To me, it teeters on the very edge of metaphysical possibility to pick a single favorite song by Jason Robert Brown; but if the destiny of my immortal soul depended on it, my choice is emphatically “Music of Heaven” from the album Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes. It is not as technically impressive as some of his many other songs that I love, but manages so beautifully in its five-minute duration to distill a world of truth about the all-too-familiar “buffered self” longing to be cracked open. Listen, with special attention to its inevitable dramatic conclusion, and you’ll see what I mean.
The story goes that in 1997, JRB had to give up an engagement as an accompanist with the Broadway Gospel Choir (now known as Broadway Inspirational Voices) for another event out of town, but managed to make it back to New York in time to see the performance anyway. He writes in an old blog entry:
As someone who has only the most distant relationship to religious faith, I started the evening very skeptically, watching all these actors onstage emoting madly about their connection to God. But the longer I watched, the more my skepticism turned to admiration, even envy: they were really experiencing something up there, they were really connecting. Sure, some of it was showbiz, but I could see past that to the place where there was something sincere, something very powerful happening on stage. And ultimately, I felt more than a little tinge of regret that I was unable to connect the same way they did, even though I loved making that music more than almost anything else I played. Being a professional cynic has its downsides, and I never felt that more keenly than that night at that concert.
Which reminds me, and to take us a little further back than 1997: it is said, with regard to the Christianization of the Kievan Rus’ at the tail end of the first millennium, that the envoys of Vladimir the Great discovered true religion in Constantinople when they saw the Divine Liturgy for the first time at Hagia Sophia. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, they said, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.”
We in our own time with romantical hearts and some odd longing for the old days of empire can only imagine what spectacular beauty the delegates of the Grand Prince of Kiev experienced then. Timothy (later Kallistos) Ware writes that on the staff of Hagia Sophia in the year 612 were “80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 70 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 cantors, and 100 doorkeepers: this gives some faint idea of the magnificence of the service which Vladimir’s envoys attended” (from The Orthodox Church). Today the only things (in my purview anyway) that might hope to approach such numbers even remotely are the concert, opera, and Broadway stages. As for the average Orthodox church, forget it.
And yet, while I won’t begrudge those certain younger traditions of Christianity their gospel music, there is indeed a transcendent, otherworldly beauty in the Divine Liturgy that I have never found elsewhere in any human affair. It depends not on the numbers in attendance, nor on whether the music is simple Byzantine chant or more elaborate Russian hymns, nor on whether it is the midnight of Pascha or a regular Sunday, nor on whether it takes place in a hundred-year-old cathedral in the city or in a small parish in the outer boroughs… It is difficult for me to describe. Like “Music of Heaven,” it only reduces me in the end to saying, “Yes, I can say yes, let the music begin.”