Sunday, March 19, 2017

Concerto in the Key of Christ

Sermon for the third Sunday of Lent

Do you ever listen to concertos?

A concerto is essentially an orchestral piece of music which features one or more instrumental soloists. You’ll have heard of violin concertos such those of Bruch or Bach. However, there’s an interesting feature of piano concertos that you might not hear, first go.

In a piano concerto, the strings will be busying themselves setting up all the themes that the piano is going to play, and the other instruments will be listening to them and ensuring that they play the same notes. And then the piano will come in. And the first few chords sound awful! Why’s that?


Violins can vary their tuning very carefully and adjust their tone so that the music can sound brighter or duller. Most of the other instruments can do the same. The piano can’t. It has fixed tuning – it can only play the notes that it’s been made to play. It can’t sharpen, nor flatten.

The result is called dissonance and it takes a few chords for the rest of the orchestra to adjust. Dissonance is not just something that orchestras have to deal with. We have to deal with it too.


Dissonance often occurs in our lives when what we believe does not match up with reality. The Pharisees know how to cast out demons. They see Our Lord Jesus casting out demons. Jesus is not a Pharisee, therefore He cannot be casting demons out by the power of God. Hence, Jesus must be a servant of the Devil. Perfect logic!


Except Jesus has much better logic than the Pharisees. If Satan casts out Satan, how can evil ever hope to succeed? Yes, it could be a ploy, a pretence to get people to believe, but look at what Jesus is doing. Does it look Satanic? All those healings. All those words that preach the love of all people, even enemies. How can any of that building up of the human race be diabolical in origin? The Pharisees are faced with the noise of their own dissonance. They have a choice, adjust their thinking, or stop the tune that Our Lord’s love plays.


Our Lord speaks the truth because He is the Truth. Those who accuse Christians of wishful thinking don’t see that Our Lord has stern words to say about the behaviour of Christians. He does not hesitate to call people up on sin. His note sounds a dissonance in our lives and we are faced with a choice.


You see, the dissonance doesn’t come from Jesus. It comes from our being out of tune with God’s reality. We are actually out of tune with ourselves. The more we listen to Jesus, the more we will hear how out of tune we are. Repentance involves a listening to our lives, and then an active step to retune our thinking, our speaking, our acting and our living to the perfect note that God sounds in creation like the ringing of a beautiful clear bell.


As we progress through Lent, we read and pray and listen ever more carefully, not just to God but to our own response to Him. We need to listen to ourselves as well because if we don’t then we will hear the dissonance and believe that it is coming from elsewhere. Lent is as much a listening to ourselves as it is to God.

Christian integrity means doing things in tune with God and with others. There are many gorgeous harmonies, but the rules of classical music state that every dissonance must end in harmony. Likewise, if we are part of the kingdom of God, then we will not try to divide it if we seek to be in tune with Him.


Fr Anthony said...

You bring up a big subject, that of tuning temperaments: what to do with the Pythagorean Comma, which is the difference between the octave derived from pure fourths and fifths and the pure octave. You would be able to work out the mathematics very easily from the frequency values of the notes. Here is an article.

Keyboard instruments have been standardised since about the end of the 17th century. Some harpsichord makers experimented with split sharps and flats, but this was abandoned. The keyboard only has 12 notes in the chromatic scale, the octave being the 13th. This brings about the need for a temperament - dividing the Comma into more or less tolerable fractions. J.S. Bach saw in the equal temperament system (the Comma divided into 12 equal parts) and wrote the Wohltemperierte Klavier (BWV 846–893) - preludes and fugues in all keys. In mean tone temperament, you can't play anything other than in a major key with no more than one sharp or flat, assuming you tune from C.

Violins aren't tempered but tuned pure, so the vibrato was introduced to hide the dissonance from the Comma, especially when playing in a full symphony orchestra and keyboard instruments. I'm not sure, but I think the harp also has to be tempered. This is why young string players find intonation so difficult and school orchestras can be quite painful to listen to.

Just my tuppence. Of course you meant this question as an analogy for a spiritual point you were putting over.

Fr Anthony

Warwickensis said...

Thank you for your comments, Father! I have long been interested in the mathematics of tuning ever since I studied organ pipes, especially the Mixtures. I've also spent many a time trying to tune virginals and harpsichords which have been neglected.

The fascinating thing is that modern tuning of course evens out discrepancies by looking at fractional powers of 2. Raising a note by a semitone multiplies its frequency by the twelfth root of 2. Trouble with fractional powers of 2 is that they are cannot be expressed as fractions which Pythagoreans demanded. Indeed, the old story goes that a man who demonstrated that the square root of 2, which is 2 to the halfth power, cannot be expressed as a fraction was taken out to sea in a boat which returned to shore without him!