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Monday, November 21, 2016

Hallelujah in the Cathedral


This is one of those reflections in a minor key for Choral Evensong where the thoughts are shaped by the occasion ...


Choral Evensong – The Cathedral Music Foundation
Christ the King 2016

The recent death of Leonard Cohen prompted me to download one of his albums and, of course, it
included his song ‘Hallelujah’: one of his great songs and incredibly popular.  When he was asked to explain its popularity – he said that it has a great chorus; indeed it has; it draws you in to sing along with it.  In Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ the first verse sets out something of what we might briefly reflect on tonight

Now, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord

In just those two lines Cohen opens up something of the mystery of music; its origin, if you like, in God and its capacity to awake the God in us: music being a kind of bridge spanning, however tenuously, the finite and the infinite.  However, I love the way Cohen takes the vision back a peg or two and gently mocks himself and us with the sideline …

“But you don't really care for music, do you?”


I am told that music theorists understand music as a collection of sounds in and over time and that music may be explained in terms of pitch and structure.  But Cohen describes, quite literally, the harmonic progression of the verse: "It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift." This is an explanation of the song's structure (the basic chord progression of most pop and blues songs goes from the "one" chord, the root, up three steps to the "four," then up another to the "five," and then resolves back to the "one"), followed by a reference to the conventional contrast between a major and a minor key.

It may be judged a little incongruous that this evening we celebrate the Cathedral Music Foundation with the Dean talking about Leonard Cohen.  But I suggest it is not: Cohen ends the first verse with his reference to David, "the baffled king composing Hallelujah!" – a comment that touches on the enigmatic nature of artistic creation, or of romantic love, or both: the kind of world spanning insight that only poets and music gift us.  We are in a time when we desperately need that kind of revelation and understanding.


All our language to describe or in some way account for music breaks down in the face of the experience itself: the moment when the God breaks through and we are utterly involved in something that calls us beyond ourselves and yet also makes us aware that we are, and that we are alive and held in wonder.  Rudolph Otto described such moments of wonder as numinous and he talked of the mysterium tremendum, that otherness of the Holy – which we approach with hope and awe as it intersects our lives.   You could say that’s why we have music and why we have a Cathedral Music Foundation.

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