Saturday, March 9, 2013

Commendo spiritum meum

I've returned.

Strangely enough, there's a campanile nearby. It has not three bells but a carillon with 53 bells. They are English. I like the deep toll on the hours but nothing compares to the peal of French or Franco-Flemish bells when everything gets going. At midnight--after the Easter Vigil--at the University of Notre Dame the sacristan set them all lose for the first time in over 40 days. It was rough. It was wild. It was awesome. Some of them were out of tune but it was good ecclesiology--"here comes everybody," as Chesterton said.

But I digress.

We had a pile of snow last week and the week before. Class was cancelled on Tuesday. When I awoke I found my machine-portal-to-the-lives-of-others (i.e. Facebook) abuzz with news of the death of Marie-Claire Alain + 26 Febuary 2013. I was snowed in my house feeling immense guilt for not practicing.

In case you're not aware, she was amazing--perhaps, literally, awesome. She was also my grand-teacher. (Musicians are weird about these things).

It has been a strange week since then.

Abraham Maslow famously distinguished between typical D-cognition and B-cognition in his development of Positive Psychology. His research revealed that "self-actualized" individuals seemed indefatigable, impervious to challenge or adversity, unconstrained by norms, generally uninhibited, able to draw on an eternal well-spring of internal motivation, and so forth. These were humans that seemed super-human!

Who else has made over 300 records? Again, my practice guilt surfaces!

But professional productivity is only one facet of life. People count the most. And Marie-Claire's students loved her because she loved them and loved them particularly by challenging and pushing them to grow. Dr. H. recalls after playing for her, "she said, 'this was good, and this, and this...this? not so good!'." Honesty is the best policy!

Her relentless optimism and energy defy circumstances that would break the spirits of most of us. Indeed, Daniel Roth recalls her ceaseless smile in the NYT obituary. By age 14 Marie-Claire had lost two of her older siblings--Odile to a mountaineering accident and Jehan to the Second World War.

In many ways Jehan resembled Mozart, Purcell, or Reubke--an immense light snuffed prematurely. There are few compositional voices in Western music in the twentieth-century that ring as richly as his does. One would think nature operates on something like a "zero-sum"game with talent. Not the case with the Alain family! Father Albert possessed formidable energy and intellect. Brother Olivier proceeded to become a notable pianist and musicologist.

Marie-Claire? She was a cornerstone for a generation of people who practice our art.

Coincidentally, we had a recital by Parisian organist Carolyn Shuster-Fournier--another student of Marie-Claire this evening.

She made it to the funeral in Saint-Germain-en-Laye Friday morning. The Requiem Mass was packed with parishioners and people from across Europe. The preaching was good. Several renowned organists traded spots on the bench. The moment in time: "moving."

Tonight we heard two of her brother's pieces: the "Postlude pour l'office de complies" and the "Litanies."

The 1930 "Postlude" seemed sublime. The quoted chants balance a petition--"miserere"--with a declaration: "commendo." The tension between supplication--with its implication of anxiety or privation--and declarative commendation/trust always struck me as at the heart of Catholic soteriology. Grace builds on nature even though the world can be awfully messy. Somehow faith prevails. It is almost overwhelming to consider the serenity of this piece--the serenity of the Abbey of Valloires in the Somme where Jehan wrote it--in contrast with the hell that ravaged that place a few years earlier, leaving Europe with a generation of ghosts. In seminary, in the communal praying of the Divine Office I always found compline to be a time of great peace--not in its Kronos sense, but more the Kairos sense. Come what may--and Marie-Claire passed from her earthly life in her sleep--"in manus tuas Domine commendo spiritum meum." Good words by which to live! Good words by which to die!

We always prayed "that awake we may keep watch with Christ and, asleep, rest in his peace." When our predecessors wrote these words they perhaps had a different sense of life's fragility than we do today. Yet, mortality still looms--however ignored! This needn't me morbid but rather impel us to live more fully. On Friday Dr. H. implored us: "I must tell you: take the time now to go study with that teacher you've wanted to, to express your gratitude, to tell someone what they mean. You may want to wait until tomorrow. And you may not get that opportunity." That's a YOLO exordium that beats the hell out of some "epic" night of undergrad binge-drinking!

Of course, Jehan's 1937 "Litanies" stands as the most famous piece he wrote. After the applause, Carolyn said "I can play nothing after Jehan Alain's "Litanies"." Indeed, Bernard Gavoty recalled that Jehan told him that one wasn't playing the piece correctly if they did not finish exhausted--utterly spent.

The inscription on the piece captures this tenacious insistence:
"Quand l’âme chrétienne ne trouve plus de mots nouveaux dans la détresse pour implorer la miséricorde de Dieu, elle répète sans cesse la même invocation avec une foi véhémente. La raison atteint sa limite. Seule la foi poursuit son ascension." [When the Christian soul can no longer find words in its distress to implore the mercy of God, it ceaselessly repeats the same invocation with vehement faith. Reason reaches its limits. Faith alone (can) proceed on high.] 
At the recessional of the Requiem Mass for Marie-Claire Alain her casket was left below the point d'orgue as Jean-Baptiste Robin played her brother's "Litanies," written 76 years before--this work of faith that weathers grief, and exasperation. I've heard Jean-Baptiste play this piece elsewhere. It pulses with sheer hermetic zeal.

When I heard the same piece tonight I knew that it was not literally the same piece that those mourners heard Friday morning in the parish church at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Yet the post-structuralists may take that notion a-packing because time and space seemed to shrink a bit. There's an Augustinian notion of time that brings past, present, and future together (and thus, muddles space a bit). Christians have a communion of saints that coheres on this premise. As artists--if nothing else--we sometimes suspect that we stand on the shoulders of titans. There were giants on the earth in those days...

When that wild E-flatish chord died, silenced followed and Mme. Shuster-Fournier could remark on the disappearance of a generation. It leaves one somewhat naked--anxious but perhaps anticipating, waiting "in joyful hope."

So what's next? What for us then?

Perhaps to take the high road, pouring everything out for others--come what may.

There's a model!

RIP + Marie-Claire Alain

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