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Devotions - Authenticity

Before every rehearsal and performance, a member of the National Lutheran Choir gives a devotion. Paul Wilson (bass-baritone) recently gave this devotion to the choir. This devotion was given before our collaborative concert at King of Kings Lutheran Church (Woodbury) with the vocal ensemble, Cantus. Paul is a former founding member of Cantus.

Our search for authenticity

In preparation for my devotion tonight, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Mostly “What the heck should I talk about? I’m not fit to do the devotion!” But, Eldri told me to do it, and you don’t argue with Eldri.

I’ve heard the saying, “Write about the things you know.” That started eliminating a lot of topics. A lot. I’m not an authority on scripture. I’m not a great speaker. What do I know that matters to any of you? The stock market? (Paul works for a brokerage firm.)

I then went back to look at the themes woven throughout my life and one kept popping back into my consciousness that I thought might have meaning for all of us: authenticity. I promise this will tie into our music tonight and our collaboration with Cantus – just stay with me.

I don’t much believe that God has predetermined everything in my life. I do think that God has given us the tools, the gifts, that allow us to carve a path that is true and relevant to who God wants us to be. Those gifts are our clues to where our own authentic lives lie. Not that God doesn’t send us reminders once in a while. He most certainly does.

Such was the case when I found myself in an ambulance in 2008, on my way to the ER with chest pains. In those moments, you find yourself thinking about the most important parts of your life. For me, it was “Lord, please don’t take me from Cara and the kids – please don’t make them grow up without a dad.” So, I didn’t die. But I did wake up. The things that were important before – career above all else – ceased to be “the thing.” That’s when I started thinking about living an authentic life – which eventually led me to you all.

(The program with Cantus featured Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and a movement from All Night Vigil.) Rachmaninoff was a man who struggled with finding his authentic self in the last half of his life. He was 42 years old when he composed the All Night Vigil in 1915 in Russia. He was a man in love with his homeland. Just a few years earlier he had written Vocalise and dedicated it to the Russian soprano, Antonina Nezhdnova. The pivotal moment in his life happened in 1917, when he was forced out of Russia due to the Russian Revolution, which effectively banned all religious music from the country he loved so much. It has been written that “no composition represents the end of an era so clearly as” the All Night Vigil.

He eventually emigrated to the U.S. Between 1918 and his death in 1943 – 25 years – he completed only six compositions. Clearly, the man had lost something more than his homeland. His authentic self was intimately tied to Russia. Even though Vocalise was written prior to his emigration, its starkness seems to portend of the longing and melancholy Rachmaninoff would feel in just a few short years. His story makes me wonder what if we were faced with such a barrier? Could we still find our authentic selves? I think eventually, Rachmaninoff did. In February of 1943, he and his wife became American citizens – an act that an old man certainly wouldn’t be required to do or feel obligated to do. But for a man seeking a new homeland, it looks like he finally found resolution. The following month he died in his newly adopted homeland. At his funeral was sung the All Night Vigil. These pieces of his we sing tonight are examples of Rachmaninoff at his most authentic.

Composers challenge us to find authenticity in their works. And it is a challenge. Especially when the music we sing has no words. But therein lies the beauty. For us to find authenticity – together, when authenticity is different for each of us – is truly amazing. You’ll hear Cantus paint an extremely clear picture when they sing Kodaly’s Mountain Lights, we’ll surround the audience with a cacophony of angels’ voices in Angels Song – all without a word.

When we sing “Holy Manna” and “Amazing Grace,” we seek authenticity in the text – yes; in the music – yes; but it is in the performance practice where it is most challenging to find, and present, authenticity, and not gimmicky, tongue-in-cheek sound. This music comes from a rural tradition – shape-note singing. This tradition helped untrained musicians read music very quickly. Why was this important? I can only think that their desire was to offer their best to God, as we attempt to do. Shallow vowels, strong “R’s,” and pressed voices may not be our idea of putting on our Sunday’s best, but to the people of this tradition, it was, and is, glorious. Our challenge as musicians, is to get the performance practice right in a way that respects the tradition.

Which brings me to NLC and Cantus and the authenticity we bring to the table as musicians. In order for music to be authentic, it can’t be about the person or the people – it’s about the music. And I think NLC and Cantus do a better job of that than most other groups. We make adjustments to our sound, to our interpretations, depending on the music in front of us. Would we sing Gabrieli in the same way we’d sing Jester Hairston’s “Amen?” It might be fun to try. There have been instances in Cantus’ history when it wasn’t about the music – surprisingly, each time that happened, it nearly ruined Cantus. Yes? We all seek to serve the music, authentically.

And now we come full circle. How does my fun-at-the-ER lead back to the NLC? Well, since that time, I continue to consider the gifts I’ve been given as clues to the kind of person God wants me to be. I’ve come to the realization that at my core – the person who I am – is a musician. But I, like Rachmaninoff, was a musician seeking a new homeland. A place to fill the longing in my heart. When I found NLC, I found my homeland. What is so amazing to me is that we have such an opportunity unique to so few: to come together living distinctly different lives, to praise the God we love, to find a moment in space and time, when the authenticity we seek separately is shared among us all.

May the Lord be with you. Lord, we thank you for the gifts that you’ve given to us that allow us to come together in friendship, fellowship, and song. Bless this space, this moment, and allow us to share your glory with all who are here. Amen.


Paul Wilson