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An Easter Overture

Around this time of year, I tend to develop an obsession with an extraordinary piece of music--Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture. My roommate introduced me to it about three years ago, and ever since, I have listened to it over and over come Passion Week and Easter. It is a remarkable testimony to how music--even purely instrumental music--can express rich and profound theology, and so movingly that it brings tears to your eyes.
What I like about this piece in particular is that, in telling the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, it does not simply narrate two acts--one tragic and one triumphant. It is not as if the music says--here is Christ's death, a terrible event, Satan has triumphed; now, here is Christ's resurrection, and it is glorious, and death is destroyed, and grief is gone, the crucifixion has been reversed. Rather, the music displays an incredible sensitiveness to the realization that it is not that simple--the crucifixion in the end is not a tragedy, and the resurrection is not simply the mirror image of what happened on Good Friday, canceling the grief and putting glory in its place. Rather, precisely what is so amazing about the Resurrection is that it is not so naive as to deny the tragedy of death, but rather, it takes up the tragedy of death and scripts it into a new story, in which life, not death, has the last word. Death is not denied or canceled out here, but is shown to be part of the glorious entrance into new life.

I'm no expert on music, but let me briefly describe the 15-minute overture as I experience it. Three main themes wrestle together in the piece--what I will call the theme of death, a loud, violent bray of brasses, proclaiming the irresistibility of death, then a theme of sorrow, a kind of somber acquiescence to death, often played on violins with a bittersweet edge, and finally, another theme in brass instruments that gloriously proclaims life, the power of life over death.
After a few minutes of setting the stage and the themes, the scene is clearly the crucifixion, where the violent trumpets of death assert themselves loudly, interpersed with bittersweet sorrow and intimations that death is not the only thing that's going on; the crucifixion scene ends with a proclamation of triumph--death has not had the last word even at this point, but something wonderful has happened--"It is finished." But it certainly doesn't seem that way...the next couple minutes indulge in grief that Christ is dead and buried. Then something new is is not merely the rest of the grave. The themes of life and death begin a violent struggle. "O 'twas a strange and dreadful strife, when life and death contended." Finally, Easter morning is here. The theme of life triumphantly asserts that it is victorious, and we hear its power spreading through all of creation. Now the theme of sorrow repeats occasionally, but transposed into a key that makes it each time less sorrowful and more beautiful. The theme of death makes one last violent assertion, but is then overwhelmed in a breathtaking climax in which it and the theme of sorrow are not cut off, but rather taken up into the heartbreakingly beautiful song of triumph that all has been made new.

This beautiful retelling of Christ's resurrection points us toward the glorious fulfillment of the world in the resurrection of all things. It is easy sometimes to think of the final resurrection as constituting the kind of simple "No" to death that is merely the opposite, merely the other side of the balance, which seeks to simply assert, "sin and death are over, now life reigns." No, the triumph of life in the resurrection is one which will not deny all of the sin and suffering and death that the world has groaned under, but which will add a final chapter to the story, thus rescripting these tragedies into a triumphant narrative, and making all that has come before part of the beauty of that final triumph.

Some of the greatest representations in literature have also displayed this glorious truth--Harry Potter (yes, I mean it) and Lord of the Rings are two fine examples.

"How do I feel?" Samwise cried, "Well, I don't know how to say it. I feel, I feel" – he waved his arms in the air – "I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!"

All the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.


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