Archive for April, 2011

Light and dark

Courtesy of Elberry, this one goes out to Nick (and anyone else who likes noir).


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The Cruellest Month

There can be times when “do not despair” is a hard and painful thing.

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Sunday morning

Christus surrexit! Alleluia!

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

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When the sky turned black

Something from a few years back.


Devil on your back

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black
It’s very hard to dance with the Devil on your back

– Sydney Carter, “Lord of the Dance”

We sang this song at school. I liked it better then than now; but this couplet I always found striking.

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Old-school liturgy

…all the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their sons and kinsmen, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps and lyres, stood east of the altar with a hundred and twenty priests who were trumpeters; and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the LORD. And when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the LORD,

“For he is good, for his mercy endures for ever,”

the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God.

– 2 Chron. 12-14

One hundred and twenty trumpeters. It’s a wonder they didn’t need earplugs.

As far as I know, the trumpets used in temple worship haven’t survived. But there have survived trumpets from ancient Egypt, found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, about 400 years before Solomon came along. There’s a recording of them being played here. (This was what prompted this post; I read it and thought of the old Temple liturgy.)

Regarding the lyre and singing, here’s a video of what Psalm 122 may have sounded like back in the day. The Masoretic manuscript tradition of the Hebrew scriptures contains cantillation marks indicating how to speak or sing the text; the vocals are based on a deciphering of these marks into musical notation. The guy in the video is accompanying this on a reproduction of the ancient Israelite kinnor (usually translated “lyre”); the accompaniment is improvised by the musician, as no details of how it was actually played in the Temple have survived. But his minimal accompaniment, mostly following the melody of the vocals, is probably in the right spirit for temple music.

However, scholars have been a bit skeptical about Suzanne Haik-Vantoura’s reconstruction, as sung in this video, on the grounds of “Western preconceptions” (per wikipedia) – presumably referring to the obvious problem that she identified the 8 notes with the usual 8-note diatonic scale of Western music, thus leading to something rather like Gregorian chant, but in Hebrew (some of the youtube commenters noted the resemblance). Christianity started off majority-Jewish and appears to have had chant since, well, forever, so Gregorian is (probably) descended from Jewish liturgical music; but it only appeared around a thousand years ago, making it a relative newcomer. If you listen to the older styles, the ones closer in time to the Jewish roots of Christian liturgical music, they sound less diatonic by far. One such style is Coptic chant, which sounds exactly like what you’d expect from an ancient chant tradition from an Arab country:

And here’s Ambrosian chant, the only Latin chant style not extinguished by the spread of Gregorian chant. Ambrosian chant sometimes sounds Gregorian due to long influence from its younger neighbour; not always, though:

So imagine the singing being in such a tonality in the kinnor-playing video, with cymbals and dozens of trumpeters thrown in, and you may be getting close to how they worshipped God back in times of old.

(The question occurs of why no-one’s tried back-extrapolation of extant Jewish liturgical traditions; but according to the relevant wikipedia article, Jewish liturgical music was banned for a while after the destruction of the Temple, and later Jewish music adopted the tonalities of local musical traditions. If accurate, this would mean modern Jewish music doesn’t really have an extant musical tradition stretching back to the Temple, whereas Christianity…. probably does, although unless someone can dig up a Christian musical treatise from the 1st or 2nd century it’s difficult to say for sure.)

(I don’t intend to blog much about liturgical issues too much generally, as I have too little understanding of them and it’s an easy thing to get snarky about; but musical styles are a matter of interest to me.)

(EDIT: fixed problem with displaying youtube videos.)

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Also in the news

Unidentified parties make vigorous artistic statement in response to controversial artwork; modified work expected to increase sizeably in renown and monetary value; Guardian newspaper covers event pretty much as you’d expect.

(The reader clicking the link is also advised to scroll to the end for one of the “Grauniad”‘s legendary error corrections.)

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News Items

Scientist suggests Last Supper was on Wednesday: a metallurgist (not biblical scholar, so take with appropriate grain of salt) claims that the reason the Synoptic Gospels and John disagree on whether the Last Supper was Passover or the day before Passover is related to there being two different calendars in use; and that too much stuff happens between Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion to fit in one night. His final conclusion is that the Last Supper was on Wednesday the 1st of April, 33 AD.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking the same. There’s got to be a theological angle in that date, somewhere. How about: Jesus surrenders himself into the power of the Devil on April the 1st, is arrested, suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified, died and is buried. Descending into Hell, the demons bring him before the Devil in chains (accompanied by Dismas the thief, who’s all like “dude, didn’t you say I’d be with you in paradise?”). Satan asks gloatingly, “So, what do you have to say for yourself now, o allegedly Almighty?”

To which the Lord replies: “APRIL FOOLS!”, casts off his chains, curbstomps the Devil and harrows Hell.


Scientific experiment detects transitions between gravitational quantum states. Whoa. This is a pretty huge deal.


Recollections of an unsuccessful suicide bomber: Lord, have mercy.

“The Taliban prayed all the time and read the Koran, so I thought they were good people. My heart told me to go and train with them.”

“The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9) – a good reminder to be very, very wary of “listening to your heart” and letting your emotions drive you.

(Not sure about the propriety of using such ghastly events to teach trite moral lessons, but… better that some even trivial good should be derived from such things than not.)

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