Often, when I get in the car, the first thing I do after turning the ignition is to turn on the radio. Of course, sometimes the next thing I do is turn it off because there are some things I do not wish to subject my delicate eardrums.
But, the fact remains that music for our journeys is one of the ancient traditions of pilgrimage. When groups of pilgrims made their way from London to Canterbury, traveling musicians would often accompany them, playing folk tunes, airs and dances as they traveled, offering longer pieces of music at night when the pilgrims were stopped in camp, or at an inn of pilgrimage, or a hospitable monastery.
Our pioneer ancestors made their way across the Cumberland Gap and into the West with people with fiddles and banjos accompanying the jolting Conestoga wagons.
To consider music appropriate for the 40 days of Lent — often referred to as a journey — makes good spiritual sense. Music for the pilgrimage helps to keep up spirits, to refresh us, and to remind us of the purpose of the journey, that being, a closer union with God.
The following are some suggestions for music in my own collection that I have found delightful, or enlivening, or prayerful and useful in the holy season of Lent, the time of preparation and renewal preceding the great feast of Easter.
David Salminen is a classically trained and jazz pianist whose attention, over the past few years, has been attracted to new discoveries about the cosmos; black holes, dark matter, cosmic background interference, etc. His improvised compositions inspired by those phenomena are available for listening at his website, davidsalminen.com.
Mystic Christian writers such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing have commented that the path toward God is sometimes a journey through a great and mysterious and unfolding and enfolding dark. Salminen’s imaginative musical journey through the dark parts of the cosmos seem to me to be perfect accompaniment on the voyage that poet Anne Sexton called “…the awful rowing towards God.” (She used “awful” both as a metaphor for struggle, and to capture the sense of awe that the journey inspires.) Salminen’s music similarly captures the awe that the cosmos— and its Creator— inspire.
Cellist Yo Yo Ma has become a world musician, playing both Western classical music, and genres from many international traditions. One day you can listen to his playing with Central Asian musicians on his various “Silk Road” recordings, on the next to his interpretations of Appalachian music with artists from the United States. His wide-ranging creativity inspires me. For a sense of the intimacy with God that music can inspire, I turn again and again to his well-known recording of J.S. Bach’s solo cello concerti, which, although they were not written for obviously religious purposes, seem to me to capture very well the many ways in which the human soul yearns and searches for mercy (connection) from God.
The Orthodox Church has a powerful and moving musical tradition that makes chant into a path of its own. Two recordings that I play often are the Robert Shaw Chorale’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, and the album “Meditation: Chants for Great Lent,” by the Russian Patriarchate Choir, led by Anatoly Grindenko. The first is available through Amazon.com; the second is currently unavailable; you may be able to find it elsewhere on the Internet.
Both draw upon the mystery and austere devotion that characterize Orthodox spirituality. The Vespers recording is more exalted-sounding, and the music is not exclusively intended for what the Orthodox refer to as Great Lent. The “Meditation” album captures the solemnity of Lent with chants that make use of the reverberating and repetitive sound of the bass voice.
Finally, some musicians in San Antonio, Texas have made a recording that offers a synthesis of both the colonial Spanish music tradition, and the way Native Americans used music to praise Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Their work is called “El Milagro de Guadalupe,” and it is sung in Spanish, Latin and indigenous languages. You can buy a CD, or download individual selections as MP3 files, at Amazon.com.
Salminen’s music brings to mind images of the successive curtains of the cosmos being drawn back, almost as one peels the layers of an onion; the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble invites you into two very different worlds, where one also has the sense, as with the cosmic meditations of Salminen, that one is entering deeper and deeper into the mystery: the intimate chambers and great cathedrals in which Spanish devotional music is offered—and a green, dancing forest of song and instrumentation that evokes the world of Christian Native American spirituality. Somehow, when we listen with our hearts open, our minds attentive, and our bodies relaxed, the music fits together miraculously.
Wishing you a blessed journey toward the Resurrection, and music for the way, I remain your fellow pilgrim.
—The Rev. Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry.