I cannot read music very well. And therefore I certainly wouldn’t be able to write music. I admire those who do either.

But imagine…
If I could write something, it would be a cantata, something about the centrality of the word in the Reformed faith.

I

The cantata opens with all sixty-six performers introducing the central theme. For sixteen measures you would hear a musical theme that sets the spiritual foundation of the composition, a theme that found me by the grace of God, a theme both simple and majestic, unpretentious, yet gloriously uplifting. My imagination cannot take credit for it, yet I heard it in my spirit. It came not from any memory; it was not borrowed from somewhere, but it may have belonged to the ages.

I consider the theme to be God’s gift, and even without text, the music itself brings to mind images of creation, rebellion, and redemption. You only sense the theme the first time you encounter it. You hear it again, and perceive it more clearly. And you hear it a third time and it is as much as planted within you, even before the chorus begins to sing of God’s steadfast love, a lyric set to the main theme, cantus firmus. The harmonies are rich and stirring. Psalm-like, the words tell story through prayer–or pray through story–and as the first movement then comes to an end, the listener will barely distinguish a solo voice singing just beyond the chorus, the same words, the same musical theme, a fragile line between individual and community.

II

The second movement introduces variations on the main theme, beginning with a mid-eastern setting, a hint of an Israeli folk dance, timbrel and strings and pipes, rhythm and joy. But the strings give way to voices, the pipes grow quiet, the timbrel’s rhythm fades and a cappella male voices chant a Gregorian variation on the theme, with a note of profound mystery, as voices are joined by the natural echo of the surrounding space.

Within this movement comes another variation on the theme, as women’s voices join the chorus with a sound reminiscent of a German chorale. Polyphonic variations intrude with welcome reminders of French and other European styles. An Alpine horn (made in Geneva) sounds from the center of the hall, and this movement ends with the startling sound of bagpipes, from an outside hallway. With all these variations, or in spite of them, the main theme is still in mind, still anchoring the piece at its very center.

III

When the bagpipes have wheezed their last, we are not surprised to hear the third movement begin with a variety of folk instruments plainly stating the cantus firmus in their own musical language. What is surprising is that these folk variations are coming from little ensembles scattered throughout the hall. A Korean folk tune back there. South African voices over there. Mexican trumpets and Brazilian guitars. An Irish flute. An American banjo. Each ensemble plays quickly through the theme, and the movement ends with the only notes borrowed from another composition, “In Christ, There Is No East or West.”

IV

The fourth movement begins with a bow toward the African-American spiritual. A contralto voice is lifted in praise, breaks, and bends the main theme toward the blues. Now comes the biggest risk: the orchestra begins to sound like a big band and the central theme is syncopated, a joyous celebration of good news that would move hands to clappin’ and feet to tappin’. This movement is dangerous because the ensemble has the composer’s permission to re-interpret the theme through free-flowing improvisation. Take these notes and go with them! Let the influence of the seamier side of Kansas City, the dives of Chicago, the smoky clubs of New Orleans move this grace-filled gift of song into the gritty lives of people who know they are sinners and pretend to be no better, but lean with desperation on the hope of the gospel . The risk is the main theme will be lost as saxophone wails its lament, and trumpet cries its complaint and drums rage toward liberation.

If the improvisation breaks the central theme into riffs too cacophonous to be called music, all may be lost: the performance ends in discordant anarchy. But if the musicians have embraced the thematic heart of the cantata, their free (but Spirit-led) reflections may enrich the whole work and keep it always reforming, always a new thing altogether.

V

Finally, all voices and all instruments return to the familiar original theme. Sixteen measures in unison, one voice honoring one God. The work concludes with a hymn which invites, indeed demands, that the listeners join their hearts and voices in a melody that will follow them into the streets and neighborhoods that lead home to Kingdom Come. In music, as in life, the inexpressible Word is central to our common pilgrimage from Creation to Eternity.

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(I suppose it might be interesting to include in the score a footnote at the bottom of the last page suggesting the powerful symbol of the conductor laying aside her baton, picking up a towel and basin, and washing the feet of the musicians. But that might distract from the central theme, rather than interpret it.)

One cannot appreciate or enjoy a musical masterpiece by pulling individual notes out of the score, no matter how well or how loudly those scattered notes are played or sung. To understand the scriptures, we must value the whole sweep of the story of Christ and his saving message of grace and love and peace. That is our common bond. Our unity. Our vocation. Our fulfillment.

So, now, go write your own cantata. But begin by listening for the Spirit’s music in your heart. And center your life on the good news of Jesus Christ. Let it be your only rule of faith and practice, practice, practice.

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