Sunday, February 7, 2016

Music, apples, oranges

At this very moment I am listening to Rachmaninoff's All Night Vigil on CBC radio's Choral Concert. I have heard this piece many times by different choirs. This recording is currently nominated for a Grammy award!  When 'Grammy Awards' is mentioned I immediately think Rock or Country - but in fact all types of music recordings have their categories. Choral is found under Classical.  This is the piece that Catherine Duncan played at the end of today's show:

Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil

Charles Bruffy, conductor (Paul Davidson, Frank Fleschner, Toby Vaughn Kidd, Bryan Pinkall, Julia Scozzafava, Bryan Taylor & Joseph Warner; Kansas City Chorale & Phoenix Chorale)
Label: Chandos

Russian Orthodox church music is mystical and soothing and deep, dark on an emotional plane. This is very different from Greek Orthodox music that has a distinctive 'middle eastern' sound. To my ear it has more in common with Arabic chant and Jewish Mizrahi music. Not in its theology of course, but the cultural similarities are obvious to me. 

Western (often called Latin) music divides along the familiar Catholic/Protestant divide. Catholic was formal and serious with a dash of mystery in its pre-Vatican II incarnation - and in its life going back to the early Middle Ages. Prior to that Catholic music was congregational, but that is lost to us, other than the fact.  Protestant music was and is congregational. It teaches and preaches as you sing. I attend a Baptist church a few times a year when visiting friends who are members.  Their music is happy and open and easy to follow even for the non-musical. I was raised in the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada where music contains the same preaching and teaching, but is formal and semi-Catholic in its musicality.  Catholic music itself has largely abandoned the mystical aspect and moved towards the Protestant in late years - though once in a while you will find an adventurous choir leading a congregation in a Latin hymn in the old style.  Western Christian music is in general varied and accessible in its content and musicality to ordinary singers. There are exceptions in keeping with it variety - tune into a YouTube video of Anglican Evensong where the choir sings and the people listen as the music is too complex for the untrained voice. 

My point (if there is one) in this rambling discourse is that religious music and religion itself is culturally modified. I am not speaking here necessarily of theology, of underlying doctrines, but of the presentation of a faith.  Years ago a brilliant student of mine wrote an essay on Jewish music, dividing it into Sephardic (Jews of the Iberian peninsula and their diaspora), Ashkenasic (Jews of Germany and France and mostly commonly of North America), and Mizrahi (the Jews of the Middle East - those who never left that area of the world). She detailed the same religion, the same faith but with very different cultures reflecting their social and cultural experiences over the centuries. This is true of all divisions of Christianity and is true of all religions. Place and time and experience over changing cultural and social norms adds salt and pepper to the base mixture of any religion.

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