Thursday, July 25, 2013

Imperfect Harmony: A Book Review

Stacy Horn is an evangelist.

Since she is not a Christian, she might protest this title.  But, be that as it may, she is an evangelist.  She is, specifically, an evangelist for singing.  Specifically, she sings the praises of choral singing.  She has sung soprano with the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York for the past thirty years.  She believes that the experience has changed her life, though not, perhaps, in tangible ways.

Her book, Imperfect Harmony, is an eclectic mix of memoir, history, science and music.  She tells stories of choirs, and the rise of choral singing, beginning with the story of Orpheus Glee Club, a choir borne out of a mining tragedy in in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  She joyfully relays the health benefits of singing (what is that natural high we get from singing together?), and digs into the background of famous choral composers and pieces.  In the midst of all these, she weaves in stories of her own life, and how singing with the choir has sustained her through good times and bad.   She worries about whether her voice is good enough.  She worries that she is losing her high notes.  She shares her financial stresses and relationship woes.

Especially poignant is the story Horn shares about her mother's illness and death.  Though not a person of religious faith herself, her mother returned to the Catholic faith during her illness, and she wants to be able to give her mother something to ease her dying.  Finally, she decides what she can do for her mother.  She can sing.   She can sing Schubert's Ave Maria.  So that is what she does.

I would never talk to my mother again  I sang to take her hand one last time.  If the music successfully carried those words to a place were she could still hear them, somewhere inside she was saying them along with me.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.  I don't need to believe a thing about God to understand and feel the hope in those words, those notes.  My mother needed to hear them and I needed to believe that she had.  (p. 190)
Stacy Horn is an evangelist.  And she reminds me of the power of music, and why it has been such an integral part of Christian worship throughout the centuries.  There is a power in singing, and there is a power in singing together.  The words and the music together bind us together and tie us to a hope that is much deeper than any intellectual assent could give us.

I have to say, in an age where we often let the professionals sing for us, we need a reminder that singing is for all of us.  Stacy Horn will often say that she has an ordinary voice.  She is an ordinary person who is grateful for singing.  She is grateful for a community who sings together.

I have a few friends who have pretty much given up on the church.  They have given up on the church because of deep hurt and pain they have experienced, because of exclusion, because the church isn't always what it is supposed to be.  But when they say they miss something, it's this:  singing.  Singing together.

It's how we believe, even when we're not sure we believe.  Singing binds us together, and carries us through each day.  It binds us together and carries us into eternity.

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