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What Sweeter Music

What Sweeter Music

    On the way home in the station wagon this Christmas Eve afternoon the radio played John Rutter's setting of poet Robert Herrick's "What Sweeter Music."  The refrain celebrates the December birth:

What sweeter music can we bring

Than a carol, for to sing

The birth of this our heavínly King.

    This season has its customs.  But, to tell the truth, snow is overdone.  Santa is really peripheral or should be, at least to everyone over the age of six.  Sure gift-giving and getting is fun, but it tends to make January's finances a bummer.  Late night candlelight services don't do it for me either. Too many of us go there in a Currier and Ives nostalgia, looking for something sweet and sentimental, really unprepared to hear the deeper, sturdier themes of the incarnation. Too often the Holy Spirit has to contend with the prevailing spirits imbibed prior to the Call to Worship.  And,  please, oh please, don't talk to me about chestnuts roasting on an open fire: they are without a doubt the biggest hoax on New York City's Fifth Avenue.

    But, ah, the music, the music! 

    Twin Robert asked me at the dinner table the other night which Christian holiday was the most important.  I replied without a moment's hesitation, "Good Friday."  Easter comes second.  Christmas gets the bronze medal.  Win, place, and show: and Christmas surely is the best show. 

    Barbara and I have attended eleven concerts since Thanksgiving.  One of the particular glories of central Connecticut is the music, lots and lots of it, in no small measure the consequence of Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, supplying orchestras, bands, and choruses with talented musicians.  We have been treated this season to Schubert's Mass in G at our granddaughter's school, and she was one of the featured soloists.  Our souls were transported to heaven with Concorra's collaboration with the Hartford Symphony on Bach's Christmas Chorale. At the invitation of Jeff McGregor, trombonist, we were regaled with a lively encore of "O Come, O Come, Immanuel" at a concert of the Capitol Winds. The Asylum Hill Congregational Church beautifully rendered Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols and introduced us to Conrad Susa's arrangement of several buoyant and earthy Spanish carols.  At South Church, New Britain, we heard Richard Coffey's expertly trained choir sing the familiar themes of the incarnation set to unfamiliar melodies with fresh words. At St. Peter Claver Church we were treated to a better Broadway presentation of popular Christmas melodies by a sixty voice volunteer choir led by the musical director of the Phantom of the Opera, Tim Stella, who by his own testimony gets his biggest kicks as the choir director/organist/pianist/harpsichordist/arranger for the local church. 

    Even the determinedly secular observances at the West Hartford Symphony and the twins' middle school managed to sweep us up in the enthusiasm and childlike playfulness which may be getting a bad press in the present moment, but surely wouldn't trouble Jesus who was never one to dampen innocent high spirits.  I simply cannot imagine him sternly insisting that we "put Christ back into Christmas."  

    The best part, of course, of course, of the sweeter music of the season is lending one's own voice to the carols.  Readers of my church service reviews will not be surprised to hear that those worshipers who had the misfortune to sit in front of me invariable turn to me at the conclusion of the worship/concert to observe that they enjoyed my singing... which I take with a grain of gingerbread, suspecting that they really meant I was singing too loudly. Ah, well, the pews were designed for earlier generations and do not provide the space necessary for my modern, SUV-sized frame and preacherly lungs.

    The attendant at the local aquatic center banters with me about church music.  He sings in the choir.  His parting words to me recently after we spoke about Christmas music carried wisdom way beyond his twenty-something years: "For me," said he, "it's the words, the message, that counts."  Robert Herrick knows:

Why does the chilling winter's morn

Smile, like a field beset with corn?

Or smell like a meadow newly shorn

Thus on the sudden?  Come and see

The cause why things thus fragrant be:

'Tis he is born, whose quick'ning birth

Gives life and lustre, public mirth,

To heaven and the underearth.

      May your Christmas be merry with the music and message of Christ's birth.



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