Auditio Divina

The Anglican theologian, Mark McIntosh has an intriguing book, Discernment and Truth. Speaking of the theology of St. Bonaventure, he writes: for Bonaventure "the deep structure of all creatures is a kind of echo or vestige of the trinitarian rhythm of existence."

Reading that, I could not but think of Dante whose poetic journey is undergirded by the terza rima of his poetry: the cantus firmus which grounds and sustains his perilous pilgrimage.

 In a review of a performance at Boston's Symphony Hall, Richard Dyer, the former music critic of the Boston Globe, wrote of the English conductor, Colin Davis: Some conductors are obsessed with tempo; Davis realizes that the real issue is rhythm and the structures it accrues."

"Rhythm" and "structure" speak, I think, of the great gift that is the Church's liturgical year. The rhythm of seasons of grace; the structures of incarnation, paschal mystery, and Pentecost that recapitulate and transform natural rhythms into a new song to the Lord. "Cantate Domino canticum novum."

One of the truly remarkable undertakings in classical music recording was the pilgrimage of John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir during the millennium year 2000. It was also the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Gardiner, his singers and orchestra committed to performing all the Bach Sacred Cantatas in the course of the year on the liturgical feast for which they were composed. The performances were given in churches in Europe and America, providing the settings for which the cantatas were intended and adding to their spiritual power.

Recordings were made and are now being  released on the Soli Deo Gloria label.
They are an awesome achievement: superb renditions, enhanced by the notes of Gardiner that are remarkable not only for their musical, but for their liturgical and theological insight.

Most recordings of Bach's Cantatas are by their BWV number that bears little relation to the liturgical rhythms and seasons that nourished and sustained Bach. Gardiner's lend themselves to an auditio divina that can nourish one's own faith journey. Listening to one in preparation for the Sunday or Holy Day feast is to combine lectio divina with auditio divina, promoting that passage from the merely "notional" to the "real" that is at the center of Newman's pastoral theology and sermons.

Some of the poetic texts that Bach set can, admittedly, verge on the sentimental; but never his music, whose complexity of structure dispels easy pieties. Take, for example, the final chorus of the last of the cantatas (that for Epiphany) that comprise the Christmas Oratorio. One is first taken with the exuberant trumpets, and the exulting words -- until one perceives that the underlying melody is that of the poignant hymn, "O Sacred Head Surrounded."The effect is overwhelming.

In a recent review the New Yorker's music critic, Alex Ross, speaking of a piano recital of contemporary music, said that the pianists chose, as their concluding piece, the opening movement of Bach's cantata "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit." Ross muses: it was "how else to put it? -- one of the most beautiful things I ever heard."

May the beauty of the Lord's birth inspire our Christmas joy and guide and sustain us all in the New Year.

(Deo volente, I will be in Rome the first days of January and in St. Peter's for the feast of the Epiphany. If any Commonweal readers are present in the Basilica, a rendez-vous at the manger in the Square for the noon Angelus would be wonderful -- not the Pantheon, Cathy!).

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.

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