Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Way

Last night, St. James Cathedral demonstrated once again why they are central to musical and religious life in the Emerald City. The occasion was the Stations of Cross, presided over by Father Michael Ryan. The music was Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater.

For those not familiar with the Stations, it is essentially a reduction of the Passion of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, it is a representative and popular spiritual journey for worshipers during Lent. Worshipers meditate and pray on each step of Jesus’ journey as they go on their own personal journey.

The Stabat Mater is frequently used during the Stations of the Cross. The Stabat Mater attempts to convey Mary’s suffering as she bears witness to the suffering of her son, Jesus Christ. Composers from Arvo Part to Richard Davy have written Stabat Mater's. However, there are few composers who have captured the profundity of the setting as movingly as Antonin Dvorak.

The composer’s own personal tragedy likely motivated his heart wrenching music. In three short years Dvorak lost three children. In 1875, the composer’s infant daughter Josefa died. In 1876 Dvorak began to channel his grief into initial sketches of his Stabat Mater. In 1877 Josefa’s death was compounded by the death of his daughter Ruzenka who died of poisoning and their son Otakar who died of small pox.

After the death of Otakar, Dvorak quickly finished his Stabat Mater, needing only two months for the task.

St. James has a long history of incorporating “classical” music into worship. There are times during mass when Bach or Bruckner will come pouring out of the cathedral organ. Moments like these startle and comfort me. Growing up in a dusty manufacturing town In Iowa my mass experience was generally limited to unconvincing attempts to make church music fun and meaningful. Most Catholics can recount similar bad post-Vatican II music experiences.

When I started listening to classical music in the mid-90’s, classical sacred music became a mild obsession of mine. I wondered why actual church music seldom resembled the wonders I was finding in recordings.

That changed when I moved to Seattle. My first experience with Seattle’s robust religious music scene was St. Mark’s Sunday evening Compline. Not too long after that, when I was shopping around for a new home church I found St. James.

It is almost impossible to write objectively about an event, like last night’s Stabat Mater/Stations of the Cross. St. James’ music department deserves immense credit for infusing religious worship with extra dimensions. Months ago readers may recall I heaped praise on the cathedral for their setting of Mozart’s Requiem.

Even though the various performances at St. James are far from definitive, I firmly believe there is no better place in Seattle to have both a musical and a spiritual experience.

Last night was no different. After a long week at work I was barely able to sit up, but as soon as cathedral organ began playing Dvorak’s introduction followed by the choir mournfully singing “Stabat Mater dolorosa…” (the mother stood grieving). I knew the entire service would provide ample reflection on the tragedy and uplift of Jesus’ last moments. Of course, Dvorak’s shifting from minor to major keys helps with the uplift too.

Even if you aren’t Catholic, St. James should be a required stop for anyone who loves sacred music. I know the mechanics and opulence of Catholic religious practice can be intimidating, but being uncomfortable for only a few hours is a small price to pay for the beauty and emotions inherent in most St. James services.

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