Thursday, 5 November 2009

Not worth a farthing

A 100 drachma note ... worth about 17 cent if you try to cash it in before 2012. Imagine how much one lost dracma was worth

Patrick Comerford

Luke 15: 1-10

I have chosen the Gospel reading for Holy Communion in the Lectionary for today.

I was working in Greece at the time the Drachma was being phased out as the national currency, and the Euro was being introduced.

As far as I remember there were about 330 or 350 drachma to the Euro. If you have any old drachma notes left stuck in holiday guidebooks, you can still exchange them until 2012, but you’ll get €1 for 587.5000 drachma at this stage.

So a drachma in my days was worth about as much as a farthing. And when Greeks hear this passage in Saint Luke’s Gospel today, they hear about the women sweeping her house, searching not for a valuable silver coin but for a tiny worthless coin, searching for a farthing.

When she finds it, she’s rejoicing over very little. And when she throws a party to rejoice with her friends, it’s going to cost her more than the rest of her savings if she only has ten drachma.

Last year, Philip Matyszak published an introduction to Classics, Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day – but you probably wouldn’t have been able to even buy a bottle of retsina or bottle of ouzo in ancient Athens for half of what this woman had saved.

And how the tax collectors who heard this parable (verse 1) must have laughed with ridicule! Finding a drachma certainly wasn’t going to help the party spirit, never mind being worth considering for taxes and tax collecting.

Leona Helmsley, the ‘Queen of Mean,’ was reported to have said: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes …” But this little old woman was probably had too little and too poor to be preyed on by tax collectors.

Sometimes, when we get caught up in the grand plans and the grand schemes, we forget about the little people.

As Bishop Trevor Williams pointed out in last night’s lecture, we can be so committed to building programmes and working for the greater good the wider church, that we can forget those people who are on the margins, the little people, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised, for whom the Gospel ought to be good news.

But is it?

I remember once in Achill, how a shepherd died on a cliff side as he went in search for a lost sheep, and slipped on the edge. A local man reacted by pointing out what a small price sheep fetch in the mart.

When you do find a lost sheep, it’s probably been caught in brambles, is full of dirt and matted with droppings. It’s not a pleasant fluffy creature, as seen in so many stained glass windows. It may not even be worth bringing home, in the eyes of a shepherd or a sheep farmer. In its panic and distress, it will have lost weight, and may not be possible to sell.

So often we think of people in monetary terms …. What they’re worth to us.

I still remember sustentation fund lists being pinned to the church door. They were always headed by the richest parishioners, who were also the most powerful … they were on the vestry, they were on diocesan synod, they were parochial nominators and Episcopal electors.

But the little people must have looked at those lists and felt that in the eyes of the Church they weren’t worth a farthing, they were the lost drachma, the lost sheep.

As we are caught up here in the great plans of the church, the university and society, let us not forget the little people, and never let us be too proud to become little people again, especially in the eyes of our heavenly Father, worth only a drachma or a farthing in the eyes of others, but worth the life of his Son.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at an academic staff meeting on 5 November 2009.

Remembrance and Requiem in November: four composers

All Saints ... November is a time of remembrance

Patrick Comerford


The first week of two in November is a natural time for remembering the dead. The leaves are falling, and although the autumn sunshine seems to be continuing to pour in through my study window. But we all know that winter is approaching.

And the natural cycle of life and death and new life in nature is very obvious at this time of the year, making these weeks at the beginning of November an appropriate season for remembering the dead.

On Sunday in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and in the chapel here last night at the Commissioning Eucharist, we used the collect, readings and Post-Communion prayers of All Saint’ Day.

On Tuesday evening, I was at a service in the city centre to remember the dead members of SIPTU over the past 100 years. It was All Souls’ Day, which is not in the calendar of the Church of Ireland, but is in the calendar of the Church of England (Common Worship, p. 15), the Church in Wales (Y Cymun Bendigad/The Holy Eucharist, pp xiv, xxi, 306-308), the Episcopal Church (Book of Common Prayer, p. 29), the Anglican Church of Canada, and other Anglican Churches.

Then, this morning, at our Remembrance Day service, we quoted those lines from Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Death and remembrance are part of November. Although there is no Remembrance Day Service in the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship, death and remembrance have a particular place in the expectations of churchgoers in these two weeks.

And of course, death and remembrance have inspired some of the great classical works of music in the life of Church, including the Requiems by Mozart, Verdi, Fauré, Duruflé and Rutter.

Musical reflection 1: Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart singing his Requiem on his deathbed

Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 626), composed in 1791, was his last composition, and is among his most powerful and recognised works, not only for its music, but also because of the debate over how much of the music Mozart completed before his death, and how much was later composed by his student Franz Xavier Süssmayr.

Despite the debate, the Requiem has taken a prominent place as one of Mozart’s most important works.

The Requiem was commissioned anonymously by the eccentric Count Franz Walsegg zu Stuppach from Mozart through intermediaries. In mid-July, a messenger – probably the count’s steward, Franz Anton Leutgeb – arrived with a note asking Mozart to write a Requiem Mass, and with an advance fee of 60 ducats and the promise of similar amount when the work was complete. The count had a habit of commissioning works by composers and then passing them off as his own. He wanted a Requiem Mass he could claim to have composed to commemorate his wife Anna, who had died on 14 February 1791 at the age of 20

That summer was particularly busy for Mozart. He was trying to complete the opera La clemenza di Tito for the coronation of the Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague on 6 September, and his opera Die Zauberflote was unfinished but due to be staged. Throughout August, Mozart concentrated on working on that opera. He left for Prague on 25 August, and completed the opera on 5 September, a day before he conducted the premiere of La clemenza di Tito.

By the end of September, he had completed his revision of The Magic Flute, which had its premiere on 30 September. A week later, he completed his Concerto in A for clarinet. From 8 October, he then worked on the Requiem and a cantata, until 20 November, when he was confined to his bed due to illness.

Mozart did not know the identity of who had commissioned the Requiem when he accepted the project. But Constanze Mozart later claimed that her husband had a premonition that the Requiem was an omen of his own coming death. He shared with her a certainty that he was writing this piece for his own funeral, and he spoke of “very strange thoughts” bout the unpredicted appearance and commission of this unknown man.

When he fell ill in November while he was still writing the Requiem, he told Constanze: “I am only too conscious my end will not be long in coming: for sure, someone has poisoned me! I cannot rid my mind of this thought.”

On the afternoon of 4 December he felt well enough to sit up in bed and to sing parts of the Requiem with his friends. It is said that when it came to the Lacrimosa – of which he had only written eight bars – Mozart burst into tears as he tried to voice drum parts.

His condition worsened, and shortly after midnight, at 10 to 1 on 5 December, he died of acute rheumatic fever. He and he was buried two days later an unmarked grave in Saint Marx Cemetery. Although it is said the Requiem was played at Mozart’s funeral: in fact he had a small funeral, and we do not know what music was played at the memorial service organised by his friend, Emanuel Schikaneder, on 10 December 1791.

The Requiem was unfinished. Because her husband received only half of the payment in advance, Constanze Mozart was anxious after his death to have the work completed secretly so she could collect the final payment. This work was completed, in part, by Joseph von Eybler, Franz Xavier Süssmayr, who added a final section, Lux aeterna, adapting the opening two movements written by Mozart to the words that finish the Requiem.

In March 1792, the completed score was sent to Count von Walsegg with an earlier date and Mozart’s forged signature. He did not receive the complete Requiem until the end of 1793, and on 14 December 1793 the Requiem was performed – as the count’s own work – in memory of his wife Anna in the church at Wiener-Neustadt.

The story of this Requiem is marked by deception, secrecy and the manipulation of public opinion. One series of myths involves the role Antonio Salieri played in commissioning and completing the Requiem and his role in Mozart’s death. One story even says Salieri commissioned the Requiem from Mozart so it could be played at Mozart’s own funeral after Salieri poisoned him.

Let us listen to the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem:

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
judicandus homo reus.

Huic ergo parce, Deus:
pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem, Amen.

That day of tears and mourning,
when from the ashes shall arise,
all humanity to be judged.

Spare us by your mercy, Lord,
gentle Lord Jesus,
grant them eternal rest. Amen.

Musical reflection 2: Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem

Verdi’s Requiem ... from a composer who can draw enthusiastic cries of “Viva Verdi!”

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is best known for his dramatic operas, including Rigoletto, La Traviata, Nabucco, Aida and Don Carlo. I had a memorable evening one summer, sitting on the steps of the Arena in Verona for a breathtaking performance of Verdi’s Aida. It is impossible for us to imagine how central to Italian cultural identity this great composer is … at every interval, the applause was punctuated by enthusiastic cries of “Viva Verdi!” and these, in turn, drew their own applause.

When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi proposed collaborating with a dozen other Italian composers in writing a Requiem for Rossini, and for this he wrote a Libera me. However, the premiere planned for Rossini’s first anniversary in 1869 was cancelled and the complete Requiem for Rossini only had its premiere in Stuttgart as recently as 1988.

But Verdi knew he had something worth working with in his Libera me. When the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni died in May 1873, Verdi decided to write a full Requiem for Manzoni and set to work on it in Paris that June. With a revised version of his Libera me, Verdi’s new Requiem was performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death on 22 May 1874 in the Church of San Marco in Milan.

Despite Verdi’s supposed agnosticism, his Requiem is unmistakably and movingly religious. Throughout the Requiem, he uses vigorous rhythms, sublime melodies, and dramatic contrasts – as he did in his operas – to express the powerful emotions in his text. The terrifying, and instantly recognisable, Dies Irae, which introduces the traditional sequence of the Latin funeral Mass, is repeated throughout the Requiem, allowing Verdi to explore feelings of loss and sorrow as well as the human desire for forgiveness and mercy throughout the Requiem.

The last two verses of the traditional version of the Dies Irae are:

Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!

Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest,
grant them thine eternal rest. Amen

Verdi ends his Requiem returning to his original working of Libera me, which he introduces to interrupt the Dies Irae as the soprano cries out: “Free me, Lord, from eternal death ... when you will come to judge the world by fire.”

Let us listen to Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem:

Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla
teste David cum Sybilla
Dies irae, dies illa
Quantus tremor est futurus,
quando judex est venturus
cuncta stricte discussurus.

Day of wrath and doom impending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending
David's word with Sibyl’s blending
Day of wrath and doom impending
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth
When from heaven the judge descendeth
On whose sentence all dependeth

Musical reflection 3: Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem

Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in D Minor (Op 48), written between 1887 and 1890, is his best-known work, and its best-known movement is the soprano aria Pie Jesu.

Fauré’s reasons for composing his Requiem are uncertain. One possible impetus may have been the death of his father in 1885, followed by his mother’s death two years later at the end of 1887. However, by then he had already started on the work, writing the Libera Me in 1877 as an independent work.

In 1899–1900, the score was reworked for a full orchestra. This was the best known version until John Rutter rediscovered Fauré’s original manuscript of the chamber orchestra version in the early 1980s.

Fauré’s Requiem was performed at his own funeral in 1924. If you think of the impact that Sarah Brightman had with the Pie Jesu from Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Requiem, then remember what Camille Saint-Saens said of the Pie Jesu in Fauré’s Requiem: “Just as Mozart’s is the only Ave verum Corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu.” And so we listen:

Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem,
requiem sempiternam.

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest,
rest everlasting

Musical reflection 4: Lux aeterna from Rutter’s Requiem

Pinnacles and spires ... the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, was inspirational for John Rutter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

This summer, while I was studying at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, I attended Choral Evensong one Saturday and the Sunday Eucharist at the Chapel of King’s College. The English composer John Rutter went to school with John Tavener in Highgate, before going on to Cambridge, where he read music at Clare College. There he was a member of the choir and then director of music (1975-1979). There he enjoyed going next door to listen to the choir in King’s College Chapel.

In 1981, Rutter founded the Cambridge Singers, which he conducts and with which he has made many recordings of sacred choral repertoire, including his own works. He has written at least three pieces for the choir at King’s College Chapel: Veni Sancte Spiritus (1997), What sweeter music (1987) and Cantus (1997).

His Requiem, which he completed in 1985, is a very lyrical choral piece with an orchestral accompaniment. It was first performed in 1985 on two separate occassions in Dallas, Texas, and Sacramento, California, both conducted by Rutter.

Rutter’s Requiem combines Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions. The second movement, Out of the Deep, is based on Psalm 130, which is commonly used at Anglican funerals. It opens with a prominent cello solo written in C minor, while the sixth movement, The Lord is My Shepherd, is Psalm 23, also commonly used at Anglican funerals. The seventh movement, Lux aeterna, includes words from the burial service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Burial Service (“I heard a voice from heaven...”) as well as the traditional Requiem Communion chant from the Missa pro defunctus.

We listen to Rutter’s Lux Aeterna sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury:

I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labours: even so saith the Spirit.

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine: cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius est.
Requiem aeternam dona est, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis.

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord: with all thy saints evermore, for they mercy’s sake.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and may light perpetual shine upon them.

Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a workshop with Year III B.Th. students on the course ‘Spirituality for Today,’ on Thursday 5 November 2009.