Calendrical rituals

Further to my thoughts on festivals, today is the focus of the round of Bach Passion performances, now a kind of secular pilgrimage very different from the original liturgical context—not just of Good Friday but of the whole calendar (note John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, ch.9, “Cycles and seasons“). Different too are our ears, bodies, world-views, experiences, sanitation

Mark Padmore, incomparable Evangelist in the Passions, makes some thoughtful points here (cf. this article). Do watch his Matthew Passion as staged by Peter Sellars. And here he is in the John Passion (cf. Passion at the Proms)—how he sings und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich (from 33.48), and how Bach composed it, is miraculous:

Also in the John Passion is one of Bach’s most moving arias is Zerfließe, mein Herze:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren        Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!                                         to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:        Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot!                                                     your Jesus is dead!

More performative tears (see links here)—like north Chinese Daoist ritual, the aria is also accompanied by anguished wind ensemble, almost evoking (for modern ears) French film music.

While Protestants do their thing, let’s not forget Holy Week in Spain, with solemn hooded processions, soaring trumpets, and saeta devotional songs for the images of Christ and the Virgin (for more saeta, along with other moving cante jondo songs, see here):

Indeed, for me one of the benefits of being a touring muso was being able to combine both Bach Passions and flamenco. In southern Spain flamenco only tends to get going in the small hours, but concerts also begin at 10pm or later. So by the time we had played the final chorus of the Matthew Passion in Seville, there was plenty of time to stroll over the bridge to the wonderful Anselmas bar in Triana, downing a few G&Ts before the flamenco began to get in the groove.

Note also the liturgy of Castelsardo in Sardinia.

* * *

Meanwhile it’s a busy period in the Chinese ritual year calendar too. [1] On the Hebei plain, apart from everyone taking part in the lineage observances for the Qingming festival, Catholics are busy holding Masses and making pilgrimages—not least evading police road-blocks (see here, and for the Gaoluo Catholics, here). It is also the time of the 3rd-moon festival for the goddess Empress Houtu, when many villagers go on pilgrimage to the Houshan mountain temples to revere her.

Houshan disciples

The Houshan pilgrimage, which under the commune system had been observed only by a tenacious minority through the 1960s and 70s, began reviving in the 1980s; by the 1990s it was attracting around 100,000 pilgrims for its 3rd-moon temple fair. We met several village ritual associations on the mountain for the festival in 1995, though Gaoluo village no longer organizes a group; in recent years “people’s hearts are in discord”, as association leader He Qing lamented. In some places the Houtu festival has been revived within the village: for the 3rd-moon festival in 1996, for instance, we visited Shenshizhuang, south of Yixian county-town, whose four ritual associations all celebrate the Houtu festival in their separate ritual buildings in the village.

SSZ xihui 1996

Altar to Houtu, Shenshizhuang West association 1996.

Many villagers make the pilgrimage in small groups on their own initiative. Their vows are pledged to Houtu. One can climb to the Houshan temples to offer incense and pledge a vow, or just make it at home; the vow often used to include a promise to “look after a banquet” for the ritual association.

So the red flag which one often sees adorning truckloads of villagers in the 3rd moon now heralds a group of pilgrims rather than any political campaign—another sign of the changing times. But despite the lengthy impoverishment of ritual and faith, the power of Houtu is still strong: even in 1997 Gaoluo friends reminded me “Here we believe in the Empress Houtu, so a lot of people offer incense”.

* * *

For the dispassionate (sic) observer, some photos may distinctly suggest a stress on masochism in Easter observances around the world. Meanwhile on a visit to the Saudis, celebrated defenders of religious values, our Prime Minister gets herself embroiled in a futile dispute about Easter eggs with the notoriously subversive National Trust. Indeed, this “We’re not even allowed to celebrate our own culture any more” fatuity is itself becoming an annual ritual. Hey-ho.

For thoughts on our approaches to Morris dancing and local Chinese rituals, see here. See also The Annunciation in art and music.

[1] These notes are revised from my Plucking the winds.

34 thoughts on “Calendrical rituals

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