Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Where the Word stops, there starts the Song : Celebrating Benjamin Britten

A glorious Choral Matins last Sunday as the Cathedral celebrated a Festival of Britten's music in association with the Music Department of Otago.  Working with the text of John 21:1-19 the following sermon tries to see how the gospel and Britten may come together.

Preached at Choral Matins on the occasion of the Festival celebrating the Centenary of Benjamin Britten

One way of describing art and faith is that both reach past our formulations and our thoughts, they reach past even our silence.  It happens in the gospels where, as in all art, small details start to assume a moving and deeply touching significance.  In the passage this morning for instance, we have a broad theologically shaped narrative of a key resurrection appearance where Jesus, by the beach, cooks breakfast for his friends.  Peter, who had denied Jesus three times a few days earlier (when the cock crew and he remembered), has to be reinstated – made whole – and prepared for a new task – and so there will be three more opportunities for him to declare his love of Christ.  But that lies ahead.

For the moment, just note how the text speaks of the scene by the beach: there is a charcoal fire over which breakfast is cooking; the detail is a touch of art; it recalls the charcoal fire by which Peter warmed himself in the courtyard of the High Priest and denied his Lord.  But this morning, by this charcoal fire where breakfast is prepared and cooking, the way is even now being prepared for Peter’s restoration; a small detail, certainly; but a detail that speaks to the heart and into our silence.

There is a phrase in St Thomas Aquinas (in the prologue to his commentary on the Psalms) where he says ‘where the word stops, there starts the song.’

It is a way of saying that our best endeavours in art reach past the cognitive grasp of speech to a purer more intuitive form which is music.  At a service of choral matins, or Morning Prayer, held in part to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, one feels bound to at least mention music!  We know Britten knew something of Morning Prayer: he wrote 2 Jubilates, 2 Te Deums and a Venite – though I suspect that these are now seldom heard in their true liturgical setting as not all Cathedrals and almost no parish churches now sing the Morning Office.

Putting that consideration to one side, we offer Choral Mattins not simply as a liturgical and musical exhibit but also because Britten as a musician presents questions that are fundamental to all of us who face the daily business of living a life of faith.  He presents these questions (which are our questions) in his music and not in a propositional or creedal form because, as is well known, he did not see himself as a ‘believer’: as a friend of the Church, yes; but not as a believer.  (One of his biographers records that in a letter to the authorities to claim recognition as a conscientious objector he specified that he did not accept the divinity of Christ.)

That said, belief takes many forms and is often characterised more by questions than certainties. 

It seems to me very clear that in his music Britten asked questions and explored theological issues and doubted and fretted over the sorts of issues that any believer today can recognise as being also the questions they ask.  So, he asks our questions.  While one can trace excerpts of these questions through the Britten canon, they are especially clear in his War Requiem where, against the calm assurance of the Latin Requiem Mass, he juxtaposes the probing questions of Wilfred Owen’s war poems and, additionally, his own musical phrasing and devices of mockery, parody, resistance and subversion to interrogate the liturgical assurance of faith.  Against the barbarism of war, he questions faith’s assertions; where reason and speech fail, exhausted, his music remains … reaching beyond all speech.  ‘Where the word stops, there starts the song.’

Which consideration brings me to our gospel text this morning, in particular one verse particularly intrigues me.  It is the twelfth verse and it reads:

“Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.”

Now in the context of the whole passage this morning this verse seems almost incidental because there is such a lot going on, in the rest of the text.  But from where I stand, for me this is the text that speaks by its silence, the unspoken question, ‘Who are you’.  One could say this is the question Britten had in mind when he told the Board for Conscientious Objectors that he did not accept the divinity of Christ; this is the question that seems to underlie all the resurrection texts in the gospels as the various apostles try to make sense of the Risen Christ; this is the question you and I, as followers, continually ask as we try to make sense of our faith and our doubts, or make sense of something that touches our lives.  The question remains lodged in our consciousness, resonating in our silence.  The apostles’ dilemma is one of doubt and of certainty – and their silence is our silence.  What to do? Where our words stop, there starts the song.

On the beach the Risen Christ says ‘come and have breakfast.’  Now, listen to the song.

©Trevor James 2013