Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sprung rhythm

I am a slobbering Benjamin Britten fan.

Like many people, I first encountered him in his Ceremony of Carols, which resurfaces every Christmas season...usually via children's or women's choir, and accompanied by a harp. Lovely and austere. But he truly rocked my world in grad school, when I was introduced to his War Requiem. Britten was horrified by war; a conscientious objector in WWII, he was later commissioned to write a work for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral (which was erected next to the bombed-out original–an extraordinary story in itself). Britten did a number of brilliant, gorgeous, innovative things with the composition and the premiere. You can read about some of them here. Oh, and the music is heartbreakingly beautiful, too.

My orientation as a choral director is to groove on the interplay between a worthy text paired with a truly complementary musical setting. If this frisson doesn't exist in a piece of music, I don't want to bother with it, or bother my singers or listeners with it. Britten excels at choosing interesting texts and then marrying them to musical settings which bring out the flavors of those texts.

Thus, he winneth my undying esteem. And he has introduced me to another artist with a unique voice: the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

One of my choirs is working on a set of Britten pieces right now: Ad majorem Dei gloriam (translated: for the greater glory of God–the Jesuit motto), based on Hopkins' poetry. He was a Jesuit priest, trying to honor both the radical, innovative artist and the humble priest halves of himself...a little tormented by both his artistic drive and his homosexual one, especially as they chafed his rather stern personal theology. He probably also struggled with depression, possibly bipolar disorder.

Hopkins was an innovator who broke through the Victorian poetic strictures to create sprung rhythm, which alters traditional poetic scansion to allow for speech rhythm. This dovetails beautifully with Britten's compositional style. And, as it happens, with my biggest area of interest as a conductor.

As we've rehearsed these pieces, the concept of sprung rhythm has stayed with me. Hopkins took well-known structures and found a way to simultaneously honor them and challenge make his home in old forms and still let his unique voice be heard. He took elements of poetic structure such as scansion and word play and Biblical allusion, and rearranged them like so many scrabble tiles. He created a way of writing poetry in which the structure actually changed the shape of the imagery...and he accomplished this not by howling in protest at what didn't suit him (he didn't publish anything in his lifetime), but by quietly staying true to the new music in his own soul.

I have a number of GLBT Christian friends and loved ones who are trying very hard to do the same thing: to be themselves authentically, and to continue to live within the forms of the church. This attention to the sprung rhythm of their own lives costs them something every day:
  • the repeated occasion to experience "helpful correction" from Christian brothers and sisters with a different sexual and scriptural orientation–sometimes in the form of anonymous blog posts, sometimes from the pulpit, sometimes in conversation, as if the G, L, B or T person had never heard of a thing called a Bible, and must just have overlooked society's "traditional" take on the family unit–and, sadly, as if this were not already a source of great pain and soul-searching for them
  • employment difficulties, which range from staying in the closet so that they may also stay in a beloved finding a radically smaller pool of available jobs after coming watching others, no more called/beloved by God/gifted for ministry than themselves, sail through the ordination process while they must stand by and wait (for...what, exactly?) because they are honest about themselves
  • family difficulties, from outright rejection to willful ignorance to being left out of family gatherings and decisions to sterile, unmoving silence...all of which are grounded in church "teaching"
And yet...

God spoke through Hopkins' poetry and Britten's music (and yes, both men "batted for my team," each in a different century). God is still speaking every day through the lives of GLBT Christians. One of Hopkins' most common poetic elements was that of experience that most GLBTs (pronounced in my world as "glibbits") I know understand well: a still, small voice that speaks in the deepest recesses of the heart–healing, urging forward, daring each soul to find its own rhythm, sometimes even when it doesn't fit into current forms and established patterns.

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.


Blessings, grace, and courage to all you churchy GLBT folks out there...and to all our straight brothers and sisters, too. God is with you, singing in your ear. Find and trust the rhythm of the Spirit...and let's dance!



Anonymous said...

With tears in my eyes, I thank you for YOUR still strong voice in my life. You are so attentive in reminding me of the voice and movement and dance on which I journey with the Holy Spirit. Thank you, Dear Friend and Sister in Christ. Brenda

Hidden in Christ said...

it's so refreshing to finally see a post from someone that is "anonymous" who is loving and encouraging! wow, breath of fresh air!

thank you for your blog. and p.s., i love the "choral reef" blog name! you are clever! thank you for what you wrote. He definitely does sing over us and i'm listening! i wanted to encourage you today with this Word from Zephaniah:

17 The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."

Rejoice Lord, rejoice!!! and come quickly :)

Choralgirl said...

:-) Thanks, HIC.

Crimson Rambler said...

thanks for your friendly comment on my blog, and for clarifying pronunciations i.e. "glibbits." Because I tend to get the acronym mixed up = GBLT (like some sort of sandwich), instead of GLBT, and that would be "giblets," not helpful at ALL.
Pray for us, we are up to HERE in snow and it's old-fashioned zero this morning, winter has come home like a child between jobs...

Choralgirl said...

Crimson, (aka "Sister Simile") you CRACK me UP. :-)

Cecilia said...

This was just wonderful. Didn't know that about Hopkins. You are a wonderful writer, and your thoughts are profoundly uplifting.

Pax, C.