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Reflections on Easter



(offered by Andrew Rye, soloist)

 

This Easter Sunday, the Chancel Choir will present a song simply named "Easter." The text is from a poem of that same name by George Herbert, an Anglican priest and poet, written about 400 years ago. The musical setting is by Ralph Vaughan Williams, published in 1911. Easter's first three stanzas:

 

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.

Sing his praise without delayes,

Who takes thee by the hand,

that thou likewise with him may'st rise;

That, as his death calcined thee to dust,

His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

 

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part with all thy art.

The crosse taught all wood to resound his name, who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.

 

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song pleasant and long;

Or since all musick is but three parts vied and multiplied.

O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,

And make up our defects with his sweet art.

 

Herbert's poem is accessible from the first read. On the surface it might come across simply as encouragement to the musicians on an important day: "try hard!" We will certainly do that, but there is more to discover. The first is the unusual word "calcined", for which I needed a dictionary:

 

calcine: to heat to a high temperature but without fusing in order to drive off volatile matter or to effect changes

 

Herbert employs this term from chemistry to describe our purposeful return to dust. He then imagines the Resurrection performing the ultimate chemical transformation--gold out of that worthless dust--a recipe out of reach of mortal alchemists.

 

The second stanza introduces the lute (an ancient instrument somewhat like a guitar) along with another way to read the poem. If God can be the heart, then Jesus can be His instrument on Earth. The lute awakes and struggles artfully, gracefully, to spread the music of God's Word. The wood of the lute then transforms into the cross upon which the strings of Christ's body are fixed.

 

The third stanza joins the heart and the instrument for an everlasting song. In Herbert's time, a musical chord would only be complete with three differently named notes, perhaps "multiplied" across high and low octaves. And so the third voice of the Holy Spirit is invited among us to allow us to join the music, imperfections and all.

 

Vaughan Williams takes Herbert's notion of music divided into threes and explores many ways to express that in what we hear. He chooses the first three stanzas of Herbert's original poem for this song (the other three are used as the text of the next song in the set).  The key is E-flat major, so the score is stamped with three flat symbols at the start of each line (see our hymn 327 for an example). The time signature of the piece indicates three beats per measure. Each of those beats is often divided again by three into a pulsing triplet figure. Vaughan Williams also uses a technique called "hemiola" to create rhythmically stretched groups of three that span multiple measures.

 

The music is full of its own metaphors to align with the text. Vaughan Williams assigns those rhythms made of threes to events in Heaven, but when the poem switches focus to our world, the composer adjusts to groups and subdivisions of two and four beats instead. The key also changes briefly to E minor during the second stanza's "struggles" and then to G minor for the Crucifixion before returning to a joyful E-flat major.  You might hear Vaughan Williams make a little joke, having us wait an extra two beats in the melody during "Sing his praise without delays." Near the end, he uses a beautiful "wrong note" in the key of E-flat--a D-flat--for the phrase "And make up our defects." I like to think of this moment as not attempting to hide the imperfection but rather cherishing it for its unique contribution to creation.

 

I hope that this music will bring you joy on an emotional level, as it always does for me as a listener or as a performer. Even more, I hope that Vaughan Williams and Herbert can entice your mind to join your heart in the celebration--a feat that all great art can accomplish.

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