easter extremes

It’s poetic that eggs are a symbol of Easter, with so much potential for life represented in such a small package. Like springtime itself!

2009-apr07-eggses011Here in New England as the season flies by in a messy blur of everything from mud and slushy snow to songbirds, and Key West breezes – it’s less a season, really, than it is a feeling. Sure, there are snowdrops, crocus and daffodils. They bravely stick their necks out in mid-April, breaking through the icy crust of composting leaves just in time to have their blooming tops wilted when late-season snow blankets the garden at night.

But for every frozen flower, thwarted garden, and snow-covered BBQ grill..signs of life are busting through everywhere. Irrepressible, and irreversible. How else would we be able to harvest maple syrup, one of the changing season’s first harbingers? Sunlight returns, coaxing the life blood of the sugar maples to surge skyward, feed the veins of the tree, and spawn new leaves. We syphon it off midway and boil it down to its sweet, sticky life essence. Demi-glace of maple sap consommĂ© – mmmmm. An exquisite reduction.

All of this can only happen when the conditions are just right, usually starting somewhere around mid-February, as warm days are paired with below-freezing nights.

Some of the best classical music was written for this time of the year too, in its concentrated power it beautifully echoes both the season’s vibrant lifeforce, and tendency toward extremes. Think of the ferocious thunder and pounding hailstones, in Handel’s Passover oratorio Israel in Egypt – the same composer whose Messiah offers a remarkable contrast with lovely, pastoral melodies like “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted” and “Worthy is the Lamb”.

Good Friday is my favorite day of the year to be on the air. No exceptions.

Yesterday’s show included the austerely sublime Miserere, Gregorio Allegri’s precious gift to the Sistine Chapel choir – and all of humanity.

(detail from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco)

(detail from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco)

An elegant work that defines ‘a capella’ (“of the chapel”) – pure human voices sing out, unaccompanied except for the silent witness of all of creation in Michelangelo’s surrounding frescoes.

When the male soprano hits that exquisite high ‘C’ (you know the note I’m talking about) it’s very nearly divine enough to bridge that crucial, meaningful space between God and Adam’s index fingers, as both reach out but can never quite connect.

Nearly, but not quite. Like the tallest Cathedral domes and spires and minarets, reaching heavenward: the Miserere is divinely inspired but still, ultimately, the creation of a man. It can never actually touch heaven or rise to a level higher than its humble human origins. (That doesn’t mean it’s not a masterpiece: it is.)

4/11/09-sunshine on my early spring garden

4/11/09-sunshine on my early spring garden

Dvorak’s monumental Stabat Mater is another work of singular inspiration: not only perfect for Good Friday but perfect in its deep humanity as a personal expression of parental grief.

Dvorak knew too well what it felt like to lose a child, he began work on the Stabat Mater in the aftermath of the death of his infant daughter. He got as far as beginning to orchestrate the work when he set it aside, maybe trying to move away from the pain of its association with his loss.

Two years later Dvorak’s second daughter died unexpectedly following a household accident, and then, only three weeks after that, Dvorak’s young son succumbed to smallpox. With the loss of all three children in as many years, the unimaginable tragedy left the composer and his wife childless.

That’s exactly when Dvorak revisited the sketches for his Stabat Mater.

Within a month he had finished the work, complete with fullblown choir and several soloists and orchestra. The result is huge, and profound. Musically, it resounds with the weight of emotional loss felt by a parent at a child’s death: Dvorak’s own, and Mary’s – head bent, weeping, the living embodiment of the ‘stabat mater’ (“grieving mother”) herself, at the foot of the crucifixion. Dvorak’s experience infuses his Stabat Mater with incomparable compassion and empathy. It’s his first musical setting of a religious text, and by far his most effective and meaningful.

You don’t have to suffer loss like that to write powerful music. But the effects are undeniable.

No matter your traditions of faith or observance at this time of the year, the very special music of this season transcends and speaks to open ears on a broader, human level: it’s music of redemption, hope, new life and renewal.

May your springtime be filled with all of that. Happy Easter!

—-

Recommended recordings:

Dvorak: Stabat Mater

Allegri: Miserere mei

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