Monday, December 5, 2011

Giving Voice to Hope: Advent Hymns and Confronting Shadows of Oppression

Another Advent offering for readers.  I find the purity and clarity of this Austrian a capella group, Schnittpunktvokal, as they sing the ancient German Advent-Christmas hymn "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen," especially beautiful.  To my ear, it's a hymn better sung without instrumental accompaniment than with it.  And I may well be inclined, for reasons not entirely clear even to myself, to the renditions of church music from a very particular German-speaking region, since I love equally the performance of the same hymn by another male a cappella group from the same region of Austria, Carinthia.  I'm speaking of the Männergesangsverein of Sankt Stefan in Lavanttal, who sing "Es ist ein Ros'" on their Alpine Christmas album, which seems to be available online only at pay sites.

As I think about it, what may grab my attention in both groups' performances, in addition to the purity of the vocalization, is their reverential, devotional approach to a hymn of such great sweetness.  And when so much in many cultures conduces to telling men that they should be gruff and coarse and impassive, hearing men sing with real devotion about the tender shoot of Jesse that brought us the little rose from whose purity the Messiah sprang: that's moving.  To me, at least.

For me, "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" will always have very specific resonance.  Though I'd heard it sung many times before in various choral performances, any time I listen to the hymn now, I will always remember Christmas eve in 1993, which Steve and I spent with kind and generous friends and colleagues in Hamburg.  That Christmas eve, after they had included us in their family Heiligabend celebration, which included a lavish spread of wonderful fish dishes, salads, and champagne, they took us to St. Catherine's church in the old city, where we met mutual friends for the midnight service.

And where the choir sang "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" as snow pelted down all around the church, and as Peter Cornehl of the University of Hamburg preached about the darkness of political oppression and poverty that Christ comes to illuminate, darkness that is continuous today with the similar darkness of the Nazi days.  Days not so distant in time, particularly when fascism continues to assert itself in Germany and all over Europe, Cornehl said.  

He spoke of the poet Jochen Klepper, who married a Jewish woman and who committed suicide along with his wife and their daughter when Adolf Eichmann refused to allow them to emigrate, almost certainly consigning Klepper's wife Johanna and their daughter Renate to death in the gas chambers.  Eichmann's refusal to grant emigration papers to the family and his complicity in their suicide were documented in the post-war trial against him.

On that same memorable Christmas eve, in the dark, cold church with the high, shadowy recesses of its Gothic ceiling, we also sang Klepper's famous hymn-poem "Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen."  And this is a Christmas eve I'll never forget.  I hope I won't forget, too, its message that oppression is a never-ending cycle that requires successive generations of people listening to conscience to break the back of oppression, in the ever-new ways in which it manifests itself in each new period of history.

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