Sacramental Sunday

Today is Sunday, observed by Christians as a day of rest and religious worship. Whatever I may think or believe about religion (what usefully for purposes of this monologue I might distinguish as “organized” in order to avoid eclipsing the purely metaphysical nature and possible intellectual digestibility of the subject), the inescapable truth is that, whether by lineage, habit, education, culture, indoctrination or divine mystery, I am addicted to sacramental music.

St. Andrew’s College, Aurora, Ontario

The sacrament (in the Christian Church) is a religious ceremony or ritual regarded as imparting divine grace, such as baptism, the Eucharist and (in the Roman Catholic and many Orthodox Churches) penance and the anointing of the sick. 2 (also the Blessed Sacrament or Holy Sacrament) (in Roman Catholic use) the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, especially the bread or Host: he heard Mass and received the sacrament. 3 a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol: they used peyote as a sacrament.

No question there is advantage to listening to sacramental music on a Sunday.  For one thing there tends to be less traffic. This is important because on Sunday (as on any other day of the week come to think of it) I gratefully consume a portion of my day (customarily mid-afternoon) by driving my motor vehicle; and while doing so I often listen to music.  Not only have I then the privacy of doing so; but specifically with respect to sacramental music, as loudly as I wish.  When those choirs get going, the sky’s the limit! I prefer in these sentimental and overwhelming circumstances not to be diverted by obstructive traffic. Permit me to add though that choral music is but a close second to opera. Consider for example,  “O soave fanciulla” (O gentle maiden) the romantic duet from the first act of Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La bohème.

Sunday as a day of traditional unemployment also heightens the focus upon normally unrelated things like the surrounding scenery which in my case is inexpressible. I speak in particular of the routine drive along the Appleton Side Road parallel to the Mississippi River from here to the village, adjacent the sprawling farms, meadows, grazing horses and cattle, towering dried yellow cornstalks, riverside homes, historic farm houses and stately mansions in the distance. The combination of such bliss and sacramental music is incomparable. The coral crescendos materialize like the sun from behind the clouds, at times imperceptibly, at others astonishingly and brilliantly.

It is also an unparalleled boon on Sunday to estrange oneself from anything but idle reflection and contemplation as I have in fact done today.  Perhaps it is the stimulation of the Baroque music that vitalizes my thoughtfulness and introspection. Admittedly my nature is philosophic. Being meditative and brooding is as much an occupation of mine as music is.  Or photography and writing for that matter.  Shall I also include tricycling? This affliction called by some “navel gazing” is my unrepentant destiny. Navel gazing is defined as “engaging in or characterized by self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue at the expense of a wider view”. The proscription of “a wider view” is for me the most  – if indeed not the only – disturbing element of that categorical condemnation. I willingly acknowledge my obsessiveness; but I dislike being regarded as unable to take a wider view of things. These days there is so much ammunition available to attack the boundaries of others. Close by for example there rages debate about whether history is to be construed by today’s standards or within the context of the times. This in turn promotes the deeper abbreviation of accounting generally. Do we record the activity as a debit or a credit?  Are the details interest or capital? And, if capital, can the losses be applied to the gains? When is history a write-off? And so on.

It is from such heady scrutiny that I happily distance myself on a Sunday.  While I may not attend Matins (nor enjoy the collateral sip of Dry Sack sherry with the soup plate afterwards) I nonetheless flatter myself to engender my comings and goings with what I believe to be generosity in spite of their limited inheritance or current manifestations. Certainly even the most critical thinking is open to contradiction. And I am reminded that one such as Wittgenstein notably wrote – after having fallen in love – that “Everything I have written is false!”  So there is no tellng if and when any one of us may experience a similarly destabalizing epiphany. Until then however I shall content myself with the allure of a Sunday.

Today I am listening to:
Zelenka / Missa Dei Filii, ZWV 20 – Gloria 4/4
Performed by the Kammerchor Stuttgart & the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Jean Lamon. The soloists are Nancy Argenta (Soprano), Michael Chance (Alto), Christoph Prégardien (Tenor), and Gordon Jones (Bass).

During the eighteenth century, the Dresden court of Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, and his son, Electoral Prince Friedrich August III, was a major cultural center of music and the arts in Europe. Dresden, also known as the “Florence of the Elbe,” is located on the banks of the Elbe River near the Bohemian (now Czech/Slovak) border. Both father and son were responsible for amassing great art treasures, the building of exquisite architecture, and establishing a courtly music scene that attracted some of the finest musicians in Europe. One of those musicians was the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka.

In 1697, August II, better known as “August the Strong,” converted to Catholicism in order to make himself an eligible and ultimately successful candidate to be elected King of Poland. His son, August III, also converted to Catholicism a few years later. In 1708, August the Strong transformed a court theatre into a Catholic chapel. He called upon the musicians in his court, many of whom were from neighboring Bohemia, to provide music for the newly established Catholic services. Jan Dismas Zelenka was one of those musicians.

Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Missa Dei Filii is the second of three transmitted Missae ultimate, but consists, like other “short masses” of the 18th century, solely of a Kyrie and Gloria. Nevertheless it is an extensive work, and the lengthy, multipartite Gloria is considered as the most impressive Gloria setting that Zelenka created in his over 20 masses.