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Postscript for a Postlude, by Guy Urban (Musically Speaking – October 2023)

Oct 6, 2023

Photograph of Charlyn Bethell and Guy UrbanThis year, for the first time in fifteen years, we will have new Postlude music at the end of our services at FPW.  The old Postlude music was and still is very important to me, and I’d like to share some of what it has meant to me.

When I was a kid, one of the first classical music pieces I fell in love with was the Concerto for Orchestra, by Béla Bartók.  The second movement, called “Game of Pairs”, was a delirious, bubbly, playful series of duets between different instruments: bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets.  All the while, in the background, was a little drum, as if played by a toy soldier.  Then, all of a sudden, came a beautiful chorale that changed the mood entirely.  Ordinary major and minor chords, but combined in new, mysterious ways that seemed just perfect.  It was an oasis of peace amidst the bubbly rhythms of the rest of “Game of Pairs”.  When this short chorale ends, the woodwind scamps start chirping, and take over once again.  Here is a recording of an excerpt that has the playful trumpet duet disappear into the beautiful chorale.

Cut to 2008: I discovered that Bartók was a Unitarian, and that my beloved chorale was in our hymnal (no. 332, “Perfect Singer”).  I was the new pianist for FPW.  My predecessor had always played classical pieces for Postlude, a different one each week.  These often elicited applause, like in a concert performance.  Our then minister Mark Harris and I decided we wanted to make the Postlude music the same every week, to make it more of an experience of shared spirituality, and less of a performance.  I suggested my beloved Bartók chorale.  Would people like it?  We agreed to try it for a while.  It lasted fifteen years!

Why do I think it worked so well?  First was the ritual aspect of it: it was the same music every week.  Second, the music was peaceful and serene, suggesting a sense of gentle closure.

Cut again, now to the present:  changes were happening in FPW, and in the world.  The pandemic forced us to examine our old habits and create a new way of living and engaging with each other.  The Black Lives Matter movement took on increased urgency, leading us to examine ourselves in new ways.  In the FPW Choir, Charlyn initiated weekly Zoom choir sessions where we studied the history of African-American music.  I think this was eye-opening for many of us; I know it was for me.  It reminded me of the urgency and “realness” of music’s role in life: not just as entertainment or enrichment, but as truly life-affirming, even life-saving, particularly in the way it helped people feel connection with each other.

This opened up for me a new awareness regarding my personal history.  I grew up (in the ‘50s and’60s) in a UU church in suburban Chicago.  It was mostly white, completely middle-class, intellectual, liberal, well-educated.  Many of the services were more cerebral than passionate: for Christmas Eve service the minister read T. S. Elliot’s poem “The Gift of the Magi”, an abstract and literary symbol of that subdued attitude.

The most recent change of course is the arrival of our new minister Rev. Sophia, and this has also had a big effect on me.  My engagement with the church process has increased exponentially: more participation with how music fits in to the service as a whole; more willingness to try new things, including those outside my comfort zone.

Just before the start of the new church year, Rev. Sophia asked us to listen to “Where You Go I Will Go”, used as a Postlude in a video of a UU service.  Could we do the same?  It involved new music, congregational singing, and my continuing to play while people got up and talked.

At first, I felt a loss about the Bartók chorale.  But then I realized that Bartók wasn’t going anywhere.  What’s more, after all these years, my original mystical joy in the chorale had devolved somewhat.  The chorale had, for me, turned into a quiet, cerebral, place-holder.  In my mind, I now associated it with the white, middle-class UU church I grew up in: calm, collected, a little abstract.  Not playing it now every week allowed its original joy to be freed up for me.

I love our new Postlude, and through it I feel more connected than ever to everyone in the Sanctuary. I have spoken to people in the congregation who are sad that the Bartók was taken out of the Postlude, and also people who have really enjoyed the new “Where You Go I Will Go”.  And some of these people are both!  If you miss the Bartók, I hope you will ask me to play it for you sometime… And short of that, here is a recording of it that I made for our streaming services during the pandemic.

And for any pianists out there who like the Bartók, here is the sheet music (all of these files can be downloaded).

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