Saturday, 28 May 2011

Die Schöne Müllerin

There are two responses that could be made to Friedrich Müller's Die Schöne Müllerin, a collection of poems constituting a tale of unrequited love. Either, 'This guy needs to get the message. She doesn't love him. Move on. Get a life!' Or, as in the case of Franz Schubert, write a song-cycle which is regarded as one of the most sublime song-cycles of all time.

On Friday we went to hear Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis perform this at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. The pre-concert talk they shared together was fairly ordinary, but the concert was superb. They've recorded this on Harmonia Mundi, and one of the high points can be found here on Spotify.  It's called The Curious Man.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Musical Time and the Age to Come

A dominant feature of this week seems to be death, with a funeral on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. And Wednesday is also the centenary of the death of Gustav Mahler.

This is being commemorated throughout the world with cycles of his symphonies this year. I see that is offering the complete symphonies with Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestra de Paris streamed free (with registration), and Arte will be providing live webcams from the Mahler Festival in Leipzig.

In a recent publication, Resonant Witness, Conversations Between Music and Theology, edited by Jeremy Begbie and Steven Guthrie, there's a fascinating chapter on Musical Time and Eschatology. The point is made that 'Jesus was resurrected not just into the eternal life of God but into a new existence that happens to include such a rich variety of times that created time is not excluded.' To this is suggested that music might be uniquely capable of embodying the 'rich variety of times' that characterise the new creation that has been inaugurated by Jesus' resurrection.

Generally, tonal music is characterised by linear time - you are left in little doubt that the movement or piece has come to an end, to a resolution, to closure.  Mahler wrote tonal music but living right at the end of the Romantic period took tonal music to the very limits. And this is particularly evident in the way Mahler used endings, final resolutions, cadences. Traditionally, strong cadences are the means of bringing a piece of music to an end, unless it's Dudley Moore doing a skit on Beethoven's endings!

Mahler sometimes avoids these obvious endings but in order to do so has to resort to different means to establish closure. Take the conclusion to the third movement of the Fourth Symphony, or the final movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony (for a sensational performance of this see the Youtube clip of Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in which there is silence at the end for well over a minute before the applause). Leonard Bernstein describes this conclusion as 'the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying, of giving it all up.' He goes on to say 'But in letting go, we have gained everything.' So this ending proves to be not so much a denial of life but an affirmation of it.

The authors use these two musical examples - both well worth listening to just for their sublime beauty - to explore how a completion need not imply an ending, but rather 'suggest an opening out onto that which is without end or limit - that is, onto infinity or, better perhaps, the transcendent future of God's promise.' They refer to one of the Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, for whom 'the world to come is not a world where we finally "arrive" and all loose ends are tied, but instead is one of infinite progression into the unfathomable mystery of God.'

I may not have done justice to about fourteen pages of fairly dense writing but I think this is the gist of what they're saying. And I have to say I'm taken with it. I wonder what Mahler would have thought!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Crammed with Heaven - new blog

Chris Ellis has launched his blog, Crammed with Heaven. I've been really looking forward to this as Chris is a creative, insightful thinker and writer, and conversations I've had with him about the arts have always been enriching and enjoyable.

Crammed with Heaven, quoting Elizabeth Browning's poem, is about seeing, in relation to prayer, spirituality, worship and art, a special passion of Chris's. The next few weeks will be fascinating as he spends some of his sabbatical in Italy 'visiting ancient church buildings, looking at great works of art, soaking in the atmosphere, reading and thinking about art and spirituality and trying to improve my painting skills as I "look by painting"'. It's a tough call isn't it?

Go visit and check out the categories at the top as there's some great stuff there.

Welcome to the blogosphere Chris!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Baptist Assembly - really good and really sad

I look forward to the Assembly because among a number of things it's great to meet up with friends, some of whom I see more regularly but others on just this annual occasion. And in this respect Assembly did not disappoint.

This year's Assembly had a special attraction as my former colleague and friend, Pat Took, became the President. Pat is a star! As I listened to her speak on a number of occasions I felt very blessed to have sat next to her for six years at our monthly National Settlement Team. She speaks wise words and in such a way that they stick. And her words at the Assembly were no exception. On the theme 'Your kingdom come' she spoke compellingly about the inclusive community, that this was 'the joy that was set before him' and that was worth dying for. In Jesus all exclusions are ended! Her challenge was that if all are to find their place at the Great Banquet each has something to lose of themselves. I hope we have ears to hear the almost passing comment that 'we need to accept a gracious amnesia'.

Wale Hudson Roberts picked up the baton in his morning Bible study with an authoritative and inspiring exploration of The Lord's Prayer and the key phrase 'Thy kingdom come'. Again, this prayer is a model of inclusion and Wale challenged the delegates with the statement 'global injustice is in the very air we breathe.' Kumar Rajagopalan concluded the session with a stonker of a prayer!

I missed Jeff Lucas' Saturday evening session and his seminars but heard very good things. However, I did take in John Colwell's Baptist Ministers' Fellowship address on 'A Priestly Ministry?' This was an exploration of the nature of the ministry to which we have been called and those who know John won't be surprised to hear that he has a high view of ordination!

Lynn Green spoke from Mk 10 on Jesus welcoming the children and what she said about the passage was true of her preaching, 'deceptively simple but deeply challenging'.

Julie Pennington Russell spoke at the evening session where those newly accredited ministers coming to the end of this season of their ministry were presented and recognised. She spoke on The Lunatic Farmer, encouraging people to 'trust the messy field of your life to God' and to 'trust the messy field of your church to God'.

Other notable features were the worship, which was led mostly by Andy Scarcliffe. He brought to the usual contemporary mix some innovative use of more established hymns. The high point, which I can't believe I'm saying, was one of my least favourite hymns, Lord of the Dance. He managed to transpose it into an entirely different feel through style and tempo - and it really worked. I could have even danced!

On the Sunday morning, the worship was in a Jazz style and there were moments which were unforgetable.  All creatures of our God and king was transformed into something which for me was very beautiful - I can still hear the harmonies! The Communion, with the involvement of two hugely talented children questioning and commenting on what was happening, created a strange intimacy. The prayers of intercession were imaginatively crafted and presented.

Later on that morning, John Woodhouse was commissioned as Chaplain General of the British Army - a significant and moving occasion.

The Monday morning Public Resolutions focused on Christian Aid's campaign regarding the negative impacts for poor countries of tax evasion and avoidance by some multi-national companies. The presentation was informative and challenging and many people contributed to the debate, which concluded with the passing of the resolution.

There was considerable effort to ensure that the Assembly wasn't divided down the middle between Baptist Union and BMS World Mission and the obvious close working and sharing together is an exciting development.

So, all in all, a really good Assembly.  But also it was really sad.

The husband of a minister from the Central Baptist Association, whom I was due to present at the recognition on Sunday evening, collapsed shortly after arriving late Saturday afternoon and died early that evening.  Our prayers continue to be with Heather and her family at the devastating loss of Alistair and the churches at Wendover Free and Little Kingshill.

And then, shortly after leaving, I heard that another minister in the Central Baptist Association, Andrew Busby, who has fought a long battle with several bouts of cancer, died on Sunday evening, poignantly, probably at the same time as the In Memorium at the Assembly. Andrew was a one-off, a lovely man, someone I had come to have a special affection for and I will miss him. We pray for his family and the church at Amersham Free.

Rest in peace, Alistair and Andrew.