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

Examples of writings

from Among trees

I walk into the breathy gatherings of trees,
their games with light, their unease with sound;
unsettled instruments, they are voices perhaps,

unseen or missing, and in their tensed flesh
is their restlessness, shaped into strained sinews
over loud, troubled bones…

from 3 Trials by Water
The opera is set over the course of several months in a part flooded coastal city in the near future. The Opera is in three acts; the duration of each act is 40 minutes.

Orchestral Prelude – fleeing.
(The curtain rises on the CHORUS OF THE DISPOSSESSED, milling around the stage in confusion and terror. The scene is a bleak hillside, where they’ve clearly only just arrived, and on which they are encamped as refugees. There are tents, blue tarpaulin, cooking fires; they are a lost, disorientated people. Suddenly, they raise their voices in shock and agony).

Not to us!
Not to our lives!
Not to our people!
Not the waters that came suddenly
like a violent army we had wronged,
vengeful, angry, full of our guilt,
sweeping us from our houses
up into these hills, where they pursue us
in terrible storms, rains that burn our backs,
falling like acid, making the ground boil.

It was a night a week ago
that became more and more restless,
more terrifying, more unknown:
the sea, for years, pressing on the land
as if to claim it, the ground slowly liquefying,
the air becoming an unnatural fire
of fierce rain and shimmering drought,
then that night the sun set
in strange, misshapen colours,
a distorted, inverted rainbow,
as if for the last time. Then, at midnight,
the sound of a great roaring,
as if a crowd was baying for us
and would not stop until we were caught.

No chance, no change:
we were outside
and it caught up with us,
sweeping us away until we died
or woke on the sea’s new shore.
The water will not leave us.
It declares us guilty…

from Hymn for Royal Wootton Bassett.

Tune: Abbot’s Leigh or Blaenwern
8 7.8 7. D.

We are God’s great shout of glory,
we are Christ’s fierce cry renewed,
we, the Spirit’s passionate mercy,
we are hope made real, made true.
God has made us royal in our calling,
royal in fullest humanity,
there with Christ in all His suffering,
this is our true royalty.

Truly, as the Hercules landed
bringing them from suffering,
so we stood in silence, grounded
in the Christ, the wounded king,
saying wordlessly, they mattered,
every name for us is known,
though by pain the heart is shattered,
yet the Cross is Christ’s true throne…


Acclamation of Christ
Why have we come here?
Because you, Lord Jesus,
have drawn us here in love.
Why have we come to pray?
Because, Crucified,
you draw us,
sinful and longing,
to you.
Why have we come to worship?
Because, Lord Jesus,
we proclaim we are your brothers and sisters,
that your elect are those
who know themselves poor and broken
and in need of you.
So we have come, so we are here.
So we long to know you, holy Lord.

Prayers of the people, ending with:
Creator God, who made humanity to be holy,
Holy Spirit, who lives in us,
Christ, who died for us
may your name be honoured and adored.
May your New Realm come,
for your Elect are not who we expected.
May your will be done,
and may we come to know and love your will,
in the daily acts of truth and love
that are the heart of God, and draw us to God.
Feed us with the bread of life and living springs,
for we are hungry and thirsty.
Forgive us our wrongdoings,
may we be willing to forgive.
Lead us away from temptation,
and deliver us from the evil that haunts us.
For yours is everything, all majesty,
honour, holiness, delight and power,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Eucharistic Prayer
As we cry out for love, so God again calls us to the table of Her Son, Jesus Christ.
The meal of love is simple, mere bread and wine on a wooden table.
We are here in the presence of God, people who seek God’s love.
Love quietly calls to our whole being. Jesus, affectionate, tender and intimate yet blazing with holiness and grief for His suffering people, sits down to eat with us, even us.
The Creator of the universe, in all God’s glory, was hungry and thirsty, and as Jesus asked the outcast Samaritan woman for a drink of water so long ago, so now He asks us to eat and drink with Him.
And so, Lord, here we remember the time of your suffering,
that You, Jesus, in the same night that you were betrayed,
knowing you were to be betrayed
but persistent and vulnerable in your love,
took bread and gave the Creator thanks;
you broke it and gave it to your disciples, saying…

So come,
do not draw back
do not count yourselves unworthy to dine with Christ,
but receive Love with love,
for here Jesus says to you:
Peace be with you.

from Praying with Music (Bach Passions)
Waymark 2
As the whole experience of the Gospels gathers around these opening choruses, so our reading on this Waymark is not directly from the Passion texts but from the long engagement that Bach and his librettist would have had with the whole Christian story as it unfolded in their own inner lives. These two creative artists would have spent their lives listening deeply for the unspoken words and lives of the distressed, angry and sometimes joyful and hopeful crowds that people the gospels and their city (a city wounded by the persecution of its Jewish community in the 1930s, shattered by the 1940s bombings, and since then on a journey of healing, which included the eruption of hope in 1989 which ended the Communist regime).

Jesus had spent much of his life surrounded by crowds of those who longed to know him, be healed by him, be understood by him, be taught by him, if his teaching could reach into the parts of their lives and personalities that they didn’t like, didn’t understand and had never stopped being at war with. A people without God who died for them, or a people who, given the struggling reality of their lives, cannot bring themselves yet to believe in God’s mercy and healing, a people engaged in a permanent civil war with themselves, are the characters who make up the swirling crowds whose voices burst out at the opening of the two surviving Bach Passions.

At the opening of the St. Matthew Passion, Bach portrays us all on our long pilgrimage to our encounter with God at the Cross. The air is alive with our prayers, uncertainties, anxieties and questions…

Quiet Day (Holy Cross Day)
from Waymark 1

The story of the crucifixion seems to be that of the fabric of love, the love intended for us, being slowly, frighteningly distorted, twisted, then broken. Christ’s loving heart freely reaches out to Judas, but is answered by a bought betrayal. The protective, purgative, healing process of the law is twisted into the brutal, ugly story of Pilate’s political weakness and forced compromise against the instincts of his heart, where truth is blocked from deciding the outcome because the potential political and personal cost of that truth is unbearable to Christ’s judges. The tenderness of the body being washed, the feet, with its delicate nerve endings, handled by Jesus with such gentleness, becomes the skin-tearing scourge with its bone fragments in a leather strap and the nails and raw outcry and anger and spat mockery of the cross. It is the story of human evil and brokenness gradually unfolding, of terrible processes with deep roots in the human heart unfolding to their chosen consequences, and then the silence of the tomb’s shock and disbelief.

The strong, strange, awesome weakness of God, the holy oddness of His unexpected Spirit, means that a day that starts like this, a day that seems that it will only leave a deep scarring of guilt and grief on the disciples’ hearts, becomes by the sheer holy force of the Spirit a journey to renewal and hope, and not the slow, inevitable spiral of destructive guilt, with its physical and emotional consequences, that could have been the result of the disciples’ deep failure. Instead, the ruin of the Cross becomes for all who participate in its redemptive force, then and now, a journey that is still unfolding for us, a journey that will perhaps take a new turn for us today.

The Cross, that hideous, ugly symbol of criminality punished in a terrible way, is a place of strangeness and contradictions, and yet it is this kind of inner life that makes it the source of our spiritual energy…