Chopin’s Complete Works

Prelude Op.28 No.15 "Raindrop" F. Chopin (1810-1849)

Chorale Prelude on "God of Grace and God of Glory"

"Ich Dank Dir, Lieber Herre" ("I Thank You, Dear Lord") S. Karg-Elert (1877-1933)

In Chopin's day there was a gentleman of considerable musical abilities who played very well and was extremely fond of Chopin's music, playing many of his pieces including some of the very difficult ones. The English conductor Sir Charles Hallé brought him the sad tidings of Chopin's death. 'Capital!' the gentleman exclaimed, "Now I can have his complete works bound!"

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On a completely different note, a core belief of contemplative/meditive spiritual traditions, including Contemplative Christianity (e.g. St. John of the Cross), is that we are immersed in Mystery and have become acclimated if not outright blind to it. Little children are particularly good of reminding us of Mystery — just the other day my 3-year-old grand-daughter and I sat and watched the Magic of a snail gliding over the sidewalk. Or, right now, take a moment to look at the miracle of your own hand — millions of cells arranged to give you the enormous capability of your hand. Science is a long ways from making an artificial hand that is as sensitive, flexible, strong, compact, and runs on as little energy as a human hand. And made out of little more than carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen — very commonplace elements.

It’s as if we are placed in front of an enormous smorgasbord of Life arrayed with a boundless variety of incredible foods every single moment, but we are too easily content with day-old French Fries every time.

So for me an ongoing spiritual exercise is to try to see the 'commonplace' through new eyes. And that would include the standard hymn tunes.

Western music for the last millenium at least has been built on maybe a dozen scales. By far the most common are the 'major' and 'minor' scales, but there are a handful of others (e.g. the 'blues' scale, the 'whole tone' scale, the 'pentatonic' scale). But it turns out that with the Western set of pitches (exmplified by the piano keyboard) there are about 1500 possible scales. (My definition of a scale being a sequence of ascending pitches spanning an octave with no steps greater than a major third.) In other words, with the accumulated genius of the monks of the Gregorian Chants through Beethoven through Stravinsky and Coltrane, Western composers have explored less than 1% of the possible musical terrain.

So perhaps a way to hear our venerable and 'commonplace' hymn tunes with new ears is to express them using some of these neglected scales. (And alter other elements as well like the time signature.) I am certainly not suggesting that we sing them that way — there is still very much a place for the sturdy and familiar. But to me there is also a lot of value in taking a few moments to hear them through the lens of Mystery.