Candlemas: Jazz Mass, "Themes and Variations"

The Revd Brutus Green

How many sopranos does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

One. She holds out the bulb and the world revolves around her.

One of the many ‘screw in a lightbulb’ jokes. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how many priests it takes, because the joke is too offensive. These jokes are an example of ‘theme and variations’, where part of the humour comes from the build up of hearing how many feminists, viola players, Tories and so on it takes. Music itself, though, also frequently makes use of ‘theme and variations’. It has always been a feature of dances, where the structure must remain the same so as not to throw off the dancers but to avoid boredom and endless repetition the players improvise on or develop a melody. Pop music, having discovered that a major part of what people respond to in enjoying a new song is familiarity, makes frequent use of this with covers, remixes, sampling, ripping off and plain stealing. Think of poor Vanilla Ice, real name Rob Van Winkle, having to pay off Queen and Bowie for stealing the bass line of ‘Ice Ice Baby’. The Beach Boys and Beatles both stole from Chuck Berry. Huey Lewis successfully sued Ray Parker Jr for stealing the tune of the Ghostbusters theme from his “I Want a New Drug”. Ray was probably assuming Huey wouldn’t want to own up to it. T.S. Eliot famously declared “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal”. He probably wasn’t thinking of Vanilla Ice or Ghostbusters but I think it still applies.

More narcissistic musicians do variations on their own theme. Elgar, who with typical humility declared a century ago: ‘I am folk music’, produced England’s most famous in his 1899 Enigma Variations, including the very well known ‘Nimrod’. The variations each relate to friends, though in certain cases also dogs and bicycle rides. In the programme notes to the first performance he warned that the variations are at times only thinly related to the theme and that over the whole set another larger theme goes that is not played. This is the ‘enigma’, the ‘chief character [that] is never on the stage’. He never explained the enigma writing that ‘its “dark saying” must be left unguessed’.

As you can imagine everyone’s had a theory on what the enigma is. Guesses have included ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ both of which Elgar denied. ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ has also been suggested along with Bach’s The Art of Fugue, while Yehudi Menuhin was convinced it was ‘Rule Brittania’. Others have suggested a more abstract theme - friendship, or 1 Corinthians 13 - which has the bit about ‘seeing now through a glass darkly’. There is something of an academic game here for scholars, but presumably for those conducting the piece their interpretation of the enigma actually affects the performance, as it might also for the discerning listener.

Now this might seem like a grand leap, but something similar goes on in the way the Bible works. The opening words of the lesson from the prophet Malachi immediately take us at once backwards to the prophet Isaiah and forwards to John the Baptist as the one who ‘prepares the way of the Lord’. The prophetic call for the purification of the people and the judgement on those that abuse the vulnerable could have come from most of the prophets. And it’s no coincidence that this call to purification is read at Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Purification, when Mary returns to the temple after childbirth.

Liturgically we also have these echoes and variations. The Book of Common Prayer includes the now infrequently used service for the ‘Churching of Women’, the direct descendent of Mary’s purification. The Eucharist is a variation on Jewish rituals and the Last Supper. Our offertory hymn is a kind of development of the opening of John’s Gospel - though it seems a little spiteful to our St John to admit this. The opening of John is of course a Christian variation on the opening of Genesis. But actually overall Christianity can be understood as a play of theme and variations; what Shirley Bassey would call - ‘just another case of history repeating’. Christianity suggests that there is a continuity in the nature of certain things - certain aspects such as the nature of God and the redeemable nature of the human soul that mean that the story of salvation is continued in every generation.

But both parts of theme and variation are equally important. If the theme is lost then the overall continuity is lost; the connection between lives today and those that have gone before disappears. It is the fear of the break down of meaning, a chasm opening up between us and the saints of the past, going back to Christ and the apostles, that pushes those who wish to ground themselves in certainty - looking to biblical inerrancy or stressing the incontrovertibility of the creeds.

Yeats' most famous poem of 1919, shortly after Europe had fallen apart summarizes what it means to lose the theme:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

T.S. Eliot’s jazz-inspired poem ‘The Wasteland’ of a few years later, is often thought to epitomise the broken, godless decadence of a europe which had been pulverised by war and influenza. But it finishes with the line ‘these fragments have I shored against my ruins’. A good deal of ‘The Wasteland’ is a mash-up of literature from classical to modern times, the Bible and other cultural markers. One can see already the struggle for order, ‘shoring these fragments,’ - hearing the theme -  which will take Eliot to Christianity some years later. As a point of interest, it is often assumed that those whose experience has been the most chaotic, the soldiers of the two world wars, would be most likely to lose their faith. There is a sort of presumption that the wars of the twentieth-century led directly to today’s secularism. This is in fact entirely that - a presumption. Research shows that experience of war returned soldiers who were more religious not less.

It is this sense of connection - being able to make sense of the world in continuity with the stories of the Bible and our experience of church that marks the presence of the theme, the connection between Christians throughout time, which we might call the Holy Spirit; which brings us to the variations.

What is clear from the history of the Church is its ability to continually reinvent itself. Most people of course think of the Church as a reactionary old slug dragged unwillingly forward, at present belatedly attempting to acclimatize itself to Victorian England. On the other hand it is remarkable that an institution as ancient as it is has so frequently reinvented itself. From its inception as a radical, liberalising Jewish sect, through St Francis bringing the poor back to the mission of the church, the reformation attacks on corruption and elitism, the Victorian revivals and church building projects, to the inclusion of women in ministry. Most of these reforms have come from variations from below. Monastic communities set up out of individual piety and compassion for the poor; a preacher like Wesley with vision and charisma that can move a generation; parish priests who saw industrial poverty and dreadful slums and dedicated their lives to bringing some compassion to difficult gin-soaked lives; tireless campaigning by pressure groups like WATCH to recognise the vocation of women.

Part of the genius of the Anglican church is that there is scope at a local level to innovate. In the final reckoning the Church is nothing more than the people who gather together. As such every church, as it gathers for worship, performs its variation. Its expression may of course be weak and clashing or crudely done, but also it may be the variation that makes the other variations sound more truly. It may be the virtuoso performance that allows the enigmatic theme to sound more clearly. It would be a touch hubristic to think of St John’s in this way, but if we are not trying to be an outstanding variation then really what are we doing? From music and liturgy, to welcoming and generous hospitality, to discerning what God’s love means in today’s society, to friendship - every church is called to rehearse its variation to the best of its ability. And within that every instrument, all of you, are adding your voice to the piece.

And that brings us tonight, with a set up for Eucharist that not a few of our brothers and sisters might raise an eyebrow at. But it is a jazz mass and so one should expect a more challenging variation and jazz is really an acquired taste. I know it’s difficult for the choir because they are so much closer to the congregation who might notice when they’re checking their phones during the sermon. But so often it is innovation that makes us sit up and notice what was true or beautiful or good that we’ve some how lost sight of. And actually we don’t want to end up like the organist.

How many organists does it take to change a light bulb? Change? What’s change?