Triduum

This year, for the first time in a while, I actually made it to all three main liturgies of the Triduum, which, in Catholic parlance, is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Back in the days when I served on liturgy committee and I and my daughters served in music ministry, I would be at all the Holy Week liturgies plus the children’s liturgy on Easter morning, but, after my long-time parish disintegrated in 2005, I couldn’t bring myself to attend all the services. The situation got even more complicated when my elder care responsibilities grew.

Then came 2020 and the pandemic and no one could attend services in person for Holy Week.

I didn’t attend mass in person for over a year. I wrote here about my first time back a dew weeks ago. I noted in that post that I wouldn’t try to attend every week yet due to space constraints at church. I was able to get a reservation to attend Easter Vigil on Saturday evening and decided to attend on Holy Thursday evening and Good Friday afternoon because the church made those open without reservations, although we did have to sign in and leave contact information in case a COVID case was verified and they needed to do tracing. We also had temperature checks and single-use programs so there were no hymnals or prayer books that subsequent worshippers would be touching.

Holy Thursday had long been my favorite liturgy of the year. Its focus is the Eucharist, as it commemorates the Last Supper. In an ordinary year, there would be significant involvement from the laity. The priest would wash the feet of twelve parish members and another group of people, often a family, would dress the altar. There would be a large choir to lead the congregation in sung prayer. Because of the pandemic, everything had to be pared down. Footwashing was eliminated globally to reduce risk. There were two lay lectors, appropriately distanced from the clergy in the sanctuary, but they were both men, so there were no women’s voices in any of the spoken prayers, which added to the sense of distance for me.

The music was beautiful, though. The music director put together an octet from the music ministry, which included some married couples so that the spacing would work as they could stand right next to each other instead of having to be feet apart. With masks, spacing, and good choral microphones, they were able to lead the sung prayer very meaningfully.

Because so much of the Holy Thursday liturgy revolves around a meal, there are many references to food. Because we are living in a time of increased hunger in the United States, these passages were particularly meaningful to me this year. For example, the gathering song was “Table of Plenty” by Dan Schutte, which contains the lyrics, “O come and eat without money; come to drink without price.” and “My bread will ever sustain you through days of sorrow and woe.” Those familiar lines resonated differently knowing that many people do not have enough to eat.

The service on Good Friday afternoon is, by its nature, quite stark. It’s the one day of the church year when there is no mass with Eucharist. Instead, there is a liturgy of the word, veneration of the cross, and distribution of communion with previously consecrated hosts. Without having the liturgy of the Eucharist, the emphasis shifts to the liturgy of the word, which includes reading the passion narrative from the gospel of John.

Paradoxically, Good Friday felt less stark to me than the Lenten and Holy Thursday masses I attended. I think this was due, at least in part, to the fact that there were more lay voices and, in particular, women’s voices included. The first reading, the suffering servant passage from Isaiah, was proclaimed as a choral reading, alternating between a woman lector and the music ministers. The gospel is presented with different people reading narration, the voice of Christ, and the voice of others in dialogue, with the congregation participating as the crowd. Even though we are assigned to proclaim a lot of challenging verses – we have to say, “Crucify him!” multiple times – it is good to feel that we have a part in telling the story.

Another element of the liturgy of the word that gets more emphasis on Good Friday is the intercessions that follow the homily. They were chanted by two cantors, a woman and a man, who alternated between them, with a sung response from the congregation and a prayer by the priest after each. This year, there was an added petition specifically for the pandemic, which was both moving and sobering to hear.

The veneration of the cross was much simpler than in usual years. It’s been the custom for each person to come forward in procession to kiss the cross but that isn’t possible under pandemic protocol. Instead, the assembly knelt and venerated the cross from our places in the pews. In truth, I preferred this to the processing and kissing because it felt more solemn.

For the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, we begin in a mostly darkened church. The time is set to be after sundown so it will be dark so that the first part of the mass, the service of light, begins in darkness. Usually, a new fire is lit and blessed outside the church, the new Paschal candle is blessed and embedded with incense, then lit and carried through the church in procession with music and sung responses, as each person holds a candle which is lit and passed to the next until the church is filled with candlelight for the singing of the the Exsultet (Easter Proclamation).

However, this was rather drastically abbreviated this year. We heard the blessing of the fire and the Paschal candle was brought into the church but the congregation had no candles of their own and most of the lights remained off in the body of the church. The Exsultet was chanted by a cantor whom I have had the privilege to hear sing for many years; it was very moving and brought back memories of hearing the priest chant this prayer when I was the teenage organist in my childhood church.

The liturgy of the word that follows the service of light begins with three readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, each followed by a psalm and prayer. Unfortunately, the lights in the body of the church were still off, which made it a bit difficult for the assembly to sing the psalm responses which were printed in our programs. I happened to know the pieces fairly well so I could sing, but I could tell that some others were not familiar enough with them to join in. Admittedly, it was dramatic to have the lights turned on as we were singing the Gloria, but I missed the growing candlelight followed by the lights being turned on as we extinguished our candles and began the liturgy of the word.

I admit that I struggled with the homily. While it was meant to be a unifying message, the way it was conveyed reminded me too much of how many instances of division there are within our society and the church. It saddened me.

The Easter Vigil is traditionally the time when new adult members enter the church, so there are often baptisms, professions of faith, confirmations, and first Eucharists included. This year, though, there was just one candidate for confirmation, most likely because the pandemic prevented the usual series of liturgies and classes for new members that take place in the months leading up to Easter.

The liturgy of the Eucharist unfolded in almost normal fashion. I was again very appreciative of my organist-friend and the octet she had assembled. The mass that we sang is one that I know well and that we had used often. In my mind, I was adding in the sound of the handbell accompaniment and larger choir that we used on festive occasions like Easter. I wonder when or even if such large and close gatherings will again be possible.

Perhaps I should say that the liturgy of the Eucharist proceeded in pandemic-normal. There is no sharing of a sign of peace, although people do wave or nod to others across the empty pews between occupied-but-spaced ones. We also do the formal dismissal before communion is distributed, so that people receive the host and then exit, all while keeping their distance.

I was just re-reading this post to edit and I’m sure, if you have made it this far, that you realize I’m a bit of a Catholic liturgy wonk. I want to convey my wishes for Easter blessings to those celebrating and my universal wishes for peace, love, respect, and care to all.

Choirs in the time of COVID

I often participate in Linda Hill‘s Stream of Consciousness Saturdays. Her last prompt was “song.” The instruction was to “find a picture–the closest one to you. Your prompt is the title and/or the lyrics of the first song that comes to mind when you look at the picture.”

I couldn’t manage to follow the instruction – my brain doesn’t work that way – but thoughts about song have been flooding my consciousness for the last couple of days.

I can’t remember the first song I sang, but singing has been an important part of my life, especially choral singing. Decades of it. Most of it has been associated with schools or church. It has been my privilege to sing some of the great choral works of Western music. I love singing Bach; my background as an organist probably influences that. My favorite large work to sing is Brahms’ Requiem, in German, of course.

I’ve written sorrowfully of the probable demise of University Chorus due to a re-organization of the choral program at Binghamton. At the time, I never dreamed that choral singing itself would be on indefinite pause.

It turns out that singing is a high-risk activity to spread coronavirus. A choir rehearsal, with lots of people singing in close quarters indoors, can easily become a super-spreader event. While some churches have begun re-opening, they cannot safely have their choirs sing. They can’t even have their congregations sing. The thought of returning to church but having to stay silent is more than I can bear.

Nine years ago, I made my first trip to Europe as part of the Smith College Alumnae Chorus. We sang the Mozart Requiem in Sicily. I have sung with the SCAC in several on-campus events, as well as last year’s tour of Slovenia. Any planning for future events is on hold, not knowing what conditions we will be facing over the next couple of years.

Someday, some year, there will be widespread vaccine and/or effective treatment for COVID-19 and singing in groups will again be reasonably safe. I hope that choral organizations manage to survive so that they can reconvene and make music together again. I hope that I, then in my sixties, will be considered young enough, healthy enough, and mellifluous enough to join in.

JC’s Confessions #14

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, now a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

After all the safer-at-home pandemic protocols, I’m afraid that it will be difficult for me to resume going back out to church, meetings, events, etc.

The truth is that I am both introverted and shy. It takes a lot of energy for me to be in a group setting and even more for me to actively participate. I much prefer one-on-one interaction, the exception being among family.

I wrote yesterday about the explosion of Zoom and other virtual meetings. I’m finding that these are also very draining and even more difficult to navigate than in-person meetings, because it is harder to gauge how/when to break into the conversation when we are each in our own little box.

I wonder if some of the group activities I used to do will even exist after a vaccine makes social interaction relatively safe again. While I had been mourning my lack of a chorus with whom to sing, now no one has a chorus available and may not for a long time, given that singing in a group is an especially dangerous virus-spreader. The spirituality group that I have facilitated for years at church is almost entirely people in high-risk groups and we don’t have the option to go virtual due to technical limitations.

Some organizations, like the Binghamton Poetry Project, will eventually have to decide if they go back to in-person meetings or stay in Zoom, which allows people who don’t have transportation or who live outside the area to participate.

It’s possible that there won’t be many groups expecting my physical presence when we get to the post-pandemic world, but there will no doubt be some. Will I be able to muster the energy to venture back out on a regular basis or will I just stay home?

I don’t know.

Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday tribute

Last night, my family had hoped to watch a livestream of a special birthday celebration for composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim in honor of his 90th birthday. The performers were all in their own homes and there were pretty massive technical difficulties which delayed the start for two hours. It was too late for us to watch live, but T and I were able to watch it on youtube today:

I loved it!

There are performances from generations of Broadway stars, some jaw-droppingly amazing given the unusual circumstances, all heartfelt. Most of the songs were well-known, but several were less so. It was a tribute to Sondheim’s incredible range as a composer. While a few were more light-hearted selections, most were poignant, which is a quality I notice often in his songs.

The first Sondheim musical I saw was a community performance of Company when I was in high school, which seemed very adult and sophisticated to my small-town teenage self. I most associate Sondheim, though, with my daughters.

We had a video recording of Into the Woods, which was a favorite of E’s when she was young. She especially liked singing Little Red’s “I Know Things Now.” When T was old enough to watch with her, we would only let her watch the first act. (If you know the show, the first act ends with what could be construed as “happily ever after”; the second act gets dark pretty quickly.) This worked for a little while, until E told T the rest of the story and we relented and let her watch the whole thing, which she did not find upsetting. I guess that the non-bowdlerized Grimm version of fairy tales, which involve quite a lot of mayhem, endure for a reason that I had not hitherto fully appreciated.

T’s favorite Sondheim musical became Sunday in the Park with George. She and E would often break into Sondheim songs around the house, just for the joy of singing. And they sang them very well, which is an accomplishment, because Sondheim is very difficult to sing accurately. T and I especially liked a video clip in the tribute of a young Iain Armitage singing “Finishing the Hat.”

E and T often did summer workshops at our local playhouse, some of which involved singing. Sometimes, Sondheim worked his way into those performances. I especially remember that in summer of 2001, E sang “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. A few weeks later, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, I found the memory of her singing that song oddly comforting. “Nothing’s gonna harm you, Not while I’m around.” Not that I thought her singing would protect us from terrorists, but that sense of caring and sheltering resonated in those circumstances.

“Not While I’m Around” was part of last night’s concert, too. It and several other selections that have that same poignancy of love, protection, and care brought tears to my eyes.

The power of music.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim, and thank you.

the later verses

For some reason, yesterday the topic of the later verses of songs to which many know only the first verse well came up a couple of times. In a Binghamton Poetry Project session, we read Ada Limón’s poem “A New National Anthem” which quotes from and asks why we don’t sing the third verse of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. Last night, I was discussing the hymn “Amazing Grace” with a friend; I relate much better theologically with the ending verses than the opening ones, which are the ones most people recognize.

Although I am Catholic, much of my training as an organist was in a Protestant context. Unlike most Catholic churches, which often sing only two or three verses of a hymn, Protestant churches usually sing all the verses, which, as a poet and a liturgist, I find more proper. I sometimes choose a hymn specifically for a message in a later verse. I did this in choosing hymns for my father-in-law’s funeral, only to have the substitute organist truncate the hymn so we never got to verses that were connected to the occasion. I noticed the pastor giving a sidelong glance at the organist, but he didn’t take the hint.

Some of my favorite verses of hymns are later ones. In Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, I especially like the end of the second verse/stanza: 
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
We could really use some of that self-control these days. Interestingly, in researching the poem, I found that the version most of us know is the 1911 revision. The original 1893 version ends the third stanza with:
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!
We could really use that message now, too.

Sometimes, later verses are just fun because you get to sing words that your would not otherwise. For example, the second verse of the standard version of the United Kingdom National Anthem “God Save the Queen” which deals with the Queen’s enemies contains the lines “Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks”. It’s not often one gets to sing about “knavish tricks”!

Sometimes, especially in folk/protest songs, verses are included, excluded, or altered due to political circumstances or the audience. Woodie Guthrie’s original lyric of “The Land Is Your Land” contains a verse about private property and ends with a verse about hunger that closes “As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if this land was made for you and me.” Most people are familiar only with the verses that are a US travelogue, not these more challenging ones.

There are some hymns, such as “Sing a New Church” by Delores Dufner, OSB, that I love all the verses so much that I will sing omitted verses to myself if we don’t get to sing them all during the service.

My first college choral conductor, Rob Kolb, taught us that the hymn is the poem which is the text, as opposed to the tune, which is interchangeable with another of the same metric form. Because the hymn is the poem, you sing it as you would recite it, with its punctuation and word emphasis intact. You also honor the hymn as an entity, so you sing all the verses, as you would read or recite all the stanzas of a poem.

Some lessons stick with you for life.

Is it Easter yet?

In my religious tradition, Easter is about joy and light and hope.

Easter this year does not feel like that.

I was trying to get ready for Easter by viewing this series for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. They were beautiful videos and being able to watch them alone was helpful. I spent decades involved with church music and/or liturgy planning, so I have many wonderful memories of those liturgies. They are very emotional for me. Even if we had been able to celebrate at our church, though, I probably would have chosen not to attend because I would have been at risk for crying through them. At this time last year, we were in the last few weeks of my mother’s life, so this is another in the long line of “first times” we have been dealing with over these last months. In some ways, it felt appropriate to be commemorating at this time alone.

Easter Day itself was complicated by some upsetting things that happened with family and friends beyond our household. It is difficult to want to help but not be able to do anything, or even to go to see them. Instead of Easter joy, there was a lot of sadness. pain, and uncertainty. One bright spot was watching Mass recorded at our diocesan cathedral. I decided to watch because our bishop is relatively new and I hadn’t heard him preach yet. I  appreciated how pastoral he is: Pope Francis has been appointing bishops who have more pastoral experience rather than just those who have worked their way up through the bureaucracy. It was also nice to hear the cathedral’s pipe organ, two great soloists, and trumpet. I especially appreciated the soprano singing the Mozart “Alleluia” that daughter E had sung for her college auditions.

This Easter Monday has been spent trying to work through some of the complications that arose yesterday. In the back of my mind, I am also thinking of my parents, who were married on an April Easter Monday, though that year Easter Monday was not the thirteenth.

It was 66 years ago and the first time that they won’t be celebrating together.

SoCS: making welcome

In these days of social distancing, how can we make each other feel welcomed?

We have been used to meeting in person, hugging, kissing, shaking hands, or whatever local custom and closeness of relationship between the people indicated, but, with fears of infection mounting and lots of restrictions in place depending on your location, it is hard to get within six feet of a person who is not a member of your household.

It seems to be a good time to use our voices. In some places in Europe, people who are not allowed to leave their homes are singing to each other from their balconies. That requires a certain kind of city to work. If I sang from my front porch, I don’t think any of the neighbors would hear. Then again, I don’t have a very loud voice.

I do, however, have a renewed appreciation for phone calls and the much more recent videochats. I especially love being able to hear and see E and ABC in London. After our visit in December, we had thought we would be able to visit again this spring, but there is about 0% chance of that with the travel restrictions in place now and any reasonable projection of the spread of COVID-19 in both the US and the UK.

I’m also even more appreciative of notes and messaging and emails. I admittedly have been doing a lot of that in recent years, but even more so in these recent weeks. Groups from whom I receive emails are busily trying to strengthen online connections. Two big in-person actions planned for this spring – major climate/environmental action centered around the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in the US in April and a world-wide Catholic women’s strike in May – are now re-imagining their activities. Even retailers are writing about what they are doing in terms of store closings and online shopping, while also expressing concern for the health of their employees and the communities they serve.

I also truly appreciate all the friends and family who are posting to social media or sending private messages, letting others know they are okay and checking up on people.

Later today, I will be welcoming people to a review of my chapbook manuscript. Until a few days ago, it was going to be a small in-person party. Now, our plan is to meet via Zoom. We will safely be able to see each other and talk about the manuscript, each from the safety of our own homes, places where we are safe from both the virus, which is not widely prevalent in our county yet, thank God, and from the very real fear that we might unwittingly pass it to someone before having any symptoms or ideas that we are infected.

It will be different than the prior manuscript reviews our circle of poets have done in-person, but, in a way, it may feel more precious and more connected, precisely because we know we won’t be able to gather in person for weeks or months to come. When we are allowed, I hope that we will be able to have a much-delayed party with everyone gathered in one room.

If I am very, very ,very, very lucky, maybe one day we can celebrate its publication.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “welcome.” Join us! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/03/20/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-21-2020/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley!
https://www.quaintrevival.com/

A timely poem from Anne Harding Woodworth

As we are all dealing with COVID-19 in some way, I wanted to share a topical poem with you.

Anne Harding Woodworth is an accomplished poet who I met through the Smith College Alumnae Chorus. We have sung together for several concerts, including three performances of Mozart Requiem on tour in Sicily. This poem brilliantly references the Requiem in the context of an audience-less performance held recently due to COVID-19 caution.

The site where it appears is New Verse News, which publishes poems on current topics of interest. I appreciate that they make it possible for poets to publish work about recent or ongoing situations without having to wait months for journal publications.

You can find “Mozart Requiem Streamed in a Time of COVID-19” here:  https://newversenews.blogspot.com/2020/03/mozart-requiem-streamed-in-time-of.html

One-Liner Wednesday: the artist

“One who wants to leave behind a gift”
~~~  Otto Rank’s definition of the artist
*****
Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesday! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/03/11/one-liner-wednesday-just-sayin/

Badge by Laura @ riddlefromthemiddle.com

JC’s Confessions #10

On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert does a recurring skit, now a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.
~ JC

I don’t feel like a musician anymore.

I started playing piano at seven. I began studying organ as a preteen and was the organist of my rural Catholic church at fourteen. I majored in music at Smith College, where organ was my main instrument, I played often at chapel, I sang in choirs, learned that I could compose, and was named the Presser Scholar in my senior year.

After I graduated, married B, and moved to the Binghamton NY area, I continued with church music until I took a few years away when my children were young.  Realizing that it wouldn’t work for our family for B and I to never have a common day off, I volunteered with the music ministry at my church, accompanying the youth and junior choirs and subbing when our music director needed to be away. When tendon problems in my elbow eventually made it impossible for me to play for very long at a time, our music director would play and I would conduct.

When our parish disintegrated in 2005 and my church music volunteering evaporated, except for occasional special celebrations, I still had my long-time affiliation with University Chorus to keep me musically active. After the retirement of our long-time director, though, University Chorus, which used to sing a major concert every semester, has cut back to only singing at one concert a year, at most. This academic year, we have not met at all and I am not sure we will ever re-convene. Due to uncertainty and personal scheduling complications, I haven’t been able to join another group.

With my last steady musical commitment gone, I don’t feel that I am still a musician, which leaves an empty space in my identity. In a period of my life when there has been so much loss, losing that piece of myself is especially difficult because music has long served as a vehicle to express emotion and to find community and comfort.

I don’t know if I will ever recover the musician part of my identity. Theoretically, I could be singing on my own every day and working on sight reading so that I would be ready to audition if there is an opportunity, but it feels too futile, not helped by the fact that I am a very anxious and not particularly good auditioner.

It is likely that I will sing again with the Smith Alumnae Chorus, either on campus or on tour, but those choral experiences would only be a few days a year. Not an identity-affirming amount of time.

Maybe what I should say is that, for many years, I was a musician.