John Webber Life of Benedict


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m7for torchestra
2+1 2+1 2+1 2+1 4 3 3 1
timp strings


Youth and Temptation

Benedict and Scholastica
Miracles of Benedict

Angel Concert

Durata circa 50 mins
Part 1
Part 2

Part 3

for brother Abraham and all the Sons of Benedict


A short note on the absolute in music.

The Christian Church teaches that we do not know God as he really is while we live here on earth. There have been exceptions: not only Jesus but all of the Saints. In the Christian Church a saint is anyone who has gone to heaven, where God may be known directly. It follows that a saint living on earth also knows God directly. For the rest of us we can only know God indirectly or "through a glass darkly" as St. Paul says in his epistle to the Corinthians. But what does it mean to see "through a glass darkly"? It means that we can- not yet understand absolute truth and have to learn about it by way of parables and other stories which relate and lead to the truth.

This has an analogy in music where music may be heard either as absolute music or as programme music. Many people have problems listening to contemporary serious music and for that reason many composers give their work descriptive titles and write 'pro- grammes' to explain the music and guide the listener.

As a composer I have always tended to steer away from programme music beleiving that it is not that difficult to learn to hear music as it really is. Certainly it is easier than learning to know God absolutely although in principle it is the same. To listen to music directly means to listen without awareness of body, mind and ego. Forget about the body and let go of fear, desire, opinion and thought. This may be thought of as polishing the glass (the looking glass). We do this daily, although unconsciously, when we fall asleep, and we do it consciously when we lose ourselves in a good book.

So there are two ways to listen to music and to approach God. May you enjoy listening to the music and may you have good luck on your way to sainthood!

John Webber June 2010


A couple showed up at the monastery on the afternoon Easter Day 2009. I noticed them reading some old Abbey Letters before vespers. Apparently they read the one from a few years ago containing an article about hobbies in the monastery, in which I mentioned having a shelf full of unperformed and unpublished music, because after vespers, they asked if they could have some copies of the music to typeset and put online. I had been told the same thing by other people in the past, and nothing ever came of it. The couple turned out to be John and Caroline Webber, and the outcome has been a far greater joy than I could ever have imagined.

John has typeset much of my music, produced synthesized audio files of it, and put it on the internet to be listened to by many. In the meantime, I have come to consider John and Caroline good friends, of whom I am grateful to have in my life. They are students of Vedanta (Indian wisdom about God and the universe), and we have had many interesting and fruitful discussions about the difference between Vedanta and the Gospel as well as their similarities.

When John said he was writing a piece based on Gregory the Great's LIFE OF BENEDICT, I was excited, but when I listened to the first parts and heard his explanations of the music, I was even more excited. John sees the story from "outside", without the usual monastic training in the tradition and stories about Benedict, Scholastica, Gregory, and other monastic forebears. In spite of that (and more probably because of it), he sees the story more clearly than many others. His notes printed on the score are helpful as one listens, and I will now try explain my own take on the composition:

I. YOUTH AND TEMPTATION: In the first movement, a "Benedict" theme and a plainchant are set forth, showing Benedict's early ascetic leanings, and hinting at his future. A childlike theme is then introduced, leading to disillusionment as he runs to the wilderness from the decadence of Rome, only to find decadence in his own self. Temptation (in the form of a flirty dancing woman) and confusion are then juxtaposed with a heavy ascetic motif. After much soul searching, he comes to realize the temptation comes from his own self, and so he can befriend it and make it part of his mature monastic vocation.

IIa. MIRACLES OF BENEDICT: After living as a hermit for some time, Benedict meets some monks who want him the be their abbot. Benedict warns them he will be too strict for them, but he agrees anyway. The musical conversation here grows angry as they realize he was correct. When they try to poison Benedict (he prays over the poisoned wine, and the cup breaks), he leaves them and founds a new monastery where many of his miracles happen. In one instance, he notices his monks are tired from hauling water from the bottom of the hill up to the monastery (expressed by a "heavy" musical motif), so he prays and a spring opens up closer to the monastery. Another miracle occurs whenan axe head is dropped in the water, and Benedict causes the axe head to float to the surface. At another time, a young monk falls in a river while drawing water, and Benedict sends an older monk to fetch him, who runs on the water in the rescue attempt. It can be seen in these miracle stories (and in others not mentioned here) that Gregory is trying to show that Benedict was as powerful a prophet for his own time as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha were for their own. Running throughout these miraculous episodes is the plainchant from the from the beginning of the first movement.

IIb. BENEDICT AND SCHOLASTICA:. The music now turns toward Benedict's relationship with his sister Scholastica, a nun who lived in a monastery near her brother's. Scholastica's theme starts the same as Benedict's, with the difference that hers is in a major key, while his is in a minor key (a musical comment on personality traits?). It is also waltzlike, but not potentially lewd like the dancing woman in the first movement (showing the full beauty of femininity, rather than a one-sided, immature, and shallow understanding of sexuality). Benedict and Scholastica had a tradition of visiting each other once a year, and on one particular occasion, Scholastica wants Benedict to stay longer than he thinks he should, because he does not want to break monastic decorum by spending the night outside his monastery. He will not listen to her pleas to stay, so she prays and a storm breaks out, making it impossible for him to travel. He learns from his sister that although rules are very important, people are always more important than rules. A few days after that incident, Benedict is looking out his window, and sees the soul of Scholastica rising to heaven; he knows she has died - a truly mature and devout nun who knew when to keep rules, and when to break them. Here, the opening plainchant from the first movement is interspersed with Scholastica's theme. Benedict dies shortly after that (his arms held up in prayer by his monks in the monastic chapel), a truly mature and devout monk, who has finally learned that rules are very important, but people are always more important than rules.

III. POSTLUDE (ANGEL CONCERT): A ballet ensues, with Scholastica and Benedict dancing with angels and singing "Jubilate Deo" and "Always Look On The Sunny Side Of Life." This final movement is a fitting tribute to a family who, although both were childless, have countless children around the world to this day doing their best to always praise God and, while trying always to be realistic and objective, look for the best in every situation and person and try to foster the growth of each individual into the unique image of God they are created to be.

Br. Abraham Newsom St. Gregory's Abbey Three Rivers, Michigan

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