Monday, July 13, 2009

Summer School

...was intense! Dr. Anderson led us in an intensive four-week course of research and analysis into sacred works of the common practice period. Dr. Anderson works to push the envelope and incite discussion as to what can be considered a sacred and/or liturgical work; we looked at Franz Liszt's L├ęgendes, Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, and Krzysztof Penderecki's Stabat Mater, among others.

A major portion of this course was to research a sacred work of our choice, and do a forty minute seminar presentation and a twenty page analysis paper. I had a wonderful time researching Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb. I had not known this piece at all previously, but Ken Cooper at First Pres suggested it to me when he heard I needed to pick a topic. In fact, he kind of made it his mission to convince me to choose it, because he felt I would get a lot out of it, and I'm glad he insisted. What a fabulous work. The course was intense and especially at the end the workload (with the demands of putting together a presentation and a paper at the same time) was heavy, but Rejoice in the Lamb is so amazing that it made it pretty fun.

The work has a very idiosyncratic text written by a man named Christopher Smart, and Enlightenment-era poet who was confined to an insane asylum. Choice lines include the following:

Let Nimrod the mighty hunter bind a Leopard to the altar and consecrate his spear to the Lord...

For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.
For he is a servant of the living God, duly and daily serving Him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times 'round with elegant quickness...


For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For – this is a true case – cat takes female mouse, male mouse will not depart but stands threat'ning and daring...


By sheer coincidence, it turns out that the Meadows Chorale (which I'll be singing in next year at school) will be performing this work next spring. So, I'll actually get a chance to sing it! And, Dr. Anderson liked my presentation so much that he suggested to Dr. Elrod (who conducts the Meadows Chorale) that I should introduce the work to the choir! Super excited over here!

For your interest, here are my paragraphs about Benjamin Britten and Christopher Smart from my presentation handout.

Christopher Smart

Born in Kent in 1722, it has been (rather heartlessly) said of the life of writer, poet and wit Christopher Smart that he "spent the first half in climbing up hill, the second in sliding or rolling down." Though he spent his young professional life as a Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and won several prizes for his religious poetry, by the age of twenty-five heavy drinking and mounting debt all but ended his promising career. By the year 1756 he began to display signs of mental illness, and his colleague Samuel Johnson observed: "My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling on his knees and saying his prayers in the street." His condition declined rapidly and in that same year he was confined to an asylum, where he would remain until 1763. It was during this time that, in the company of his cat Jeoffry, the troubled Smart penned his lengthy devotional poem of praise, Jubilate Agno.

Benjamin Britten

Britten was introduced to the poetry of Smart by W. H. Auden while living in a boarding house in Brooklyn, NY. Britten's pacifist stance caused him to leave Britain at the onset of the Second World War, and along with his partner Peter Pears he lived in community with several of the most colourful personalities of 20th-century literary and performing arts. Possessed of a keen sense of the dramatic in music, Britten was very attracted to the Broadway style and hoped to establish himself in the United States and write for the stage. However, the dismal reception of his operetta Paul Bunyan (for which Auden penned the libretto), along with the onset of homesickness eventually prompted Britten to return home. Criticism that Britten was merely trying to emulate the style of others in his writing rather than develop a personal voice weighed on him. Upon receiving the commission for the St. Matthew's Jubilee, however, Britten's mind immediately went to the poetry of fellow Briton Smart – and Britten's distinct personal stamp shines in the writing of Rejoice in the Lamb.