Praying with Music: introductory blog for the Beethoven weekend at Ammerdown, 19th-21st July 2013

Praying with Music: introductory blog for the Beethoven weekend at Ammerdown, 19th-21st July 2013.


Beethoven’s three great spiritual testaments, Missa Solemnis, Fidelio and the Choral Symphony, speak of the composer’s great struggles towards spiritual freedom, and so become for us an accompaniment to our own struggles towards freedom.  They have the power to en-courage: that is, because Beethoven explores our spiritual journey and inner struggles with such depth and power, by meditating deeply on these works we are given new energy and hope for our continuing journey, through the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, He who gives us courage and hope.

This is the point of these Praying with Music weekends:  so often music is no more than a background to our lives, listened to in passing as we rush from one appointment to another, just as our prayer life is sometimes only the briefest breath towards God before we rush off to something else.  Instead, this weekend aims to give us space to breathe in what God is longing to say to us through these works: this is time for God, praying through great music.


While the points raised about the three works are sometimes further illustrated by reference to other works, the focus remains on a journey undertaken with these three pillars of the Beethovenian heart and spirit, in order for participants to have a sense of a liberating and enriching journey and to be left with new insights into the journey ahead, inspired with new hope and courage by the music.    Friday evening and Saturday morning will concentrate on each movement of the Missa; Saturday late afternoon and evening on Fidelio (with an optional showing of a DVD performance after lunch); Sunday morning will begin with a short “pilgrimage service” particularly using the Choral Fantasy, while the weekend will end with the portrait of a human soul that is the Choral Symphony.

The timetable has evolved so that we will pray through three keys works, so that it won’t be a nebulous stroll using various short extracts but will consist of full movements proceeded by short scripture readings and meditations on the inner meanings of these movements, as well as introductory talks on the works as a whole.


I am a professional writer and an amateur musician: this means I write as one who has helped “create” the music in live performance (at one concert as a singer, at another as a double bass player in an orchestra).  At the same time, it means that I approach the music through the medium of the living, singing language of a praying poet.  It may seem contradictory to try and express the wordlessness of music through words, but the words I use are a listening, one way of listening; are my own singing emerging from the music, that I hope will set off your own singing, your own responses to this ecstatic, challenging music, so that you leave with a deepened and joyful sense of how God can reach into your own life through music.


You may wish to make your own preparations for the weekend through spending time with the music yourself in advance, and you will certainly wish to spend time preparing the heart through prayer, asking God through the Holy Spirit to reveal new and liberating insights through this music.  The weekend comes at a significant time during the Church’s Year, those weeks after Pentecost/Trinity which for me are about praying about our relationship with the Holy Spirit.  I always think of these weeks of Ordinary Time as extraordinary time, as a kind of extended preparation for Advent, which is the next significant change of ecclesial Season.


One final point: remember that the wonderful journey Beethoven sets off in us does not end with the final session, that nothing will be final and complete by the time your depart Ammerdown; rather, it will be the beginning of a journey, and that God will sometimes only reveal what He wants to reveal much later, in His own time (God’s timing always comes from his deep knowledge of the unique needs of each individual). While I myself do not offer spiritual direction or counselling, you may wish to note down new insights as you discover them for later discussion outside Ammerdown, or write journal entries or begin your own Letter to Jesus during the weekend, where you can say frankly and without pretending, as if to an utterly trusted friend, what the music gives to your heart.  My prayer is that Beethoven’s gift blesses and enriches you.

EUAN TAIT, Chepstow, Monmouthshire, 4.7.13

Is the cry of pain answered?  A “Pentecost-tide” meditation

Readings for Sunday 9th June 2013: 1 Kg 17:17-end; Gal 1:11-end; Luke 7:11-17

The scriptures that speak to us are our inner songs; we carry them in our breathing and living, and they sometimes work silently within us and our struggles, and sometimes erupt in us with a loud roar.  They are not tame songs; the wildness of the Word is what gives the Bible its power for us, for God is involved with our lives, loves us and never stops speaking to us.  Tonight’s songs of God to our hearts open with a cry of pain and ends with a healing that may seem to worsen the pain because it doesn’t feel real.  After all, in real life tragedies such as the widows’ sons do not end with miracles, but with a long, long road of pain that the sufferer can only “manage” in order to go on living at all.  And what would a recently bereaved mother say, hearing these stories?  So what is happening?  Why is God giving us these stories that apparently have no relation to the reality of human pain and unutterable, unbearable loss? We know, from our friendship with God, that God does not give the insult of false hope and impossible miracles, so what is going on?

I think these stories are metaphors: in other words, through them, God is trying to tell us something about our spiritual self.  After all, we are living through the season after Pentecost, when we seek to deepen our relationship to the Holy Spirit which pours from the heart of God our creator and Jesus the pain-bearer.  The shock of hope these stories contain is not, for us encountering them tonight, about some fake-sounding miracles, but is rather a portrait of a spiritual state that can seem all too familiar to us: namely, when we fall into a soul sleep from which we don’t seem to be able to awake, when we become unresponsive, when we stop listening to God, whether because in our guilt and pain we give up prayer or whether because of life’s exciting YouTube distractions we cut the channels of our inner listening and relationship with God.

Tonight’s bringing together of readings shows us this – we have the story of Elijah and the widow’s son, and then, illustrating each Word yet more deeply, a reading from Galatians, when Paul speaks of just such soul sleep with powerful honesty – he tells us of his ignorance, that he was a person who, despite all his busy-ness, importance, self-righteousness and  passion, was deeply frozen and asleep, deeply unresponsive to the suffering Son of God, unresponsive to how God had newly introduced himself to humanity in the broken, bleeding body of Christ, held by His Mother Mary which such utter tenderness and grief.

What happens to Elijah’s host seems to show God talking to us in metaphors with great force.  I was particularly struck by how the angry cry of the widow, in the face of her tragedy, reminded me of the anguish and fury of the two demon-possessed men to Jesus in Matthew 8, who cry: “What do you want with us, Son of God. Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?”  There is such rage there, such rage.  In the same way, the widow shouts at Elijah: “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”  Such rage, such rage.  Her son has apparently fallen asleep – but in that strange symbiosis of love which exists between a mother and her child, it is her own soul that is lying there, out cold.  Her voice, filled with burning pain and guilt, screams out at God.  A personal disaster has opened up the unhealed wound in her own life, and we see the raw heart of her spiritual battles.

The holy man does not answer her with rebuke or with the cluckings of an injured male ego, but instead goes way beyond these very natural reactions into a self-forgetful identification with her – he allows himself to enter into her pain, to feel it in himself and to cry out to God on her behalf.  In taking this “unnecessary” risk on behalf of a probably very “unworthy” person (as say, people in the emergency services do every day), Elijah’s furious compassion is moving and real:  “Lord my God” he shouts “have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”  Somehow, in the boy’s restoration, in Elijah’s risky act of love for them both, the spiritual life of the woman is resurrected.

Likewise, it is love, the force in us from God, the power in us of Her lioness life, and not of tame sentiment, that moves Jesus to bring life to a scene of bleak death.  A grim procession passes by, a family mourning a lost young life, an everyday reality.  One part of humanity’s great and apparently endless ocean of tears is being shed, and yet Jesus, evidently weeping inside himself, simply tells her “Don’t cry”, and restores the life of everyone there.  Perhaps there is an uncle or cousin among them who long ago gave up on the idea of him or herself as a possible child of God, perhaps having sinned and sinned again, knowingly and deliberately and in the face of repeated forgiveness by God, whom Jesus in and through this young man’s restoration, restores to the Kingdom.  Perhaps tonight’s lioness roar of the Word is doing the same for us in our situation, bleak as it may seem to us in our sleeping state which rejects even the remote possibility of love.   The fire of the Holy Spirit gently flares up within our beings as a fire, a reminder to us of the power with which we are loved.  God’s untameable gift of love awaits us here in this place: perhaps it is our broken, longing hearts, with their silent and apparently endless bleeding, that are at last ready to awake and able to receive it.  Amen.

Discovering an estranged music? Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007)

Discovering an estranged music?  Tikhon Khrennikov  (1913-2007)

What is this, the musician whose reputation is apparently captured in a Western box forever?  This?  …from another planet…the bizarre almost echo of the opening of his 3rd Piano Concerto…which leaks a painful cry from apparently simple music…what did this music come from?  Do the clashing facts of his professional life, and his attempts to justify his professional behaviour, the composer who knelt in Yelets cathedral,  mean that it cannot be “companion music” for us, music for our own journey, as Shostakovich’s mixture of satire, risk-taking anger and bone-grinding pain so clearly is?

I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to find Khrennikov’s music before the Internet, but since discovering his work casually, as it were, through it, I’ve found a powerful energy coming from it, and a wanting to come back to it again and again.  I can’t agree that it’s worthy of the understandably angry Western dismissals it received after his death (I recall obit comments such as “the waffle of a party functionary”).  I also wonder if such a closed attitude to Russia will do, now our voices seemed turned towards each other with such a howl of mutual bitterness?  If people were and are angry with him – who was and is angry, and why?  The banned composers of the late 1970s, whose voice Khrennikov apparently tried to turn off, like the water in a river?

I’m listening….what I find instead is the overheard mutter of a troubled wanderer, especially in the 3rd Piano Concerto, As for the life, I find any questions rebounding back on us, i.e. How much do we collude with the worst around us? How much are we led against ourselves, away from ourselves, by our own broken desires for power and recognition? What do we believe and why? How do we live it? Have any of us begun to answer such questions honestly and fairly?

An estranged music?  If so, will anyone want to find themselves a fellow pilgrim with it?  And if so, what does it say about them?  I’m listening now to the slow movement of the 2nd Violin concerto, and it’s singing over my head like a bird in a storm, outside the window, over into the eroding distance.  10/04/15