Monday, May 25, 2015

Spirit, moving

The day after the Day of Pentecost, and a strong wind is blowing. Clouds are moving steadily across the sky under the pale blue beyond. It's early morning and warm enough to sit in the back yard. My coffee has cooled much too quickly. The backyard chairs still need a good spring scrubbing.

What will the day bring? Only birdsong so far, and a lone, slow runner down the middle of the street.

It's the kind of morning where I see that human beings are small things, who walk in the six feet just above the ground. Can't scramble into the tree like the squirrel. Can't fly to the top of the garage like the crows. Can't even chirp persistently like the robin in the forsythia.

But I sit here typing, in awe of the atmosphere.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

BWV 197: The Movie

So it's a rom-com (movie lingo for romantic comedy).

Listening to and writing program notes last week for Bach's Cantata #197, Gott ist unsre Zuversicht, I couldn't help thinking about it in the context of a little domestic comedy, 18th century style.

It's a wedding cantata, and rather a long one, for a lot of musicians--a couple oboes and three trumpets, as well as bass, alto and soprano soloists, choir, and the usual strings and continuo group.

(Continuo group: in baroque music, the folks who play the basic bass line, i.e., cello, string bass, bassoon, and keyboard. The harmony rests on that bass line. It's the glue that holds everything else together.)

There's a particular sweetness about this cantata. The jovial bass is like the host of the festivities, not proposing toasts, exactly, but getting up three times to sing detailed, conversational recitatives with advice about trusting in God as the foundation of a happy life together. The alto has an aria about falling asleep in the comfort of God's care. The oboe plays too, and it's like their two lines fall asleep in each other's arms. They awake for some lively activity in the B section (with a text about God being awake and watching all the time) and then "schlummert ein" again, settling down to sleep when the A section returns.

The cantata is divided into two parts, to be sung before and after the vows. And oh my, the bass has such fun teasing the newlyweds with the aria that opens the second part:
O du angenehmes Paar,
Dir wird eitel Heil begegnen,
Gott wird dich aus Zion segnen
Und dich leiten immerdar,
O du angenehmes Paar!
O you charming couple,
you will meet only with pure good,
God will bless you from Sion
and lead you evermore,
O you charming couple!
The teasing comes from the way the "Oh, you charming couple" text is repeated over and over again, and the little musical figure it's sung to is echoed each time in the violins. Clearly the bridal couple were people everybody liked! Bach couldn't have gotten away with this if this were just a wedding of two people important and rich enough to pay for a lot of music. Nope--there's a great beaming smile and even a couple of winks in that bassoon obbligato chortling away underneath it all. Could be the bass is a little, um, over-served at this point (or Bach is anticipating that happening later).

Anyway, the soprano takes over, and it's nice to finally hear a treble voice. The alto aria was low--not exactly something with the woman's touch, and the bass aria was accompanied by low sonorities in the orchestra. So the brightness of the soprano recitative and aria is a noticeable change of pace.

It was at this point during the performance last Sunday afternoon that I began to think there was a movie here. Women didn't sing in Lutheran church services in Germany in the 18th century. Or at least, they almost never did--there might have been exceptions. Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, had been a court singer in Cöthen  before she married the widowed Capellmeister Bach in 1721. After their marriage she stayed involved with music--she was pressed into service as a copyist now and again and surely continued to sing in family at-home music-making.

So what if she was the one who stood up to sing this aria? And what if Bach, an accomplished violinist as well as a keyboard player, had stood next to her and played the lilting solo violin part? Isn't that a pretty picture?

The cantata dates from 1736/37. They would have been married 15 years by then. They'd had several children together, some of whom had died. They'd been through the big move to Leipzig in 1723 and the flurry of Bach's intense composing in the early years there. They'd launched a couple of sons from Bach's first marriage into careers and they'd probably had their share of unrecorded domestic dramas with servants and students. Anna Magdalena had also endured Bach's endless disputes with colleagues and the Town Council.

Was he a contentious man, who needed to win every argument? Or just (just!) an artist who fought hard for what he needed to make the very best music he could? Did he bring it all home with him? Or leave it in the composing room? There's a lot a writer could do with that, in comedy and drama, and a lot that could be resolved in that moment where Anna Magdalena stands to sing, smiling at that stout, serious German husband of hers, who proceeds to dance a sweet 6/8 Siciliano on the violin to a text about God (and spouses) remaining the best of all friends to the end.

Who exactly was getting married at that first performance of Cantata #197? That's the subplot of the movie, and since there's no historical information about that, you could just make it up. The couple could be music-lovers, or even musicians. Maybe a Leipzig-educated lawyer who studied composition with Bach. Maybe a performer, or maybe just a listener--but someone who has some favorite moments from past Bach performances. Because there is evidence that the bass and soprano arias in this work are parodies of earlier works--old music adapted and reworked for a new purpose. It's quite possible that the chorus and the alto aria are parodies as well. So maybe the engaged couple had some ideas about what they wanted. Or maybe Magdalena had some ideas about how the cantata should go--because these were her friends, too. Maybe there was a reason these two young people needed a reminder that God was their Zuversicht, their confidence.

There are possibilities here. J. S. Bach in a romantic comedy. It could happen.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Can't leave the topic of commencement at Denison University without talking about Saturday's commencement exercises, where the commencement speaker, Deirdre McCloskey, presented something much more tangible about "wonder"—that word which was the theme of Friday's baccalaureate services.

Not that she used the vague word wonder. No—she told the students she was giving them two rules that she hoped they'd remember, while acknowledging, as commencement speakers do, that she didn't remember anything from the speaker at her own college graduation.

But two rules--even I in late middle age can remember that much. I hope some of those graduates remember them too, because they were good rules, tangible things to do in every circumstance of life:

  1. Remember that humans need the transcendent, and 
  2. Always ask "So what?" 

The transcendent could be God, or the higher ethics of science. It could be family, or relationships, or art, or something else. She suggested religion was a source of transcendence and did so with the authenticity of someone in the academy who became a Christian in mid-life. "If," as she said, "You can call a progressive Episcopalian a Christian."

What's transcendent for you might change as you move through your life. She gave the young adult graduates the example of "coolness" being transcendent for middle school kids, with the clear implication that they were, ahem, well past that.

Asking "so what" is to ask, why does this matter? What does this new thing you've been told mean?
What difference will it make? I smiled at this. I think it's what I mean to do in this blog, hoping to discover something that transcends the orthodox answers of the catechism.

The beauty of Dr. McCloskey's speech was when she hooked up the two rules. Asking "so what?" she says, will lead you to the transcendent. Which, as she said again, is something all humans need.

Yup, I thought. That's advice that fits every stage, every dilemma, every moment of life.

It was a long afternoon at commencement. I will admit that I had my knitting with me. I was knitting socks and got quite a lot done. So what? These socks will warm the feet and the heart of someone I care about. Knitting transcends. It's love, in a blend of merino, nylon and angora.

And then the Class of 2015 rose, and all were granted their degrees. They lined up and crossed the stage one by one, my tall blonde son, Kurt, among them.

Kurt, I think, has been aware of the Transcendent all his life. This is one of his gifts—at least since the days when he was three or four and quietly crept out of bed in the morning to sit in the corner of the couch and watch "Little Bear" on TV.  Little Bear transcended being little with love from his mother, with gentle laughter, with learning. Our Kurt has asked a lot of "so what?" questions already in his life and many more loom in front of him. But he asks bravely. He answers thoughtfully, thoroughly. And he yearns for the Transcendent.

As do we all. Amen.                                              

Friday, May 15, 2015


"Originally a Christian Service of worship in the tradition of the Granville Literary And Theological Institution (1831) that later became Denison University (1856), this service holds forth one of the longest standing traditions of the school."

This is the beginning of the "Word of Explanation" about the Baccalaureate service this afternoon at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. The program note goes on to explain that the service's content is meant to respect the Christian heritage of the school and also acknowledge other traditions in "the pluralistic community that comprises our university today."

Denison no longer has a religious affiliation, so much of what we heard this afternoon sang the praises of the liberal arts. I've got no problem with that. My son, Kurt Grahnke, receives his bachelor's degree tomorrow with a major in German, a minor in philosophy and an intent to pursue more schooling in the sciences. Denison gave him opportunities to explore widely and deeply; it was a good fit for someone with his curiosity, integrity and intellect. And my own liberal arts education has served me well.

The theme of this service was "Wonder." There was this song to begin, with dancers in the aisle, a soloist, a choir and drumming. The poetry that was read and the address from the Reverend who is the university's director of religious and spiritual life located wonder in all of us and in nature and in relationships and what we do.

It went on and on, poetically, but no one phrase or progression of thought stuck with me. It was a catalogue of wonder in life, I guess. I can see my Lutheran forefathers rolling their eyes at the vapid humanism of it all. ("And just think--he never mentioned God, not once!") But I listened and felt myself, well, wondering, in the back row of the chapel, looking into a large pillar and the coved space above everyone's heads.

Wonder might be another name for religious impulse--feeling that there is something more than ourselves, that we add up to more than the minute-to-minute thoughts in our brains, more than questions and critical thinking, more even than liberal ideas. Calling it wonder may not take in the size of it all, or the impulse we humans have to take things on and grapple them into the mud.

The preacher (if he was preaching) mentioned almost entirely positive things--I think I heard  only one passing reference to the idea that anyone might suffer in life. And in the theme song wonder is the antidote to sadness:
If your heart turns blue, I want you to remember
This song is for you, and you are full of wonder.
Yet, I thought, there is wonder even in hard places. My daughter Eliza, a young woman with an intellectual disability, sat next to me at the baccalaureate. She and her way of being in the world are an unending wonder to me. I wonder at human endurance, human suffering, humans fighting back. Wonder is there in those who keep holding on to life in the midst of despair, in those who grieve, in those who struggle.

God in the suffering places--I don't know that this was gleaned from my "Christian heritage," but it is my religious experience. It is not the kind of wonder one wishes on new college graduates on a fragrant May afternoon. It certainly isn't something I contemplated at the age of twenty-one, when I graduated from college--book-smart but life-foolish. Yet wonder is the proper and human response to God in all things.

Here's the reading from the Christian tradition included in this afternoon's service. It's from St. Augustine.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


There's a lot going on this week, but in my dreams, I've missed much of it.

Sunday night I dreamed I slept for 15 hours straight, waking up at 3:23 on Monday afternoon in the back bedroom of my grandmother's old house in Detroit. I felt wonderfully calm and rested in that soft bed, until I remembered I had missed a critical Monday morning rehearsal. I opened my eyes for real and it was still dark and that rehearsal lay four or five hours in the future.

I slept some more and had another anxious dream. I was at the rehearsal, but our modest, K-4 musical, organized on simple stairs and platforms, had become a nightmarish showpiece for theatrical technology--lights, smoke, and amplified random sound. Everybody in the vast audience loved it. It was like a rock concert. How did this happen? I hadn't been asked or informed or involved.

In bed the next night, I was two hours late for a dinner party, which wouldn't have been that bad--except for the half dozen people who were waiting for me to drive them to the party.

The person in my dreams is slipping. In real life I've managed to show up, but not without a nod to that impulse to sleep, or flee.

Once, long ago, in labor with my third child, I threatened to get in my little yellow car and drive away. The midwives and my husband thought I was being witty, pretty remarkable for a pregnant woman laboring to give birth to a nine-and-a-half pound baby boy. But I was not being witty. I absolutely meant it, considered it, believed or at least hoped I could grab my keys and just leave the scene.

The yellow car is long gone. I drive something bigger and blue and more responsible, but I still think about escape. What if I didn't park? What if I just kept going?