Situational: music-arranging and letter-writing

In my experience, ensembles have rarely if ever been perfectly chosen and thoroughly balanced, so musical arrangements for those ensembles must take into account the needs of the situation.

In Paul’s and John’s and James’s experience, churches were rarely if ever perfectly taught and “thoroughly furnished unto every good work,” so letters and epistles addressed to them took into account what the recipients needed in their situations.

To illustrate further:  During June and July I took the opportunity to adapt and arrange a previously transcribed orchestral piece—Fromental Halévy’s March Funebrè (1835).  Alterations from the first phase (ten years ago) moved from D trumpet to today’s normative trumpets in C and Bb, from horn in D and and piston horn in A to horns in F, and from ophicleide to tuba.  In some cases, the modern equivalents can project and resonate more than the 1835 instruments, and in other cases, the old instruments don’t exist anymore.  My earlier transcription, then, was situational in that it was, loosely speaking, for the “situation”¹ of the modern orchestra, as opposed to the orchestra and instruments that had existed two centuries prior.

The present (2017) adaptation was for a special, one-occasion summer orchestra—actually more like an oddly constituted pit orchestra band with a pipe organ than an orchestra per se, and this reality led to numerous changes in my score.  The situation called for it.  There were to be four trumpets (five appeared on the night of the first rehearsal) but no bassoon at all.  There were five violins total instead of the 12-16 I’d hoped for.  There was no viola; there were 0-2 cellos, depending on the night; and there was no double bass at all.  The original score called for two clarinets in A, but the sole Bb clarinetist couldn’t make the rehearsal.  There was one flute at the rehearsal, then another for the first performance, and a third appeared for the final performance.  And (gasp) a saxophone was present each time.  Fortunately, she was classically trained and sensitive and did a nice job blending with other woodwinds on a part originally intended for bassoon.  As arranger/adapter-for-situation, I considered the characteristics of the saxophone in its low range and wrote the part up an octave in spots.

I had about 35 minutes total to rehearse (20 at the rehearsal proper, plus 7 and 8, respectively, during “spot checks” prior to each performance).  Fortunately, the players were all capable, and most were at least moderately artistic, so they were responsive.  But the performing space is exceptionally live², and there was that (double gasp) organ, so I had to adjust some dynamics and even re-choose instrumentation on the fly.  These decisions are part of my training, and experience, so it’s no problem, but it does require awareness of the situation.  Remember, the original composition had already been transcribed for a somewhat updated orchestral medium, and then it was further adapted for about one-fifth of the original complement of strings; too few woodwinds, and too many brass to balance the strings and woodwinds; synthesized drum, cymbal, and timpani; and (ahem) organ.  Here are the opening measures:

Arranging, much more than transcribing, takes the situation into consideration.  Here’s a summary of the arranging proposition, speaking in general terms:

Musical arrangements should take into account all aspects of the setting, including personnel and their abilities, instrument sonority and quality, balance, acoustics, and rehearsal time available.

First-century letters and epistles also naturally considered aspects of the setting, including culture, recent events, relationship and interpersonal dynamics, prior teaching, and recent/current events in the locale.³  Take for instance the churches at Philadelphia and Philippi:  they seem to have been in good health, relatively speaking, but they still needed some communication directed to them specifically.  On the other hand, the churches at Korinth4 and Kolosse4 and in the Galatian region stood in sore need of teaching and directive, so Paul taught them according to their situations.5   The written correspondence was occasional . . . situational . . . written for, or into, specific occasions/situations.


¹ More specifically, the original transcription was also for the occasion of my doctoral dissertation.

² When reading “exceptionally live,” one might legitimately translate, “objectionably, ear-splittingly resonant to the point that most spoken words, many musical tones, and a few pitch centers were lost in garbled oblivion.”  The sounds rang so much and so long that the Doppler effect was noted.

³ We might refer here to the presence of inspiration.  In the case of music, some works might be thought of as more “inspired” than others.  In the case of scripture, it’s a more thorny proposition, yet highly consequential.  I’d suggest that the involvement of God’s Spirit in the process of, say, Paul’s letter to the Galatians means, among other things, that that letter was exceptionally well targeted:  it was written for a specific situation, a defined setting.  In other words, , if a document is situational, God can in the writing just as much, if not more.

The original has the Greek letter kappa, which equates to the English K.  I believe it’s because of the later Latin influence that we have Cs in our English Bibles for the initial consonants of these and other K-words.

5 Romans and perhaps Ephesians might be thought of as somewhat general and less specifically, situationally targeted.

Situational letters

Deep within many of us — those nurtured by Bible-attentive churches, especially — resides a solid devotion to the timeless authority of scripture.  While such devotion is clearly a good thing, it can result in less-than-helpful situations.  Reverential attitudes toward scripture have led to

  • discussions around the nature of inspiration (2 Tim 3:16)
  • countless fights over interpretation methodologies
  • an almost idolatrous fear of writing in the margins of one’s Bible

Of deeper, more insidious concern is the tendency of some to claim for scripture that which it does not claim for itself.  Canonical writings never claim, for instance, that the words were dictated by the Spirit, i.e., that John and Peter and Paul, etc., had their upper extremities robotically controlled.

It isn’t hermeneutically necessary to suppose that the words of the original manuscripts were necessarily authorized by God, although they might be.  Scripture certainly never claims that a single translation is authorized above another, either.  “Authorization,” when it comes down to it, seems to be an inherently human notion.  Furthermore, the authors themselves seem not to have suspected that they were authorized to create documents for the ages:  rarely, if ever, could honest readers of scripture infer that an author had the sense that what he was writing what would become scripture.

A recent conversation with friends reminded me of the distinction among various types of scriptural literature — narrative/history, letters, poetry, and prophecy, to name the major groupings.  We might even be able to correlate the type of biblical literature with an author’s relative sense of being God’s oracle for wider, longer-living audiences.  In other words, when Paul wrote letters to Timothy, they were specifically directed and situationally time-bound, and therefore unlikely to have been conceived as being for time immemorial.  The writers of the somewhat more general, and later-penned, gospels, on the other hand, might have assumed that their messages would extend to broader audiences through the decades, if not the centuries.

Also wrapped up in the question of whether Paul and Peter and others thought they were writing “scripture” is the question of eschatological foretelling:  the apostles appear, at least initially, to have thought the Lord’s final coming was imminent, so they wouldn’t likely have written something they thought would also be read by believers in the year 2012.

Most letters in the New Covenant scriptures are considered situational — that is, written out of and into a particular sitz im leben (situation of life).  Further,  I have lately learned that letters are not really epistles, despite the headings in some Bibles, e.g., “The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians.”  An epistle appears to carry the connotation of a rhetorically formal document — reasoned and fully worked out.  A letter is somewhat less formal.  Most of our Pauline material seem to lean more toward the “letter” category, although Romans and perhaps another one or two are exceptions.

Inasmuch as the letter to the Galatians is an epistle, it might be thought to be universally applicable (at least, in the time in which it was penned).  Inasmuch as it is a letter, it is more situationally specific.  One goal in poring over a letter is to uncover its situation — the situation out of which, and into which, it was written … i.e., the impetus for its creation.  No matter who Galatians was addressed to (those in the specific province of Phrygian Galatia, or those in the larger region settled over centuries by the Gauls), it is unmistakable that Paul was monumentally, spiritually ticked off at the way things were going.  That he was addressing a situation is beyond question; I am persuaded he was addressing it by the impetus of God Himself.

I’m not at all sure Paul knew he was writing “scripture” for later believers, though.  (Remember that 2 Tim. 3:16 couldn’t really have applied to New Testament material, since it wasn’t collected yet.  Almost certainly, the reference to “all scripture” was to Tanakh/Old Testament documents.)  Scripture doesn’t claim that Paul had an inkling of this letter’s perpetuity, and I won’t ascribe such a sixth sense to him, either.

Does all this matter?  Well, yes, I think it’s significant, or I wouldn’t have bothered.  It’s not as significant as eternal love or grace or hope or the second coming … but as I study and learn more of such ancient documents, before I attempt to apply them to my situation, I want to know more about the situations in which they originated.  This knowledge is more important than figuring out whether Paul (anachronistically) considered his letters “scripture.”

Philemon 1: structural clues

On Sunday evening, September 19, our Philemon study group began.

Content-wise, our activities commenced as any study group should–directly in the text. Well, OK, I did give about 5 min. of introductory background from the Int’l Standard Bible Enclopedia, Vol. IV, but as soon as we collected ourselves, we read the text.  Six times. You can do that with Philemon.  🙂

This past Sunday evening, we started delving earnestly into the organization, the structure, the linguistic clues, the historical background (and anything else we might be led into).  Drawing from material penned by my friend Greg Fay, we looked first at clues that outline the structure of a letter in first-century Graeco-Roman culture.  Admittedly, some of these seem simplistic and might be assumed, without much ado.  The “introduction,” while not always found at the outset, is most often right there where you expect it to be.  And in Philemon, we are not surprised to find the introduction in verses 1-7.

The middle/body/meat is in verses 8-20 or 21, and the conclusion, in verses 21-25.  Greg points out the transitional material in verses 8-10 that delineate the beginning of the Main Body of the letter and later comments, “With skilled writers, it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly where a Conclusion begins because the transition is natural and fluid.”  I’m confident that as our little study group digs more deeply into Philemon in the coming few weeks, we’ll develop a more solid sense of the God-breathed message, and will gain understanding of the elements that provide clarifying delineation around said message.

The thoughts of skill and transitioning into concluding material reminded me of a preacher I heard during a certain year in my life, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  I can hear his voice now, as he transitioned into his concluding material in each sermon.  His voice ascended in pitch, and became a little more nasal and annoying.  The clue words were “And so …” with the word “so” nearly an octave above the pitch of “And.”  We always knew when to scrape the hymnal against the rack, dragging it out to be ready for the invitation song, because the closing clues were so obvious.  This preacher’s gifts were not necessarily in public speaking, as you might have guessed.

Thankfully, Paul was not such a humdrum preacher.  There’s an inspired message here in this little book, and that includes the intro, the body, and the conclusion.  I aim to discover more of this message, to help others discover it, and ultimately to let it affect my efforts at being a disciple.