In our composer-focussed service on 14 May, one of our musicians shared this thought about polyphonic music (that is, music with more than one interdependent vocal line):
What I love about singing a cappella [unaccompanied] is the feeling of being part of a polyphonic instrument. Everybody else involved is coming from a slightly different angle; they’re on their own unique path, but the journey is the same: the song.
Put this thought alongside the lovely part-song by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), “If ye love me,” a four-voice setting of part of the text for the coming week:
If ye love me,
keep my commandments,
and I will pray the Father,
and he shall give you another comforter,
that he may ’bide with you forever;
e’en the Spirit of truth.
Between them, this song and Clare’s insight suggest to me that the experience of polyphonic singing can reveal something significant about the text of this song – that it is in listening to the many parts and in participating in the one journey that we keep the commandments and receive the abiding spirit spoken of in this passage.
Listening to the diversity of the parts
What if the way we “keep my commandments” consists in communal listening to the moving of God in our midst, just like the singers’ communal listening to the moving of the parts?
Pentecost is first of all an experience of prayerful, communal listening. Pentecost teaches the disciples to listen for the spirit of God moving in their lives. Only after listening do they know what to teach.
Enacting the equality of the parts
What if we experience “he may abide with you forever” in our mindful, understanding, and loving relationships to each other, just like the singers’ enacting of the equality between the parts?
For a community to be a real place of practice or worship, its members have to cultivate mindfulness, understanding, and love. A church where people are unkind to each other or suppress each other is not a true church. The Holy Spirit is not there. If you want to renew your church, bring the energy of the Holy Spirit into it.
In the Harmony-Quartet’s rendition of “If ye love me” at their 2008 Freiburg concert, it’s easy both to follow an individual vocal part and to listen to the whole. Try listening twice through: first time, choose one singer and follow his line with attention. Second time, listen to the ‘polyphonic instrument’ as a whole, but with an awareness of all the unique paths that are being traced within this one journey. See how much of each line you can hear at the same time as being able to hear the whole!
Thomas Tallis, “If ye love me,” Bass part, The Wanley Partbooks, Bodl. Mus. Sch. MSS e420-422, fol.55r (detail).
Edit – update from the 21 May intergenerational service:
We listened to this quartet in our music session in the Sunday service, and afterwards a few people shared these thoughts about how being part of music-making relates to being part of the Church (my paraphrases):
- It’s significant that there is something holding the music together. The independent parts do not go flying apart, because they are made to be part of a harmonious whole.
- The voices in “If ye love me” enter at different times, not all at once. We can allow people to enter at the time that is right for them, not expect everyone to be at the same place simultaneously in their faith.
- At first you can only concentrate on following one voice part at a time, and then when you listen again, you become able to hear more of the other parts as well as the whole. That the Holy Spirit is in us means that we listen to the Spirit and because of that we are able to listen to each other.
Feel free to add your own comments in the field below!
If you’re interested in seeing more of the Harmony-Quartet, you can visit their web page and buy a DVD of the entire 2008 concert.
 John 14:15-17 (KJV)
 John Dear, Living Peace: A Spirituality of Contemplation and Action (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 34.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (London: Random House, 1996), 67.