Yesterday was Easter Sunday. I don't know about you, but my experience of Holy Week as a musician, composer, liturgist, and... well... as a Catholic Christian, was drastically different this year from that of years past. Anyone else notice anything different?
Of course, this was all due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the lives of nearly every human person on earth. As a way of processing all of this, and without anything particularly profound to say, I thought I would take a moment to simply blog about my experience over the past month or so since this all began.
After celebrating the Third Sunday of Lent in church with some rather light and fearful congregations, we soon learned that, going forward from there, our bishop was cancelling all public liturgical celebrations in our Diocese of Albany, NY until further notice. This was certainly a wise move, in order that our Church might do its part to "flatten the curve" and attempt to contain the spread of this disease. As a parish Music Director, I was certainly appreciative that I would not be required to serve among hundreds of potentially contagious church-goers at our four regular weekend Masses, weekly choir rehearsals, and other gatherings. As the father of a fourteen-year-old cancer survivor, I am acutely aware of the risks of exposure to such a dangerous virus.
That said, it has been difficult not to pray in-person with my fellow parishioners each week. I miss rehearsing and polishing music with our wonderful and dedicated choir. I miss working with our excellent Cantors. I miss hearing the robust singing of a congregation rapt in prayer and worship. At the same time, I am very grateful that, within that first week, a very small group including our priest, some parish staff, and volunteer ministers were able to pull together a prerecorded Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, so that we might be able to connect with our parishioners via the internet and provide some sense of normalcy during this unusual time.
We have continued to provide this service to our parish community in the weeks that have followed, as have many churches around the country and the world. This has been a uniquely rewarding experience, and we have received much positive feedback from those who have taken part in our Sunday Masses via the internet.
When it came to the Sacred Triduum ("Three Days"), though, we were unable to prerecord the celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil, because of the extreme import that these be celebrated on the day and in the time frame set aside for these special liturgies. For that reason, we directed our parishioners to join with our Bishop for the livestream of the Triduum from our diocesan Cathedral. This provided a wonderful opportunity to pray together as the Church at Albany. However, for the first time in 19 years, I was not able to lead my community of St. Peter's Church in Saratoga Springs, NY in song during the Sacred Triduum. These celebrations (though they often leave me exhausted by Easter!) have become a highlight of my church experience over the years. I enjoy the ability to explore challenging music with our choir that also enhances the experience of our community and enables them to better pray these mysteries. I enjoy accompanying the once-a-year rituals that happen during these liturgies: the Mandatum of Holy Thursday, the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday (for which I composed a liturgical choral suite in recent years), the initiation of neophytes and the Renewal of Baptismal Promises at the Easter Vigil. I have also enjoyed, over many years now, the opportunity to proclaim the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil: the experience of standing next to the newly-blessed Paschal Candle, singing an ancient chant in praise of Christ our Light, looking out upon a sea of lit candles, each one held by another soul awaiting the Good News of the Resurrection! All of these wonderful experiences that have served to edify my faith and my love of music over the years, I was not able to enjoy this year due to this terrible virus.
I was able, though, to take part in recording a Mass for Easter Sunday, which was still so joyous and beautiful, and our team will continue to make Sunday Mass available online to our parishioners as this continues.
My experience on a personal level has been similar to that of many people, though. My wife and I have been almost entirely working from home (with the exception of my weekly Mass taping at church). I have been doing some piano teaching on Zoom, which means my wife has the challenge of keeping three kids and a dog somewhat quiet while I work with students twice a week. We have been doing our level best to help our two oldest children through their now-online schooling while keeping our three-year-old engaged at her level, while also having to explain why they cannot go to friends' or grandparents' houses, even when the latter is little more than a mile down the road. We have been "getting together" with friends via video chat. We have been grappling with the effects of the quarantine on our income, both positive and negative (i.e., far less commuting, but also no income from funeral Masses, etc.). I am the household's Designated Shopper, which means I get the now horrifying experience of going to the grocery store. Then, after I return home, my wife gets to disinfect the packaging while I throw my entire outfit (shoes included) into the washing machine. And then, there is our dog, for whom this has become a kind of Golden Age, with his family being home all the time to pet him, love him, and take him out into the yard whenever he wants. These are all-too-common experiences for many people in our world these days, some welcome, others not so much.
As a composer, I have been writing and working on some projects for down the road... nothing that I am ready to detail here yet. (I'll leave you in suspense for now.) I have, however, been taking the opportunity to continue building individual pages for each of the pieces listed on the "Concert Music" and "Sacred Music" pages of my website, so I hope that folks will check these out. Basically, if you click on a title, it will take you to a page with details about the piece, a sample score, some program notes, and, sometimes, an audio or video clip. This is still a work in progress; not every piece has a page yet, and not every page has an audio clip yet. But, keep checking back, as I will be adding new content as often as I am able.
As for Easter Sunday itself, I have to say that, as much as I missed being able to celebrate with the parish in which I serve, it was really wonderful to be at home with my family for an entire holiday for the first time since before I was married. We got up, hunted Easter eggs in the back yard, ate a delicious breakfast prepared by my wife, got dressed in our Easter finest, and "attended" Easter Mass together in our living room (the one I had prerecorded with our parish team). The kids dug into their baskets, we video-chatted with the grandparents, ate a lunch of holiday hors d'oeuvres, and enjoyed a movie together. We had a ham dinner with a dessert of pie and cereal treats. Everyone ate way too much sugar during the day, and went to bed satisfied!
In this difficult time, I wish everyone joy in the Resurrection, or in whatever ways you find joy. I continue to pray for all the essential workers out there on the front lines. I also encourage those at home to continue to support musicians in any way you can: Attend a live-streamed concert and, if you can, donate to support the performers and/or the host venue. Continue to support places of worship, whether you belong to one or not. Remember that many churches synagogues, and the like employ musicians like myself, providing us with a somewhat stable income and health benefits. Remember that many places of worship are also necessary performance venues that provide all of us with regular opportunities to experience live music, often for free.
And, if you are a performer, conductor, or patron of the arts who has always thought about commissioning a composer, well, there is no time like the present. If you like some of the pieces listed on my website and are interested in a new work, feel free to contact me. I have a bit more time on my hands these days.
Stay safe out there everyone. Happy Easter, and, as it is always worth saying: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!