Sermon Given at the Sung Eucharist on All Souls’ Day 2017
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Thursday, 2nd November 2017 at 5.00 PM
How do we listen to music, especially choral music? Do we allow it to embrace us, to wash over us, as we bask in the performance? Or do we engage with the music and with the words, hoping not only to learn from how the composer has set the particular words we are hearing, but more deeply to find the meaning of the text enhanced by the musical setting?
So: performance or engagement? Easy listening or focused perception?
Perhaps I should come clean. One of my particular bugbears is what you might call the ‘smooth classics’ approach. I do not wish to be critical of a particular classic music channel on the radio, which is I am sure entirely excellent. It is that the ‘smooth classics’ approach seems to me to intend to put the listener into a mood of gently basking, rather like the sea lions on the floating docks in San Francisco Bay or possibly even David Attenborough’s arctic walruses. And because they are aiming at a style of smooth classics, there is too little differentiation between one smooth classic and another. So, I remember being deeply shocked when once listening to the radio to hear, ‘that was’ shall we say ‘the slow movement of a piano sonata’, and now ‘something really to help you relax, the Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem.’
Well, I hope the choir’s singing the complete Requiem by Gabriel Fauré at this evening’s Eucharist of Requiem will not have the effect of enabling you to drift into a trance or gently to fall asleep. Fauré was a church organist as well as a composer and he surely wrote the work for use in church at a requiem, each movement having its own particular role within the drama of the mass. And his Requiem was first used at the funeral of an architect in the church where the composer was organist, La Madeleine in Paris, in 1888. In a later version it was sometimes performed as a concert piece, but its purpose was and remains to accompany the prayers of the Church, the prayers of the people, for a dead family member or friend, prayers that God will look kindly on the soul of the dead person and give him or her a place of light and peace in his presence.
Gabriel Fauré said, ‘It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.’
Unlike some other composers, he omitted the long Sequence, which would have been sung before the reading of the Gospel, well known as the Dies irae. Its words refer to the judgement of almighty God and recognise the wrath of God against sin and the threat of eternal punishment. ‘Day of wrath and doom impending’, the text begins. It goes on to refer to the ‘tuba mirum spargens sonum per sepulcra regionum coget omnes ante thronum’; ‘the trumpet spreading its amazing sound through the graves of the region compels everyone to come before the throne.’
So, perhaps Fauré does lighten the burden of the text by omitting the Sequence. However, as you can see from your order of service and shall hear as you listen, there is much in the language of the various texts in a similar vein. Look, if you will, at the English text of the passage to be sung by the choir at the beginning of the distribution of Holy Communion. The choir will have sung the Agnus Dei, with its plea to God to give rest to the faithful departed: O Lamb of God, give them eternal rest, followed by the Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine Let light perpetual shine upon them, O Lord. But now the choir voices an urgent and plangent plea: Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, Free me O Lord from eternal death. Here the theme that would have dominated the Sequence emerges in full vigour: Dies illa, dies irae, That day, the day of wrath, of calamity and misery. What is that day? The day of judgement. The choir sings, Tremens factus sum ego et timeo, I tremble and fear. What is to be feared? The judgement of God whenever that is to come.
Surely if we are to treat these powerful texts and the music to which they are set as ‘smooth classics’, we demean them and strip them of their character and purport. These texts engage us, they disturb us; perhaps they frighten us. We cannot surely see them simply as performance, something to sooth, to ease us from our stress.
Even the Pie Jesu, that typical ‘smooth classic’, sung this evening by the trebles, contains an urgent plea: dona eis requiem, give them rest. Let the dead lie peaceably; let their souls not have to wander the earth in search of a resting place; let them not be condemned to eternal suffering for their sins in a place of darkness or fire or torment: let them come to you, Lord, to find in you light and happiness and peace.
I am hoping to persuade you that these texts and this music we are hearing this afternoon are not really at all about beautiful, peaceful, restful music, but genuinely engage in matters of profound importance: what happens to us after we are dead; what happens or has happened to those we love who have died, perhaps our grandparents or our parents, our aunts and uncles, or friends and associates and colleagues? What will happen to us when we die? Do we really suppose that we can simply be transported to the joy and glory of heaven the moment we die? Is it conceivable that everyone, no matter what their belief or their behaviour in this life might have been, no matter whether they tried to live their lives in a disciplined, prayerful, generous and godly fashion, or spent their whole lives pursuing their own ends by violence or coercion or cruelty or dishonesty, that all these might be whisked immediately from their death bed to see God face to face.
These prayers imply some moment of decision making, some judgement. We cannot begin to conceive what life might feel like when time and space have disappeared. So we have no way of coming to a clear view about what life beyond the grave might be like. All we know is that, from our earthly perspective, from this life as we experience it, we would say we need time to prepare to see God face to face; we need to be ready for the unutterable shock of moving from this life to the next.
So, how do we prepare? First, we engage. This we have to do if we are to make any progress. We examine ourselves and our way of life and resolve on changes that need to occur. Then we pray for the grace of God, for God’s active involvement, to enable us to make the necessary changes. And then we keep hoping and planning and working gradually to focus more and more, as life goes on, on what really matters, what lasts for us beyond the grave: the beauty of God, the joy of love in Christ, and a deep determination to follow in the footsteps of Christ: to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do his will.
So, this afternoon, we pray, Give them rest eternal, O Lord; and we pray, Prepare us, O Lord, in this life, to be ready to meet you in eternity in order that seeing you face to face is not for us death and destruction but joy and felicity. ‘Guide in peace the end of our lives, O Lord, when and as you will, only without shame and sin.’ We pray to the Father, Give us one day eternal rest.