All You Need
As I have been using some of this time of "social distancing" to make many of my compositions publication-ready and perusable on my website, I have recently found myself going through some of my older pieces, which has, in turn, brought me on several side trips down memory lane. I thought I'd share a recent example of this here, as I have found it relevant to the current situation in which we find ourselves.
In 2007, I composed a choral anthem for our choir at St. Peter's in Saratoga Springs to sing at Easter, entitled All You Need. This piece was inspired by a homily given in the preceding autumn by our then-associate pastor, who was encouraging parishioners to give anxieties over to God (a task more easily said than done!). As part of this homily, he quoted a portion of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, specifically, Matthew 6:25-33, in which the "birds in the sky" and "wild flowers" are pointed to as parts of creation whose needs are met by God without their need to worry about such things. Jesus encourages his disciples to give their worries to God, and to trust that their needs will be met. While this oft-quoted passage was certainly familiar to me at the time (containing the axiom "Tomorrow will take care of itself"... Our Lord as his pithiest!), it struck me in a particular way when quoted in this homily, as the priest himself was outwardly moved by Jesus's words, even as he relayed them to his hearers. I was inspired, and set about composing a piece of music around this text.
As I mentioned, this piece became a choral anthem, with the text paraphrased from that passage in Matthew's Gospel, and I programmed it for our Easter Vigil celebration that spring. As with many pieces that I wrote for the Church in those days, I wrote out only the choral parts, leaving the accompaniment to my own memory and intending to flesh it all out at some later date. Well, as with many such things, that fleshing-out never came to pass. Our wonderful choir sang this piece at Easter 2007, and it was really quite beautiful. But then it was shelved until I found time to remember and write out the accompaniment. Of course, I never found this time until 2020, when it was handed to me by, well... a global pandemic!
Coming back to this piece and working with it in isolation brought up some rather relevant thoughts and feelings. First, the text that inspired the piece's composition thirteen years ago is once again sitting with me. A bit of Scripture that specifically addresses human anxiety and the need to trust in God has been now rolling around in my head at a time when all of us are experiencing some very real anxieties. Those of us who lean on our faith to help us through these times cannot attend religious services, at least not in the same way, and we have to constantly remind ourselves that we are not in this alone. This passage from Matthew reminds us that God provides even for the least of his creatures, so will certainly provide for those of such little faith, in other words: us. Working with this piece of music again has challenged me to consider my own anxieties in a new light. It is not easy, but it seems God is bringing this back to my attention exactly when I need it most. Imagine that.
Writing out the accompaniment for this piece also brings me back to the experience of that Easter in 2007, sitting at the piano and directing the choir through the music. This has made me miss working with our parish choir and the beautiful music we are able to make and experience together all the more. We were not able to celebrate Easter together as musicians this year. Our rehearsals, in addition to our singing at Mass, are suspended until they are no longer a threat to our health, and we do not know how long that will be. I have such an appreciation for the ability to gather together with dedicated singers and musicians to make music, and that appreciation has only increased as I think back to all of the incredible and challenging ways I have been able to experience this blessing over my lifetime as a musician. There is really nothing like the feeling of rehearsing a challenging piece over a period of weeks, and then setting it free to let it soar in performance. Making music, I believe, is a real human need, an "essential service", and I trust that God will bring it back to us in ways that we can now only imagine. Until that time, I leave it in his capable hands, and pray that day will come soon.
This piece has also reminded me of the fact that the greatest moments of inspiration come when we least expect them. Under regular, non-pandemic circumstances, I attend at least four Masses a week as a church musician, and have heard countless homilies over the years... many of them multiple times! So I did not expect this one homily in particular to strike me as it did. When we are open to inspiration, it can strike at any time. It is somewhat easy to be open to inspiration when one is at worship, as we can be more apt to allow the Spirit to do its work in such circumstances. But I am now trying to be more open to inspiration in the current circumstance, in quarantine, at a time of high anxiety and isolation. This is decidedly more difficult, but worthwhile in preparing for whatever challenges lie ahead. And perhaps it will bring about new ideas that would never have otherwise occurred to me!
I share all of these thoughts in the hope that it might strike a chord (so to speak), and freshly inspire you, as well. Look up Matthew 6:25-33. Take a walk or go into your backyard this spring and observe the birds and the wild flowers about which Jesus makes mention. If you're interested, you can listen to a MIDI (electronic samples) rendering of the newly resurrected All You Need, and view a sample score, here. I hope that some of my longer-serving choir members might remember this piece as fondly as I do, and that some of my newer members might look forward to the day that we can perhaps give a repeat performance. Maybe you are a member of another choir somewhere that is also on extended hiatus, and this post will inspire you to rededicate yourself to singing when this is all over. You might head over to YouTube and listen to some great past choral performances from around the world; there is a lot there to inspire you, too. In any case, I would encourage you to say some prayers, give your worries to God, and, for a time, listen to the beauty that we humans are able to occasionally (but more often than you'd think) bring into this world when we are attentive to the Spirit. What Jesus says about the wild flowers might also be said about a well-performed, inspired piece of music:
"I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them."