Long before there was a Bible in every home, and before words and printed text had irrevocably shaped human learning, there were pictures—art that told stories.
In particular, the great cathedrals of Europe give us glorious examples of how stained glass windows were designed to tell the biblical stories for generations who learned by listening and seeing. Many of these magnificent buildings, with their picture-story windows, still stand for us to admire. They also provide us the opportunity to put aside the paper-text stories for a time, and engage our imaginations. We can practice “reading” the images, searching for mysteries that the text does not reveal, but the image might.
Ottorino Respighi’s work, Church Windows (1925), invites us to enter these story-pictures through sound.
Respighi was a prolific Italian composer, who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, wrote in a popular genre of the time: the symphonic or tone poem. He is primarily known for his trilogy of four-movement compositions which paint pictures of Italy: The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals. Many of his orchestral works follow this four-fold pattern, with evocative, imagery-rich music. Church Windows is also an example of this style.
Respighi confessed that these four movements—“The Flight into Egypt,” “St. Michael the Archangel,” “The Matins of St. Clare,” and “St. Gregory the Great”—were not inspired by actual church windows, but arose from his religious upbringing and named after the work was complete. For me, this raises the question of how much the title of a musical work influences your listening. What do you hear in these works, because of their quasi-religious titles, that you might not have heard, otherwise? What nuances of the story do these musical “pictures” reveal, that you might not have picked up from either the text or a stained-glass window?
There is no question that art reveals, as well as obscures, meaning. But so does text. As you listen this week, be sensitive to the ways that music helps, and hinders, the telling of the story.
Church Windows, Ottorino Respighi
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos
Fairy Tale, Op. 26, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yondani Butt