One of the advantages of a huge endowment is the luxury to experience culture. Although we don’t live in Princeton, we don’t live far from it, and most years we venture down to hear the free Advent Concert given by the Princeton Chapel Choir. For those of you who’ve never been to the Princeton campus, or perchance have not visited the chapel there, the setting is part of the experience. On the order of a small Medieval cathedral, the campus chapel at Princeton is by far the largest I’ve encountered, and the acoustics from the soaring stone are impressive, even to an untrained ear such as mine. Since my wife is the musical one in this marriage, she reads the program with an avidity I lack, but I do recognize striking music when I hear it. This year’s concert included a piece I recollected from a few years ago, Christine Donkin’s “Magnificat.”
I’m at the age where it is no longer surprising to find very talented people much younger than myself. Christine Donkin is in this class. A Canadian composer, she has had her music performed in major venues such as Carnegie Hall. Her “Magnificat” is the only piece with which I am familiar, but it is a powerful work that can be compared to a mystical experience in the listening. Written for women’s voices, the piece evokes a spirituality that seems to come easily to those who are submissive. The Magnificat is, by tradition, Mary’s psalm of submission to the divine will, based on 1 Samuel’s account of Hannah conceiving the prophet Samuel. In a world dominated by male humans as well as a male deity, the song of Mary is one of the subtle poems celebrating the upsetting of the entrenched power structures that have held women down. If you listen closely enough, its subversive elements become clear.
Donkin’s “Magnificat,” in a darkening cathedral on a December evening, is a moving experience. It is a piece that leaves me feeling as if I’ve temporarily been somewhere else. And that elsewhere is far from the turmoil and troubles of daily life. And there are no men involved.
Over the years we’ve heard many impressive performances in that stone edifice. None, however, it seems to me, so powerful as that of a young woman confronted with a reality beyond that of everyday life. A reality that men cannot touch, but which, when the circumstances are right, they might hear if they’re willing to listen, and in doing so might find their own burdens lightened for a few minutes on a winter’s evening.