A person could get happily lost in the etymologies of the names for this feast day in various languages. Pfingsten, as it’s called where I live, goes back Old High German: fimfchusti, “fiftieth”, derived from the Greek word which became “Pentecost” in English, which in turn goes back to the Jewish festival of shavuot, celebrated fifty days after Passover. Pentecost is the official term, but I prefer the folksier British “Whitsun”, of uncertain derivation. It probably means “white Sunday” – and the explanations for that are various and charming – but I hope the old sources are correct which claim it to mean “wits Sunday”, when the wit or knowledge provided by the Holy Spirit was dispensed from on high to a group of disciples.
What does this have to do with music, the putative subject of these ruminations? Well, if you must know... I was lazing in bed this pentecostal morning before facing the day’s pensum, and happened to recall the most memorable Whitsun of my life. At some point in the late 1970s, on one of the first tours I made in my new job as harpsichordist of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, we flew to Prague to play in the Czech Philharmonic’s famous hall in the Rudolfinum. I don’t know how this came about; it was probably a diplomatic exchange similar to the tour of China in 1980. I recall a tiny, deserted airport and a bus ride through gray, empty streets. Gray, in fact, is the predominant color in my vague recollections – a far cry from the rainbow which seems to have crashed onto today’s overly-spruced-up “landmark tourist destination”.
The morning after the concert was Whitsun. I was eager to see the sights, got up at dawn before the hotel started serving breakfast, and struck out through the deserted streets of the Staré Mesto. It was not edifying: broken windows, boarded-up doors, facades of obvious former splendor covered with centuries of dust and soot. I crossed the great bridge from which Johann Nepomuk was tossed for refusing to divulge the confessions of the Queen of Bohemia, thus gaining him the patronage of bridges across the Catholic world. I don’t recall meeting a single soul on it at that early holiday hour; a thing unthinkable now, at any time on any day of the year. Climbing the long hill to the Citadel I became increasingly conscious of an empty stomach. Eventually arriving at the piazza in front of the cathedral, I was overjoyed to see the first tables of a cafe terrace being laid out.
Breakfast had never tasted so good, in spite of the questionable quality of the ingredients, and the architectural view was splendid. After paying up with per diem Czech crowns, I was contemplating the archbishop’s palace, when the door opened and a small man dressed all in red and wearing an odd red hat emerged, attended by two men in white cassocks. They headed towards the gates leading to the cathedral and the inner fortress. I sensed something interesting was going to happen, so I got up and tagged along at the rear of the little procession as fourth man. We got to the wide-open doors of St. Veit’s and went in. The place was full of to bursting with humanity, but was dead silent. The moment the man in red appeared in the central aisle, the west-end organ erupted with every register available in a tremendous major-key chord, and the choir began singing jubilant music I had never heard. I caught a repeated text: “Veni creator spiritus”. I was clueless at the time, but it was the Pentecost hymn by Rabanus, a 9th-century Abbot of Fulda. The music was, of course, from the eighth symphony of Gustav Mahler, a composer Bohemia claims as its own. (I’ve still never heard the entire “Symphony of a Thousand”.)
I stood in the aisle listening, oblivious of the stares the good people of Prague were giving me. Those were minutes of sustained gooseflesh. I later learned that I had followed Cardinal Archbishop František Tomášek into his cathedral. He was one of the heroes of resistance to the Communist regime which had so recently crushed the Prague Spring, and sent Alexander Dubcek to work as a forester. A quarter century after that memorable morning I played a solo recital in the Spanish Hall of Prague’s citadel, as part of a festival named after the briefly hopeful springtime of 1968.
The pressing question for this morning is now: which of the four Bach cantatas for Pfingstfesttag will I listen to while taking my second morning cup of coffee? Will it be the glorious, early Weimar work, BWV 172? No...feeling a bit too old for that one. Let it be the mysterious BWV 34, written near the end of Bach’s life. My late friend Alfred Dürr wasn’t sure why, long after he was done composing cantatas for the Thomaskirche,* Bach parodied some movements of an earlier wedding cantata. He thinks the aging composer may have been inspired for a final, trumpet-and-timpani Pentecostal effort by the “heavenly flames” in the original text, which was slightly altered for the sacred version by an unknown poet. I feel sure that must have been Bach himself, who is known to have dabbled in ditties.
Never was something resembling the Holy Spirit more generously granted to a mortal.
*Gustav Leonhardt’s copy of the Bach Compendium, now in my library, shows a handwritten correction: um 1747.