5 for All Saints

Halloween (or “all hallows even”, on October 31st) is the day preceding All Saint’s Day (November 1st).  Depending on your faith background, the two days are understood as inter-connected celebrations.  I am no expert.

But this is the other half of what I posted for Halloween.  After offering five musical samples having to do with the mysterious and dark understandings arising from Oct 31st I would like to offer something as a kind of balance.  In fact these choices are as impulsive as the ones I made last night.  Please feel free to offer your own suggestions in reply, if you think we should be hearing or seeing something else at this time.

The Mission1)  Ennio Morricone is known for several celebrated filmscores.  While his chilling themes for the westerns of Sergio Leone are a big part of their success, an operatic celebration of violence, his karma is clean for what he brought to the big screen in collaboration with Roland Joffé in the late 1980s.  The Mission is a story juxtaposing the ideals of the spirit (as embodied in the Jesuits pushing the frontiers of their faith into South America) & the harsh reality of politics in the church of the time.  This segment is the last portion of a long and painful penance of a man of the sword, bearing his armour & weapons with him into the wilderness, a long painful struggle.  

2) A few years ago I had a kind of religious experience.  I was music-director on this particular Sunday.  The mezzo-soprano was singing the song that serves as the fourth movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, namely Urlicht (or “primal light”).  The song text tells a story that was very poignant & relevant to the composer, a Jew being kept from the path to success by an anti-semitic culture.  The poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn tells of an angel blocking the path, but affirms that I will not be denied.

Imagine my shock that I saw this story enacted.  The singer was herself partially disabled, standing at the lectern singing, while I accompanied her from below.  The path in the middle of the church is where the deacons collect the offering from the congregation, during the offertory, a pathway exactly like the one in the song.  Because she couldn’t comfortably occupy the space in the middle, she had no choice but to sing from a place, off to the side: a curious & ironic enactment of the text of the song.  The singer didn’t notice this; but I did.  Here’s the text & translation 

Viktor Ullmann

Composer Viktor Ullmann

3)      On All Saints Martin Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is sung, according to what I read on Wikipedia .  It’s a hymn that i know in several versions, and about which  I wrote awhile ago . We’ve just passed the anniversary of the passing of Viktor Ullmann, who died Oct 18th 1944.  In recognition of his passing AND in recognition of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” I will play the last ten minutes of the opera The Emperor of Atlantis.  Let me explain why. First, Death –who had petulantly taken a holiday to protest against Emperor Uberall (a satire of Hitler) who was making Death far too busy.  Sure, Death had taken a holiday, but has been persuaded to come back.  For some people –such as those inhabiting a concentration camp—death might actually be a blessing; this clip begins with a wonderful piece of vocalism from Gerald Finley.  Five and a half minutes into this clip is Ullmann’s adaptation of Luther’s Reformation hymn, sung in triple time.  I imagine Ullmann’s thinking: that it was conceived as the ultimate appeal for an audience of Nazi commandants & soldiers, possibly like what we see in that moment in the film To Be or Not to Be: when the Jewish actor gets to play Shylock before the Nazis, to say those magical lines:

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

…but the premiere was pre-empted when they figured out the joke and pulled the plug before that premiere.  Imagine, how you might feel, as a German Lutheran, standing with your machine gun, listening to this in the hypothetical performance that never was. If the singers seem to look haunted it’s because they’re at Terezin, aka Theriesenstadt, the place where Ullmann composed & rehearsed the opera before being deported to Auschwitz.

4)  Whew… I need something for a contrast, don’t you?  How about Louis Armstrong playing “When the Saints Go Marching In”

5)  For all the saints who from their labours rest
While I love to sing it or to hear it sung, instead I’m playing an organ version of this hymn, composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams, in mute recognition that this hymn celebrates those who aren’t here.    The saints who from their labours rest?  those who have died.  

We too will find our rest eventually.  For now, Happy All Saints Day.

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