The old year now has passed away. . .
Believe it or not, the vast repertoire available to organists contains music for nearly every occasion–whether sacred or secular–and the New Year celebration is no exception. J.S. Bach’s wonderful prelude on the chorale Das Alte Jahr vergangen ist (The old year now has passed away) from his Orgelbüchlein is a sad and expressive farewell to another year gone by. Filled with wistful yearning, it has all the hallmarks of a Lenten meditation, with no trace of happiness audible. The chorale text translates as follows: The old year now has passed away; we thank Thee, O Lord Jesus Christ, that with great danger ever near, Thou hast kept us safe this year. I can’t let a New Year’s Day church service pass without playing this somber piece, paired with its jaunty companion, In Dir ist Freude (In Thee is Gladness), which provides much-needed celebratory relief.
Why the sadness? Why not joy at the start of a year, when so many of us are determined to make fresh starts, filled as we are with good intentions and New Year’s resolutions? I think the answer lies in the human conundrum surrounding time’s passage. We are baffled by it, saddened by it. We hate to let things go. We most certainly lament the passing of youth, the encroaching infirmities of old age, the regrets that pile up as time passes. Most of us have–at best–mixed feelings about coming face to face with death. Put simply, it’s safe to say that most of us don’t want time to end.
J. S. Bach certainly understood the human vexation on this issue. One only has to listen to his melancholy organ piece to understand that. There is something deeply sorrowful, yet bittersweet, about the whole concept. Where would we be without our memories of times past (both good and bad)? Where would we be without our hopes for the future, as yet fresh, untried, and unknown? If God in Christ is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, what does the passage of time mean? Is time significant only to our human lives on earth? Will time end? If so, what happens when it does?
These are enormously complex questions, obviously. Though I have no hope of finding definitive answers, I like to contemplate the possibilities. Music–with its almost limitless expanse of possibilities–helps with such contemplations. A piece that comes to mind is Olivier Messiaen’s powerful masterpiece, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), written during World War II while Messiaen (1908-1992) was a prisoner of war. (No, it will not be played in church this Sunday, but I hope you’ll enjoy the YouTube link.) The quartet was first performed in January, 1941, to an audience of prisoners and prison guards, with the composer playing a poorly maintained upright piano in freezing conditions. For Messiaen, the enforced introspection and reflection of camp life thus bore fruit in one of the 20th-century’s acknowledged masterpieces of classical music. The fifth movement, "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus," scored for cello and piano, focuses with love and great intensity on the concept of Jesus as the Word made flesh: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1). The tempo marking is infiniment lent (infinitely slowly) and the movement is designed to offer a meditation on–or at least a glimpse into–what eternity might sound like.
As we begin another year, my hope is that great music will help keep our minds and hearts focused on deeply spiritual matters, even as we go about our daily lives in all their mundane glory. May kindness and love increase. . .may the new year be filled with peace and joy as we set about doing God’s work in the world and as we gratefully explore life’s endless possibilities!