10 December 2023

Daily prayers in Advent with
Leonard Cohen and USPG:
(8) 10 December 2023

‘And I’ll dance with you in Vienna’ (Leonard Cohen) … Fiaker and Fiaker drivers in Vienna feature in the operas of Johann Strauss II and Richard Strauss (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in the countdown to Christmas in the Church since last Sunday, with the beginning of Advent and the first day in a new Church Year. Today is the Second Sunday of Advent (10 December 2023).

I am in Lichfield this weekend, on a short retreat, with time for personal prayer and reflection, following the cycle of daily prayer and the liturgy in the cathedral. Later this morning, I intend being at the Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral. But, before this day begins, I am taking time early this morning for prayer and reflection.

Throughout Advent this year, my reflections each day include a poem or song by Leonard Cohen. My Advent reflections are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a poem or song by Leonard Cohen;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Jewish Museum in Vienna issued a statement in 2016 saying ‘Leonard Cohen, the 20th-century prophet of the past, is dead, but his voice lives on’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen: 8, ‘Take This Waltz’:

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz. These stories celebrate a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Leonard Cohen’s posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, was released on 22 November 2019. Many of the lyrics are infused with his Jewish spirituality, which deepened as he got older but always had a place in his poetry and his songwriting.

When Cohen died seven years ago, on 7 November 2016, the Jewish Museum in Vienna issued a statement saying ‘We mourn the death of Leonard Cohen. The man with the deep and commanding voice can now be heard only on recordings … Leonard Cohen, the 20th-century prophet of the past, is dead, but his voice lives on.’

His voice and songs had featured that year in the museum’s exhibition, Stars of David: The Sound of the 20th Century, which closed on 16 October, just three weeks before he died. The lyrics of the first verse of Hallelujah were displayed at the start of the exhibition:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen left his mark in Vienna. After a concert in the city in 1976, he visited the Arena, a concert venue that was being occupied at the time, and gave an additional concert.

With his description of the Arena as the ‘best place in Vienna,’ he gave the young protesters his support and backing as they demanded to liberate the city from the dusty traces of fascism, persecution, and the extermination of the Jewish population. They felt he had backed their opposition to the small-minded ‘reconstruction’ of Vienna after World War II, and to the self-imposed silence that covered everything.

Cohen returned to Vienna many times, and in 1984, he said of local audiences: ‘In Vienna, there’s a certain value placed on vulnerability. They like to feel you struggling. They’re warm, compassionate.’

A few years later, he wrote a song about Vienna, ‘Take This Waltz’, based on the poem ‘Pequeño Vals Vienés’ (‘Little Viennese Waltz’), written in New York in the early 1930s by the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898-1936).

In this song, released in 1988 on the album I’m Your Man, Cohen’s fascination for the morbidity of Vienna came to the fore once again, but with a coolness that is impossible to emulate:

There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews.
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking,
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues.
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?
Ay, ay ay ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz,
Take this waltz, it’s been dying for years.

The lyrics are actually a translation, or rather an interpretation, of Lorca’s poem, ‘Pequeño Valz Vienes,’ but Cohen altered it slightly to fit the context and rhythm of his song.

The poem is about Lorca’s doomed relationship with Salvador Dalí¬ and was written in his period of deep depression followed by creative and spiritual rebirth during a year long trip to New York and Cuba. It is a poem of frustrated, closeted love that ends in a prophecy of martyrdom, as seen in the myth of Hyacinth or in Lorca’s obsession with the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

Lorca frequently predicted that he too would be martyred, and he was shot by one of Franco’s ‘black squads’ on 19 August 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War. His grave has never been found, despite the efforts of the Dublin-born writer Ian Gibson and other writers and historians.

In Leonard Cohen’s interpretation of this poem, the Biblical imagery includes a reference to ‘All your sheep and your lilies of snow,’ drawn perhaps from images in the Song of Solomon:

‘Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you make it lie down at noon’ – Song of Solomon: 1: 7

I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys. – Song of Solomon: 2: 1

Of course, there is no reference to or description of snow in Song of Solomon. But the reference could represent the purity described in the book.

Perhaps ‘Take This Waltz’, as Leonard Cohen reworks and rewrites it, is a reflection on a love affair that begins in Vienna, a city known for its beauty and mystery. The narrator speaks of the beauty of Vienna and the sadness that can be found there, as even in its lakes there are doves dying as if from a broken heart.

The narrator describes in poetic terms the memories that linger in his mind and the feelings of overwhelming love for the person to whom he gives the song’s title, a ‘waltz’ in this case, living and dying in the times of their love affair. He uses the metaphor of a ‘clamp on its jaws’ to represent how, even when it hurts, love is rooted in us too deeply to let go.

Later in the song, the narrator uses vivid imagery of hallways without love, of children’s laughter in an attic, and Hungarian lanterns in the mist to evoke more of the emotion and scars left over from intense love. The speaker urges his loved one to take the waltz, take the waltz, take this waltz it’s yours now – despite the fact that it might be filled with pain, regret, and sadness.

Ultimately, the lyrics suggest that love holds within it the possibility of those fleeting moments of joy, even when it is not enough to keep a relationship together. The lyrics encourage us to embrace the moments of love that we can find, no matter how difficult the aftermath may feel.

‘Take This Waltz’ was originally released on the 50th anniversary of Lorca’s murder in 1986 as part of the Federico García Lorca tribute album, Poets in New York, for which Ian Gibson wrote the sleeve notes, and as a single.

The song was later included in Cohen’s 1988 studio album I’m Your Man, in a slightly re-arranged version, with the addition of violin and Jennifer Warnes’s duet vocals, both absent from the 1986 version.

‘Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture / With a garland of freshly cut tears?’ (Leonard Cohen) … the Jerusalem Steps in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Leonard Cohen, Take This Waltz:

Now in Vienna there’s ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

Oh I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lily
In some hallways where love’s never been
On a bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz it’s been dying for years

There’s an attic where children are playing
Where I’ve got to lie down with you soon
In a dream of Hungarian lanterns
In the mist of some sweet afternoon
And I’ll see what you’ve chained to your sorrow
All your sheep and your lilies of snow
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
With its ‘I’ll never forget you, you know!’

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz …

And I’ll dance with you in Vienna
I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder,
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I’ll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, Oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It’s yours now. It’s all that there is

‘There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry’ (Leonard Cohen) … the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 1: 1-8 (NRSVA):

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight”,’

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

‘John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1: 4) … Saint John the Baptist in a window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 10 December 2023, Advent II):

The theme this week in the new edition of ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘The Faith of Advent.’ This theme is introduced today:

The second week of Advent allows us to prepare our hearts in faithful waiting, a chance for us to explore what our faith means to us.

Read Luke 1: 26-38

The story of Mary is a great example of faith. She was open to God’s word and obedient to His will. She did not desire proof, for she believed God could bring His plans to fruition. However, the passage tells us that she was troubled. Understandably so. Her fear is based on her physical limitations. She just wanted to know how.

So many of us can let fear – the whys and the what-ifs – take over in our lives. Can we follow Mary’s example this Advent and allow our faith to contain curiosity on how things may happen but believe firmly that God will do exactly what He promises? Can we trust in the assurance that our faith is rooted in God’s promise that He gave His Son so that we may have life at its fullest.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (10 December 2023, Advent II, Human Rights Day) invites us to pray in these words:

We prepare our hearts to receive you, O Lord,
and open our hearts to receive one another.

Saint John the Baptist (right) with Christ and the Virgin Mary in a window in Saint Mary’s, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power
and come among us,
and with great might succour us;
that whereas, through our sins and wickedness
we are grievously hindered
in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honour and glory, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that, when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him
with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Almighty God,
purify our hearts and minds,
that when your Son Jesus Christ comes again
as judge and saviour
we may be ready to receive him,
who is our Lord and our God.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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