Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bombs Bursting in Air:
Listening to Tchaikovsky on the 4th of July

My earliest memories of the 4th of July are conflicted. On the one hand, I remember July 4ths with disproportionate and glad clarity, even joy, relative to other days. I remember the friends and family with which I've shared America's Independence Day through the years. I remember the shaded picnics, fantastic displays along the Potomac River and at the Cotton Bowl, knee high with chiggers in the tall grass in front of my great-grandparents' place on White Rock Lake. 

I remember loving Roman candles, especially, and, as I grew into high school band nerd-ness, the music that accompanied the fireworks displays. I remember the moment in which the lights went out at the minor league ball park, that great moment of anticipation before the show, the stadium filling with flashbulbs. 

In all of these, I remember my abiding gratitude for the possibility of my country and the prayer that "we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace" (from the collect for the day as it appears in The Book of Common Prayer). 

I also remember, long before I had heard of Hauerwas or Yoder, an ambivalence about the fireworks themselves. Yes, I admired them. Yes, they were beautiful. The miraculous combinations of colors produced by the different elements fascinated to no end: I would watch the embers of each one until they died against the black backdrop of the sky. Still, it seemed strange. I would watch the embers die and remember my grandfather, whom I never met. He died before I was born; liver disease, as a result of drinking. He drank to cope with his memories of war. I am told he never spoke about the wars. I wasn't yet a Christian pacifist, but being one seemed an unnecessary prerequisite for asking why we yearly reenacted the visual of exploding bombs to celebrate our freedom. 

I thought I might be exaggerating the strength of the firework-bomb connection until, one day after school, I saw footage of the war in Iraq and the green and purple lights exploding behind the buildings in the foreground. It seemed to be the case that our patriotic displays could only be seen as celebrations because of our certainty that real bombs don't fall on America anymore. And, yes, fireworks were used to celebrate independence in other countries long before ours, but the choreography of the explosions with the words "bombs bursting in air," in combination with the unparalleled military strength of my country, stirred in me a lasting sadness that I carried throughout the celebrations.   

I was sharing some of this with Rebekah this morning. She's a good listener, though she doesn't share my sadness about fireworks. Actually, that makes her patient listening all the more remarkable. 

Anyway, we finished talking, and I went over to the computer to put some music on for the kids. July 4th, and the high school nerd in me kicks in: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture - a favorite tune for fireworks displays. I shared this irony with Rebekah, and we both laughed. But then, I listened and began to remember. The opening of that piece so very, very familiar. 

A google search suggests that the opening melody of the 1812 comes from the Troparion Tone 1 Melody, originally sung as the Troparion to the Holy Cross:

O Lord, save your people,
and bless your inheritance!
Grant victory to the Orthodox Christians
over their adversaries,
and by virtue of your cross,
preserve your habitation.

According to Wikipedia, "This is literally the fight song of Orthodox Christians. Often used in battle, the phrase "the Orthodox Christians" (or often, "thy people") has come to replace "the righteous and God-fearing Emperor (or Tsar) N.." The Tone I melody used in many Russian churches can be heard in the background of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Today the hymn is typically understood to have a primarily spiritual meaning."

Beautiful. But here's the problem: the Troparion of the Holy Cross is not why the opening of the 1812 sounds familiar to me. Take a listen.

Instead, the opening of the 1812 sounds, to me, like the gospel sequence my church would sing, when I was little, on Epiphany 4A and sometimes on All Saints' Day. The opening of the 1812 sings the Beatitudes to the front of my heart:

I don't know what Tchaikovsky was up to. I don't know the history of both pieces sufficiently well to suggest that Tchaikovsky was intentionally bringing the two songs together. But, at least to my mind, he does. So doing, he paints the possibility of the Beatitudes as the fight song of the People of God: 

Then [Jesus] began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Mt 5:1-12

If this is the case, or even a possibility, listen again to the 1812. This is where Wikipedia gets it wrong: the melody does not appear in the background of the 1812. It appears first as the central melody; as a whisper, certainly, but that's all there is, in the beginning. As a hope. Then the bombastic, combative, roller coaster of struggle. And, finally, after that long, long, melodic spiral, the return to ourselves - or perhaps the descent of Christ into hell, to pull us back to himself - then the bells. The glorious bells. And with bells ringing wildly, the return of the Song, this time with volume and surety. It's as if the gates of heaven fling wide in this moment. For sure, the canons are not quite gone, but no longer is the tenor dark and ominous, but overwhelmed by light. 

Tears of joy. 

And light.

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