On Friday mornings you may just find the senior students gathered ‘round the small classroom organ, all ears as Dr. de Visser explains the inner workings of the Genevan melodies. Just what you’d imagine seminary to be, right? But besides having the correct amount of Reformed quaintness, those moments really are wonderful, a welcome interlude to the daily lectures.
The class is Liturgics, one of those double blocks that form the backbone of the week’s lectures. So from 8:50-10:30 Friday morning we study the form of public worship our church has adopted, but also with an eye to other liturgical traditions. Regarding the latter, one assignment had us attend a Roman Catholic mass and write a reflection paper on it. But overall, the purpose of the course is to teach us, as the syllabus has it, “to lead God’s flock courageously yet compassionately in public worship.”
Lately we’ve been reading about the history of the Genevan psalter from G. Van Rongen’s book, Our Reformed Church Service Book. Overall it’s a fine book that does what it’s supposed to: it gives us the information about the development of our Book of Praise. But the author at times just asserts things out of the blue, without providing any reason why those things should be true. For example, after describing the history of Psalm singing in Britain he concludes, rather abruptly, that such singing “cannot be regarded as truly reformative in character.” Along similar lines he asserts that prior to the arrival of the Book of Praise, the history of psalm singing in North America “is not a joyful one.” But without defining what reformative psalm singing is, or what a joyful psalm-singing history should look like, there is no way for the reader to know for certain. The statements simply remain afloat on the ether of opinion, a rather unsatisfying place for the discerning reader.
Nevertheless, that rather small criticism aside, I think I can call Liturgics my favourite course. I mentioned the organ-playing in class, but Dr. de Visser also plays various clips of music to demonstrate this or that period in history, or other liturgical traditions. These are always worthy adornments for the lecture material. Last class he played a minute or two of Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus, which is Psalm 51 set to music. If you know Latin, you’ll know that the title is King David’s opening plea: “Have mercy on me, O God.” I can’t remember anymore why Dr. de Visser played us the clip, maybe it was simply for the pleasure of it. But it is worth anyone’s time to listen to.
Allegri composed the piece in the 1630’s, after which it was performed annually in the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican forbade any transcription of the music, however, as the song was meant to be performed only at special services during Holy Week. It was passed from one generation of select musicians to the next, and so its beauty stayed a church secret for more than a century. But the mystery came to an end when a teenaged Mozart showed up to a performance. He listened carefully to the recital, and when it was over he found some paper and transcribed the whole thing from memory. The penalty for transcribing the music was excommunication, but when the pope summoned Mozart it was only to praise him for his incredible gifts.
It’s a piece of music striking not just for its beauty, but for its capture of David’s confession in the psalm. Confession of sin can be terribly messy, especially a confession as profound as the murderous and adulterous king’s. Yet the Miserere is illustrative of music’s power to shape even the most raw material of the human heart into something meaningful, God-ward, and redemptive. It’s a reminder that in contrast to the great unease and disquiet that sets the world adrift, there is no moment more noble and pure than when a penitent heart bows in worship and devotion before God. David sought truth in the inward parts, wisdom in the inmost place, and it pleases the Spirit to weave new life there with music.
“O LORD, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise!”