At our Catholic church, the liturgy committee was ready to be relevant for the Now Generation.
In the early 1970s, they sponsored some progressive touches. Some innovations even raised eyebrows and heated debate at the local bakery, where the congregation always bolted afterwards for crumpets and stollen. We had a Youth Choir with guitars, a chaperoned activities group, and even an avant garde multi-media event that really raised the bar: music with slides of peaceful landscapes on a projector screen in front of the altar!
One year on the first Sunday of Advent, a young man showed up with a music case. [Instead of broadcasting his name here in hyper-public space without permission, let’s give him a proper Christian pseudonym. How about Philotheus?] He took out a violin, but didn’t call it a violin; he called his a viola. We’d never seen one before. It looked a little larger, with a deeper wistful amber tone.
Anyway. During Communion, Father and the congregation and Choir were busy processing up the aisle thinking of the Body of Christ, as they should have been. In the five minutes of silence when nobody was looking, Philotheus picked up his viola and played an instrumental solo.
That might not sound dramatic now. Today a few keystrokes in the comfort of home can summon festive accompaniment for any taste: tablatures, neumes, shape notes, instrumental tutorials, ethnomusicology footage, broadcasts of real time celebrations round the world, Black Nativity, Celtic Woman, Maccabeats, George Winston, Appalachian Sacred Harp, the un-unplugged fuse-blowing Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But back then, we had seven TV channels. At their best they offered Nat King Cole, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Bing Crosby, and the Kingston Trio. We had the King Family, Mitch Miller, Charlie Brown, Herbie the would-be dentist and the island of misfit toys. AM Radio had popular novelties with kids asking Santa for two front teeth, kids who saw him kissing Mommy, three cartoon chipmunks, three Stooges, Snoopy and the Red Baron, Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, carol-barking dogs, and a few years later the reindeer who ran over Grandma.
In all that racket, the piece for viola fell among us as the opposite of noise. We faithful, queueing for our Sacrament with fingers folded underchin in little steeples, whiplashed around to gape at our guest musician. That melody circled us in poignant elegance, a silver koi a-flash through yearning hands to its own silver sea. This is why young people benefit, when they see other people using technique and craft to create wondrous things. To my melancholic high school juniorette heart, it was a wonder altogether new, that strings on wood could speak and sigh and murmur and implore the Maranatha — Come O Lord, the very voice of Advent. After that service I trailed along behind Mom and Dad to the family car and zoned out of their conversation, clutching in my frail musical recall the 9 note fragment that remained (fa-mi-fa so, fa mi-re-do# re). I held on to it all week, having no idea how to ever find that song again or how to find performers who are not performing, people who commune their music straight from the cosmos and back again.
On the second Sunday of Advent, to my happiness, Philotheus was back with his instrumental solo for viola. This time, it was even more beautiful and heartbreaking than I remembered. This is partly because our soloist knew more than 9 notes. It is also because he fingered in graces and airs to show all the equally heartbreaking chords, much as prayer flags on a Himalayan snowpeak show the zephyrs in the sky. This time after Communion instead of kneeling down in my parents’ pew where I belonged, I beelined to the Choir and whispered Philotheus a question. He was kind enough to whisper back the answer. Eureka! Now the koi had a name for a net. By the way, you can hear the string part yourself, at 1:52, halfway through this version here. But it won’t be the same. You just had to be there, looking out on snowy fields in a candle lighted sanctuary wrapped in pine and fir, with a gleam-haired youth alone in the corner plaiting pathos to the rafters.
On the third Sunday of Advent, the one day of the year when priests don delightful pink vestments and kindle the pink candle of the Advent wreath, Philotheus played his rose-colored song. At around that time, someone in the congregation might have applied enough musical literacy to name that tune. A misty recollection hints that someone raised a concern: what makes a hymn a hymn? Can even a rock song with secular lyrics be used as a liturgical piece? It may be sheer coincidence, but after that discussion in the crumpet-stollen crowd I can’t recall that Philotheus had a post in the church repertoire any more. I do recall that for Communion our Youth Choir premiered their upbeat “Gospel Changes,” more famously covered by John Denver.
Down through the decades, each December I slip in to services of every kind. There are costume pageants and brass quintets, handbells and harpists and Handel, Klezmer and dim sum, megachurch altar calls, a capella improv by gleeful erudite Gay men. But for Advent’s very sigh and murmur and lamentation, nothing else resounds through time like the understated voice in strings that so consoled a random adolescent girl.
Respected Philotheus, Hello!
Here is overdue thanks for your playing. I hope it found appreciative ears in the wider world. [P.S. – It sure did. I just googled his real name. And there he was, violist for a symphony orchestra. He even emailed me back!]
I wish our small sincere and aiming-for-progressive franchise of Rome had said “Yes, that is ‘Sad Lisa,’ by Cat Stevens. And just WHO is it hurting? The lad has reverence and talent. In his hands and from his heart, this is a hymn for souls in darkness turning to salvation’s Light. Hush now; let’s hear him play.”
These days at the Saturday farmers’ market I edge under the main canopy out of the rain, set up shop between puddles, and play bowed psaltery for the farm families and shoppers and their children, some of them melancholic teens. The warmup song is always yours. Merry Christmas!