Devotion: Honoring a Pure Offering
This devotion was given by the National Lutheran Choir's bass section leader, Paul Wilson, on the evening of April 1, before rehearsal.
Have you ever given an offering to God? An offering that is so personal, so private, so sacred that it creates a moment in time that can not be adequately explained to another? An offering purely of humble thanksgiving, shared only between you and the Maker?
In 1922, Frank Martin wrote the Mass we prepare tonight. He was still fairly young in his career – 31 years old – but had clearly developed his craft.
He grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, the son of a prominent Calvinist minister. Yes, a PK. As one of 10 children, with no professional musicians in his family, his life’s path was not leading toward music, despite a recognized talent at an early age. However, at the tender age of 12, he attended a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, was deeply affected by the work, and dedicated his life to music. Not bad for a 12-year old.
Now, back to the Mass. Up until this point, Martin hadn’t composed sacred music, which initially struck me as strange because of his upbringing in the church. He nearly completed the work in 1922, but came back to the work in 1926 to add the Agnus Dei. Upon completion, he set the work in a drawer, where it remained unperformed for nearly 40 years. It wasn’t until the title of the work was uncovered in a discography by a German conductor, that the work was pulled out of the drawer and performed.
And now you have the same question in your mind that I had: “Why?”
Out of curiosity, I contacted his estate to inquire more about the work, expecting to get no response. To my surprise, I received a lovely reply from Ferry Jongbloed, the “Keeper of the Frank Martin House.” Ferry attached a recent translation of some correspondence that Martin had regarding the Mass. In it, he says:
“This Mass…was a work of my own free will, without commission or remuneration … As far as I was concerned it was a matter between God and myself.”
In other commentary, he said, “I did not at all desire that the work be performed, believing that it would be judged entirely from an aesthetic point of view … The expression of religious sentiments, it seems to me, should remain secret and have nothing to do with public opinion.”
This piece is not just an offering. It is his burnt offering at the altar. His best for God’s glory alone. Soli deo Gloria.
For such a selfless, personal, and humble act of such meaning – how can we possibly be true to Martin’s intent? I’ve been struggling with that question. How can we adequately move beyond the aesthetic – the beauty – into a realm so introspective, so personal? How can we move into that sacred space that Martin shared with God?
I don’t have the answer. God, however, does. We just need to get out of His way, out of Martin’s way, and allow the act of the offering itself to speak. To be true to that intimacy, we must get to the space where the aesthetic is so pure, where the aesthetic is no longer heard but the Spirit is felt.
The hard work that we put into this piece together in rehearsal - and, more importantly, at home alone – with God’s grace, will allow our audience and us to move beyond the aesthetic. It will allow all of us to share for a moment, the Holy space Martin created in 1926 with our Lord.