Might I attend the master class? I had no desire to intrude. But of course I might attend; and so I did. The small chapel in which it was held was acoustically lively, architecturally beautiful, and filled with expectation at the prospect of seeing three brave souls dare to play before an audience of colleagues, to be critiqued and coached by the conference's organ virtuoso. He had accompanied our hymns at every service throughout the week, which was a little like having Albert Einstein as your high school science teacher.
Like everything else at the week-long conference of 150 church musicians, the master class was a blend of affirmation and humility for me. I was pleased to be able to understand anything at all, thrilled to sit every day amid so many wonderful voices, moved to think that perhaps I was hearing music that will be interpreted in churches for centuries to come.
The musicians were what artists always are: rare beings whose manifest giftedness walks improbably hand-in-hand with their human frailty. The combination is unfailingly beautiful. They are people who can do what hardly any of us can do. They are both born and made: their genius is God's gift, but the honing it is their gift back. As solitary a practice as the patient nurturing of art must be, the divine-human exchange of it is never a private transaction: neither the gift nor its honing is meant to remain within the experience of the artist alone. The gift of art is communicative, given not for the sake of the artist but for the sake of the world. They are always a minority among us, but they lead us as no one else can.
I tagged along to an impromptu late-night hymn sing and organ jam session. I knew that these half-dozen musicians would be intent on their art, and I wanted to see and hear. Intent they were: they clustered around the organ console like a bevy of serious musical angels in a Renaissance painting, watching the musician's hands, reaching across him to open or close a stop, smiling slightly in appreciation of this or that performance decision. They played for each other for a couple of hours, closing the evening with a dozen hymns sung a capella, facing one another in a circle. Then it was time to go.
All music, all day long and into the night. Repeating and repeating until it was right, glorying in the beautiful sounds they produced. glorying in one another in the peculiar intimacy only making art together brings. Into the chapel for at the closing Eucharist they came, two by two in long procession, each in the vestment of his or her institution, their faces already dear to me as they passed by me. A stab of bereavement: this is it, I thought. I will not hear them again, not exactly like this, not this piece of music with this organist and this conductor, not ever again. The experience of beauty carries an august sorrow with its joy, reminding us of our mortality even as it breathes eternity into us. You can't have one without the other.
As preacher, I fell into procession behind the choirmaster. He walked down the aisle centered, posture-perfect, powerful, collected and ready. All of them were ready. Thousands of processions like this one have entered the doors of churches to the strains of a pipe organ. We have done this for a thousand years -- no, longer. Thousands of us - no, tens of thousands. This service will be like the others, but it will not be just like them. And, when it is over, it will never come again, not in just this way. This will be the only one we will ever have, this moment, right now.
It is in the nature of such beauty always to be passing away.
Where or When
Sometimes you think you've lived before
All that you live today
Things you do come back to you
As though they knew the way
Oh, the tricks your mind can play!
It seems we stood and talked like this before
we looked at each other in the same way then,
But I can't remenber where or when.
The clothes you're wearing are the clothes you wore.
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can't remember where or when.
Some things that happened for the first time,
Seem to be happening again.
Amd so it seems that we have met before
and laughed before
and loved before,
But who knows where or when?
--Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
+Where was I? At the annual Sewannee Church Music Conference. The organist was Todd Wilson. The choirmaster was Dale Adelmann. Visit http://www.frogmusic.com/sewaneeconf/index.html.