Lent, Lenz, Spring

Crocus biflorus photo by Reginald Hulhoven from Wikimedia Commons

Crocus biflorus
photo by Reginald Hulhoven from Wikimedia Commons

Christians are now observing the season of Lent, a time of fasting and penitence, reflection and contemplation. But the church season’s development in the Northern hemisphere also draws on the powerful pulls of body and earth, of humankind’s connection to the natural world, which, like our bodies, is a creation and temple of God.

The word itself, “Lent,” derives from the Germanic root “lang,” meaning “long,” which also forms the basis of the present-day German “Lenz” (“Spring”). According to the 1964 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, “Lent” (and, one assumes, the German “Lenz”) takes its meaning from the lengthening of days in the spring.

Historically, Lent began as a time of preparation for new converts to the Christian faith before their baptism at Easter, and I imagine that over the centuries many pre-Christian traditions and practices associated with the seasonal transition became part of religious tradition as well. In earlier societies, this seasonal transition was a time to use up winter stores before they went bad (hence, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, a time for one last big winter feast).  A time to fast because those winter stores, even those that keep, are running low.

A good time to clear out larders and cupboards, making room for the coming abundance of spring. A good time to clear out and examine old habits, tossing out those which haven’t served us well, making room for the abundance of life promised by Christ’s incarnation in human form and loving sacrifice. Spring’s rebirth reminds us that spiritual rebirth is possible, too, something that isn’t always easy to believe in the season of cold and “winter’s discontent.”

The earthly season reminds us that scarcity (those dwindling stores of winter food) can coexist with hope, symbolized by the lengthening of days. (Ancients did not have to deal with the less welcome intrusion of Daylight Savings Time!)

The Germans actually have two words for spring, and both are used in one of my favorite pieces of music, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Drunken Man in Spring”), the fifth movement from Mahler’s great song cycle Das Lied von die Erde (The Song of the Earth). Especially lovely is Mahler’s setting of the line “Der Lenz ist da!” (“Spring is here!”).

I located a performance on YouTube, sung by tenor Fritz Wunderlich. The English translation follows the German text, and you can see that this celebration of spring is as far removed as possible from the somber beginnings of Lent! I’m certainly not advocating celebrating spring’s arrival by getting drunk, but this is a wonderful piece of music, and you can also take the “drunkenness” metaphorically, as the exuberance of becoming bedazzled by the beauty of nature and the miraculous nature of the season:

Wenn nur ein Traum das Leben ist,
Warum denn Müh’ und Plag’!?
Ich trinke, bis ich nicht mehr kann,
Den ganzen, lieben Tag!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr trinken kann,
Weil Kehl’ und Seele voll,
So tauml’ ich bis zu meiner Tür
Und schlafe wundervoll!

Was hör’ ich beim Erwachen? Horch!
Ein Vogel singt im Baum.
Ich frag’ ihn, ob schon Frühling sei,
Mir ist als wie im Traum.

Der Vogel zwitschert: Ja!
Der Lenz ist da, sei kommen über Nacht!
Aus tiefstem Schauen lauscht’ ich auf,
Der Vogel singt und lacht!

Ich fülle mir den Becher neu
Und leer’ ihn bis zum Grund
Und singe, bis der Mond erglänzt
Am schwarzen Firmament!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr singen kann,
So schlaf’ ich wieder ein.
Was geht mich denn der Frühling an!?
Laßt mich betrunken sein!

If life is but a dream,
why work and worry?
I drink until I no more can,
the whole, blessed day!

And if I can drink no more
as throat and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep wonderfully!

What do I hear on waking? Hark!
A bird sings in the tree.
I ask him if it’s spring already;
to me it’s as if I’m in a dream.

The bird chirps Yes!
The spring is here, it came overnight!
From deep wonderment I listen;
the bird sings and laughs!

I fill my cup anew
and drink it to the bottom
and sing until the moon shines
in the black firmament!

And if I can not sing,
then I fall asleep again.
What to me is spring?
Let me be drunk!

Seasonal Music by Malcolm Dalglish

Years ago I stumbled on the album Hymnody of Earth by Malcolm Dalglish in a bin of holiday CDs in Tower Records (remember Tower?). I was attracted by the title, naturally, and also noticed that most of the lyrics were by Wendell Berry, whose poetry I already knew and loved. That clinched it. I bought the CD and it has become one of my favorite Christmas albums. The Hymnody really should be listened to as a whole, but I hope to give you a little taste here to encourage you to purchase it for yourself. According to the composer’s website, there are two versions/performances of the work available; I have the earlier one from 1991. The later version (1999) has some additional numbers.

The first  piece is an arrangement for two solo singers and guitar; I don’t know if the arrangement is the composer’s or not, but it is lovely and effective and the musicians, Sarah Stevens and Ben Belinski, do a great job. The simplicity of the church setting (Snowmass Chapel) harmonizes nicely with the essential simplicity of the music. The opening verses are in Latin and the two-part voice lines written in the style of early medieval chant. The piece, “Psalm of Solstice,” is Hymnody‘s opening number.

Next, a lovely, very moving performance of “For the Future” (unfortunately the singers and location are not given (I can’t tell if the setting is a church or concert hall).  Here are the lyrics by Wendell Berry (If you follow this blog, you should become acquainted with his work. If anyone is today’s patron saint of trees, it is he!):

Planting trees early in spring,
we make a place for birds to sing
in time to come. How do we know?
They are singing here now.
There is no other guarantee
that singing will ever be.

The next number on our little concert preview is “Great Trees,” performed by AKSARA. It can only be watched on youtube itself, and here is the link. The a cappella women’s group nicely balances out the a cappella men’s group on the number that follows. Lyrics again by Wendell Berry.

The final number, “Paradise,” is also the final piece on Dalglish’s 1991 Hymnody album, in mood a sort of sacred version of “Auld Lang Syne.” Like the opening number, it is written in medieval style. The all-male Cantus soloists present a moving performance:

Direct links to the youtube performances:

Psalm of Solstice, arr. for guitar and solo voices

For the Future

Great Trees


Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season!


Merton’s “O Sweet Irrational Worship” set to Music

A few weeks ago, when I was writing the post on Thomas Merton’s poem “O Sweet Irrational Worship,” I came upon the following link: http://www.overgrownpath.com/2008/12/sweet-irrational-worship.html

o sweet irrational albumIt describes Merton’s meeting with composer John Jacob Niles, who had already set many of Merton’s poems to music, and goes on to review a then-new recording of Niles’ Merton song cycles sung by baritone Chad Runyon. A quick search of the Internet shows the recording is still available. I couldn’t find any audio excerpts of this particular song, but the singer’s website includes samples of several others on the album. Baritone happens to be my favorite category of voice, and any composer sensitive to the nuances of Merton’s poetry is one worth checking out: I intend to order it soon. I was also happy to stumble upon the Overgrown Path blog, which looks to be a thoughtful collection written by a kindred spirit.

Christmas Bells

I’ve always loved the sound of bells and I love the Christmas carols that feature them. The first that comes to mind is the setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which is worth quoting in full, as its message of peace remains more relevant than ever:

Christmas bells with red ribbon isolated on white background

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And then there’s Edgar Allan Poe’s superb “Hear the sledges with their bells, silver bells.” Even though the poem ends with funeral bells (it’s Poe, after all!), the first stanza evokes quite a festive mood. The poem also introduced me to a most marvelous bell word: “tinntinnabulation.” Here’s that first stanza:

Hear the sledges with the bells –
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Another favorite of mine is the Ukranian Bell Carol. When I first heard it as a child it seemed so mysterious, so different from the other carols I knew. According to Wikipedia, the melody, composed by Mykola Leontovych , is based on a Ukranian folk chant, which partly accounts for the carol’s mysterious, evocative tone.

Here’s a version I found on youtube. I wish they had given the name of the children’s choir. It’s a lovely rendition:

What are some of your favorite holiday songs or poems featuring bells? It doesn’t have to be Christmas; I’m curious about other traditions, as well.

Church Bells

A few weeks ago, I set out for my daily walk, my destination the local library. My husband and I were both suffering from colds, so we’d slept in, and it was 11:30 by the time I left the house, carrying a backpack of soon-to-be-overdue books.

Church tower of Cathedral St. Anastasia, Zadar, Croatia. Photo by Bohringer Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons.

Church tower of Cathedral St. Anastasia, Zadar, Croatia. Photo by Bohringer Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons.

It was an unseasonally warm Sunday, just above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a beautiful late-autumn day with the sun shining brightly through the trees, transforming the remaining leaves into stained-glass windows colored in flame. Rounding a corner, I faced into the sun, and as it shone out, the bells from a nearby church began to peal.

I’d heard the bells before. I tend to take my walks around midday, and had often heard the church carillon ring out familiar hymns. It was always a pleasant accompaniment. But this was quite different, no tunes, just a wild, joyous cry, bells from high to low, deep-voiced through treble, pouring out in a jubilee that reminded me of my recording of the Coronation Scene in Boris Godunov. The bells and the sun created a moment of pure wonder and beauty.

On my way home from the library, on the very same block, I heard the bells again. But this time it was the familiar Big Ben chime, followed by a singularly appropriate hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth” (one of my favorites). From the sublime moment earlier in the walk to the comforting and familiar as I wended my way home, I felt grateful, blessed by the bells.

Here’s the coronation scene from Boris, the version with the best bells of those I could find on youtube (couldn’t find the scene from the recording I own, which features Boris Christoff in the title role, but the bells on the recording below are also quite spectacular):

Christmas Music: Hymnody of Earth

I stumbled on my favorite Christmas CD quite by chance several years ago, browsing in Tower Records. (Anyone remember Tower?)

Photo from composer's website

Photo from composer’s website

It’s called Hymnody of Earth, and the composer is Malcolm Dalglish. I was attracted first by the album’s name and then when I noticed that most of the works were settings of the poetry of Wendell Berry, that clinched it. Most of them are for boys choir, another plus as far as I was concerned, and the primary accompanying instrument is the hammer dulcimer, which Dalglish plays. I can’t recall if I was already familiar with hammer dulcimer or not, but it was love at first note. For those who haven’t heard it, the timbre is quite a bit like a harp only much more percussive. It’s a magical sounding instrument, perfect for Christmas music.

Now, the album isn’t precisely Christmas, more winter solstice, but anyone familiar with Berry’s poetry knows the backbone of his spirituality is Christian. Same with the settings of Shaker lyrics and hymns that are part of this work. That said, nowhere is Christ or Christmas directly mentioned, making the album a suitable liturgy for any spirituality that celebrates nature, God, and human love. Perfect music for a quiet winter’s evening when your mood is contemplative rather than extroverted.

The album begins and ends with chant written by Dalglish, evoking a medieval procession. The opening chant includes frame drum (a very subtle thrumming, no rat-a-tat-tat here!) and the lovely chiming hammer dulcimer, while the ending number is unaccompanied voices that gradually fade into the distance—a bit like Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, and here and there are touches of Britten in the boys choir as well, but the overall style is unmistakably its own.

To listen to an excerpt, click here, and you will be taken to Dalglish’s website. The recording that I have is the early version, “as it was originally conceived for Malcolm Dalglish (hammer dulcimer and voice), Glen Velez (frame drums and shakers), and The American Boychoir” (quotation from website). It’s now published by the Musical Heritage Society. There is also a newer version put out by Ooolitic Music, which looks like Dalglish’s own publishing company. It looks like the new version ends with a livelier “Amen” for voices and instruments, but personally I love the way the original version fades away—more contemplative—but that’s just me.

photo from composer's website

photo from composer’s website

Here’s his description, attached to the newer recording on his website: “There are moments in nature when wordless poetry washes over me, and I feel lost in the rhythm of a pure sound or vision. Hymns gather together people, words, and music to memorialize these transcendent moments in our lives. I found the poetry of Wendell Berry and the mysterious and primitive sound of the dulcimer, frame drums and shakers to be ideal collaborators in this broadly defined Hymnody.”

Hymnody of Earth is a wonderful work, and I hope many of you will become fellow fans and incorporate it into your own winter festivities.

What kinds of seasonal music do you most enjoy?

I lean and loaf at my ease

Saints and Trees is taking a break.

In the meantime, here are some summertime images, quotations, and whatnot, for your delectation:

I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Summer Books for my Hammock

Gershwin’s “Summertime” with an Island View

Farewell to my Favorite Singer

My all-time favorite singer, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, died two weeks ago, on Friday May 18 at the age of 86.

I can’t remember precisely when I first heard his recordings. I was bitten by the opera bug during my senior year in high school, and in college, listening to student recitals, I discovered that I loved art-songs (lieder), as well. One of my favorite professors was a huge admirer of Mahler, a composer I’d never heard of till then, and I think the first Fischer-Dieskau recording I purchased was most likely an album of Mahler songs with orchestra.

His voice was like velvet and molten gold, his technique and control extraordinary. He could breathe a barely audible whisper of sound or soar into a full-bodied swell that was never rough or stentorian. But what really drew me was the emotional depth of his singing. This was due in part to his care with words, but also to the musical shading and nuance he brought to every phrase.

We’re fortunate that he recorded extensively. His Don Giovanni purrs with soft, swoon-inducing seduction, his Schubertian heroes pour forth their stories with pathos, his Mahler reaches the heights of religious ecstasy.

The ending of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)  is one of the most beautiful passages in all music, and especially fitting as a memorial because the subtext of final section, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), is death  It is moving without being morbid, giving a vision of rebirth as well as sorrow, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s performance always moves me to tears.

Gustav Mahler
Das Lied von der Erde
VI. Der Abschied (only the poem by Wang Wei, final part)
Leonard Bernstein, Conductor
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Baritone
Wiener Philharmoniker
Decca Records
Recorded 1966

Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk
Des Abschieds dar. Er fragte ihn, wohin
Er führe und auch warum es müßte sein.
Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort: Du, mein Freund,
Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!
Wohin ich geh? Ich geh, ich wandre in die Berge.
Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.
Ich wandle nach der Heimat, meiner Stätte.
Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen.
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!

Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu!
Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig… ewig…

‎(Youtube video from nimicide; Translations by Deryck Cooke:)

He alighted from his horse and handed him The drink of farewell.
He asked him where he was going
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
Ah, my friend,
Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going?
I am going to wander in the mountains.
I seek rest for my lonely heart.
I journey to the homeland, to my resting-place.
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!
The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!
Forever… forever…

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