Saturday, February 9, 2013

Interpreting Scripture from the piano

Choosing music to go with worship services gets more and more interesting the more I do it. There's a whole range of ways to connect text to music. It can be a pretty obvious programmatic connection: next week I will play Balakirev's spooky "The Wilderness" to open a service focused on the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Or music can be chosen according to mood or form: the beginning of Isaiah 43, in which God's children pass through the flood and fire and are kept safe, led me to Beethoven: the Bagatelle Op. 33 no. 2, whose happy little tune goes on a journey through a flooded-sounding passage in minor and a Trio with lots of flickering fast parallel thirds, and emerges unscathed in the end.

Occasionally I wonder if people get the connections or not. A lot of the time I'm happy to leave it up to them to get it or not. Sometimes if there's something I really don't want them to miss, I put in an extremely short program note, maybe a sentence.

I have been thinking about what sort of biblical interpretation is possible from the piano. Music is in many ways more limited than verbal interpretation, especially when there are no singers up there making words. There's no way I'm going to analyze Paul's rhetoric by means of a fugue. Although it could be fun trying. Nor can I discuss several different theories about the afterlife, or clearly separate mistaken interpretations of a text from sound ones.

Music is also in many ways more powerful than verbal interpretation. If I want to try to talk about the peace that passes understanding, words fail quickly, but Beethoven or Schubert can communicate perfectly well. For the precise intersection of despair, nostalgia and memory loss, there are no words, but there is Liszt's Valse oubliƩe no. 1.

I don't mean to say that music is emotional whereas words are intellectual. I do think that music approaches people in a different manner than verbal concepts do. Maybe it is a friendlier manner, less directive, easier to relate to, easier to relate to in multiple ways?

Even on days when I got nothing, in terms of music that fits the text well, I can still play Bach and everyone's happy. Where there's Bach there's church.

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