music is to experience finitude. As a flutist, I had long understood that every musical performer has to deal with finitude.  For example, my breach often runs out before a phrase.  But I had not extended that same insight about creaturely limitation to composers.  I thought of composers as the masters of whatever they were moved to create, until I read the following reflection by Igor Stravinsky: I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities [...]

MUSIC: How Beautiful And Astounding Are The Feet by Thomas H. Troeger

September 11, 2017

From: Music As Prayer Many years ago I was president of the Denver Bach Society, a group that sponsored several concerts each year featuring the music of J. S. Bach.  In addition to full-scale performances of the Mass in B Minor and many of Bach’s cantatas, orchestral, and keyboard works, we gave a special presentation for grade-school children.  Twelve hundred children filled the Episcopal cathedral not only to hear Bach’s music but to see the master musician himself interviewed by a member of the Denver Brass.  We were fortunate to have a radio announcer from one of the local classical stations whose countenance was the very likeness of the 1746 Bach portrait by Gottlob Haussmann that peers from the cover of so many [...]

MUSIC: The Piece You Thought You Would Never Play by Thomas H. Troeger

September 4, 2017

From: Music As Prayer Can you think of a piece of music that you did not like when you first sought to play or sing it, but now it is one of your favorites?  Sight reading it, you got only half the notes.  There were strange intervals, irregular rhythms, tangled textures, and an obstacle course of technical problems.  If your teacher had not assigned it or your choir director had not chosen it or if it were not required for a competition or a degree recital, that first reading would have been the last of it.  But then you set to work.  You broke it down into manageable parts, playing or singing just one of them at a time, then putting them together.  You took it at a slow tempo and marked in accidentals that you were always [...]

MUSIC: Music That Can Never Be Recorded by Thomas H. Troeger

August 28, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I recall a cartoon I saw nearly forty years ago.  A youngster is listening to a symphony orchestra in a concert hall and turns to his parents to observe: “It’s just like stereophonic sound.”  Recorded music had preceded the experience of the real thing.  It was a prophetic cartoon, picturing what has become the case for a new generation: technology defines reality and frames our understanding and expectations. But there is also a certain dissonance between the cartoon and our current situation.  Back in the 1970s, when the cartoon appeared, audio technology focused on reproducing as closely as possible the sound of instruments spread across a stage, giving us a sense of their placement in the [...]

MUSIC: The Stone Age Ancestors Of Organists by Thomas H. Troeger

August 21, 2017

From: Music As Prayer In an article entitled “Flute Music Wafted in Caves 35,000 Years Ago,” archaeologists describe flutes discovered in southwestern Germany.  One is a bone flute with five finger holes, and the other two are fragments of ivory instruments that “represented the earliest known flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture.”  This last phrase leapt off the page because I do not usually associate the Stone Age with the “flowering of music-making.”  However, a specialist in ancient music, working with a wooden replica of the ivory flute, “found that the ancient flute produced a range of notes comparable in many ways to modern flutes.” The archaeologists speculate that these [...]

MUSIC: To What End Beauty? by Thomas H. Troeger

August 14, 2017

From: Music As Prayer Some time ago, I read a book review about the varied ways Beethoven and his music have been viewed in different eras.  Although I have lost the review, I have never forgotten its substance.  According to the reviewer, there was a time when Beethoven’s music was seen as engaging the noblest powers of the human spirit, a claim that has commonly been raised for other composers in the Western classical canon.  The reviewer went on to observe that this commendation of the salutary effects of great music was annihilated by the Nazi’s use of such music to adorn and reinforce their malevolent ends. In a similar vein, two of my students at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music once did a gripping presentation on [...]

MUSIC: How do You Sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus? by Thomas H. Troeger

August 7, 2017

From: Music As Prayer How do you sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy)?  How do you approach in music the one whose glory fills Heaven and Earth?  Do you sing it the way Bach does in his Mass in B Minor with the choir nearly shouting the word to the accompaniment of tympani and trumpets?  I was moved to ask this question when I preached in a service of worship that featured the Requiem of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  I had grown up listening to Bach’s Mass on recordings, and although since then I have heard and preached on many other settings of the Sanctus, it is Bach’s monumental treatment that rings most stubbornly in memory’s ear.  So when I first listened to Schnittke’s setting, it took my [...]

MUSIC: Church Organist Declared Greatest Composer by Thomas H. Troeger

July 31, 2017

From: Music As Prayer Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for the New York Times, once wrote a series of articles on the ten greatest classical music composers.  He acknowledged all the limitations of such a question and that even the word classical is problematic, not adequately conveying the richness and dynamism of our musical legacy.  Tommasini, a champion of contemporary music, decided he would not consider living composers because “we are too close” to them “to have perspective.  Besides, assessing greatness is the last thing on your mind when you are listening to an involving, exciting, or baffling new piece.” Despite these limitations, Tommasini still wanted to pursue the matter: “I began this [...]

MUSIC: The Whole Company Of Musicians by Thomas H. Troeger

July 24, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I once attended an organ recital by my colleague Martin Jean that exclusively featured the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637–1707).  I was eager to hear this concert because J. S. Bach – while a young organist at Arnstadt – had walked two hundred miles to hear Buxtehude perform his own music in the city of Lübeck.  Although I often listen to Bach, I had never heard an all-Buxtehude concert.  Since Martin Jean would be performing on an organ styled after those of the great North European organ builder Arp Schnitger, I thought his recital would be a wonderful way to enter a sonic universe that had held Bach so enthralled that he overstayed his paid furlough from the church in Arnstadt by two or possibly [...]

MUSIC: The Deeper Meaning Of Inspiring Music by Thomas H. Troeger

July 17, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I recall delivering a series of brief homilies during a service of beautiful anthems, hymns, and organ works.  The occasion gave me an opportunity to reflect on why listening to great choral and organ music in a sacred space is not simply pleasurable but restorative and uplifting.  We commonly describe such an experience as “inspiring,” which literally means the spirit being poured into us.  I began reflecting in greater detail on exactly what happens to my heart and mind when I am inspired, when I listen to music with my whole being, giving myself over completely to the river of sound. As I thought about the matter, I recalled an academic paper by the German scholar Alexander Deeg in which he shares [...]

MUSIC: Plucked From The Universe by Thomas H. Troeger

July 10, 2017

From: Music As Prayer While reading the biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, I was enchanted to learn that the great theoretical physicist was also a violinist and sometimes even performed at scientific gatherings.  After the response of several colleagues to a lecture, Einstein declined to provide further comment, saying instead, “It will perhaps be pleasanter and more understandable if instead of making a speech I play a piece for you on the violin.”  He proceeded to perform a sonata by Mozart with, according to Frank [the host of the event], “his simple, precise, and therefore doubly moving manner.”  What a splendid scene this is: one of the greatest scientific minds in history responding to colleagues [...]

MUSIC: The Great Mighty Ocean Tone by Thomas H. Troeger

July 3, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I was re-reading the Yale lectures on preaching that were delivered by Henry Ward Beecher (1871, 1872, and 1873) when I discovered an extraordinary meditation about pipe organs.  These were the first lectures in a series that had been permanently endowed to honor Henry’s father, Lyman Beecher.  The lectures cover many topics other than preaching.  They are about prayer meetings and the placement of new ministers, and they offer extensive reflections on church music, including congregational singing and organs.  Henry Ward Beecher is rhapsodic about the pipe organ: I look upon the history and the development of the organ for Christian uses as a sublime instance of the guiding hand of God’s providence.  [...]

MUSIC: Salutary Harmonies by Thomas H. Troeger

June 26, 2017

From: Music As Prayer The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines harmony as “the simultaneous sound (i.e., combination) of notes, giving what is known as vertical music contrasted with horizontal music.”  That is a technical definition that provides no idea of what harmony sounds like to the ear.  Think of a passage particularly rich in harmonies or of the concluding chord of one of your favorite compositions.  Listen to that blended sound resonating in your ear and then re-read the dictionary definition of harmony.  If that dictionary definition was all we had, I doubt that “harmony” would have become such a useful metaphor for so many different domains of experience and knowledge: living in harmony with nature, a [...]

MUSIC: When The World Falls Apart by Thomas H. Troeger

June 19, 2017

From: Music As Prayer If you were to look through the door of my study, you would know at a glance that I am well acquainted with the chaos monster.  Books are piled upon books; papers upon papers; and stacks upon stacks on the desk, the filing cabinet, the floor, and the couch.  The chaos monster is always threatening to get the upper hand.  What about you?  Sooner or later, most of us do battle with the chaos monster, if not in our study, then simply in the course of living.  We think we have our day organized and know when and where we have got to be.  Then suddenly a text message comes in or the phone rings or the computer dings with an emergency we never foresaw. Most of us are adept at dealing with the minor intrusions of the [...]

MUSIC: Music And Metaphor by Thomas H. Troeger

June 12, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I am indebted to my friend and colleague Martin Jean for introducing me to this Kendall Walton quotation that summarizes many of the ways we describe the expressive qualities of music: We call passages of music exuberant, agitated, serene, timid, calm, determined, nervous. We speak of rising and falling melodies, of wistful melodies and hurried rhythms, or motion and rest, of leaps, skips, and stepwise progression, of statements and answering phases, tension and release, resignation and resolve, struggle, uncertainty, and arrival. Music can be impetuous, powerful, delicate, sprightly, witty, majestic, tender, arrogant, peevish, spirited, yearning, chilly. As we listen to it we imagine agitation or nervousness, [...]