Thursday, April 13, 2006

Maundy Thursday

I came to the realization years ago that I'd never be able to read all of the great books ever written. There's just not enough time in one lifetime to get to everything, and the list continues to grow. I have an entire shelf of Dickens, and I manage to get through about 1 a year. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, I've read 9. How long would it takes to read through Hardy, Eliot, the Brontes? And that's just the product of one nation, and a relatively short time period.

I've recently come to the same conclusion with regards to the world's great music. I'm never going to hear it all, much less actively listen to and learn. But I've had the opportunity, through the choir at church, to get more than my fair share. As I commented last year at around this time, the choir gets much, much more out of the service music than the congregation does. There is no piece of sacred music that I've ever sung that is capable of being appreciated on one hearing the way that it is after weeks or months of working on it for performance. And that's proving true yet again.

Last week, for Palm Sunday, we sang the Gounod Sanctus from Messe Solenelle, and it was fantastic. And yet another piece that, absent the choir singing it, I'd have been unlikely ever to be acquainted with. Tonight, Maundy Thursday, we'll be singing three selections from the Theodore Dubois Seven Last Words Of Christ. Another fantastic work that is, I suspect, not known at all in the general population.

We've been listening to it in the car while riding back and forth to karate for the past few weeks, and had an interesting discussion about one of the selections with my oldest. The first word from the Cross from the book of Luke, chapter 23, verse 34: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The Dubois setting starts with this, then incorporates a choir, crying "He is death guilty, take him, let us crucify him! Be his blood on us and then on our children!"

My son, 13, didn't like that. He was disturbed by the text, and upset that that choir was singing it, and expressed the opinion that he, himself, wouldn't do it. So we talked a little bit about the setting.

Solo: Father, Father, Father forgive them
For they know not what they do.

Solo: And the people clamored...

Choir: He is death guilty! He is death guilty!
Take him, take him, let us crucify him!
He is death guilty! He is death guilty!
Take him, take him, take him!

Be his blood, be his blood on us, be his blood on us,
And then on our children, our children,
Be on us and our children!

Solo: Father, Father, Father forgive them
For they know not what they do.

It is unpleasant. The crowd is loud, the crowd is raucous. The text is not something that you want to be saying, as a general rule. "Let us crucify him" is not a standard prayer. But as a musical setting, it works really well. One of the things we all remember is Jesus saying "Father, forgive them." But out of context, it doesn't have the full power. Dubois' setting puts the context back in. We start with the prayer of Jesus to forgive the people, then we are essentially assaulted by the crowd as the clamored "let us crucify him!" And then the piece finishes with, again, the voice of Jesus - "Father, forgive them." It makes for a very powerful statement...

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