Friday, October 23, 2015

Alumnus Mark Stringer Shares Touching Madrigal Memory

As the Department of Music prepares to celebrate the 40th Annual Madrigal Feaste, all former jesters for the event were invited to be our guests for this year's milestone. Alumnus Mark Stringer let us know that he is unable to attend the anniversary celebration, but shared the following story with us which captures the impact of the Madrigal Feaste on him personally as well as the true essence of the Holiday season.

I think back to the AU Madrigal Feasts fondly, as I had the privilege to sing in three of them and be the jester at one. I've even preached about the Madrigal Feaste for the UU congregation I serve. Here's the story I shared a few years back. Thought some of you might enjoy:

As a student at Ashland University, I had the privilege to sing every December as a member of a madrigal troupe. We worked all fall, learning traditional carols and English music from the 16th century and doing our best to grow beards…the men, that is…to prepare for a week of performances at the annual Madrigal feast.

Each night, over the course of several days, my fellow madrigals and I would dress in mock-ups of Renaissance garb, complete with goofy hats, tights, and ill-fitting footwear, and attempt to entertain about 200 people who paid to consume Cornish game hens, applaud at the arrival of some kind of flaming dessert soaked in rum, and hear music of the season.

One of the highlights of the night for me was the final set of more traditional Christmas music, culminating with a performance of “Silent Night.” The troupe would sing the first verse in German, then the audience with lit candles in hand, would join in signing the remainder in English. It was always a touching moment.

Over the four years I participated in the feasts, I grew quite fond of the tradition. My family enjoyed it, as well, making the hour-long drive from their home in Akron one night each December to participate. One year, though, my mother had been suffering one of her frequent and crippling bouts with depression and it was unlikely that she would be able to attend.

After years of roller coaster-like ups and downs, it appeared as though she might be nearing the end of her rope.  Just when I had resigned myself to the fact that she wouldn’t be coming, she somehow got up enough gumption to join my father and sister in making the trip. I don’t remember much about the performance she attended that year, except for the end.

As the candles flickered their eerie yellow glow, I remember standing there in my forest green madrigal costume made of old curtains and smelling pungent with the years of accumulated perspiration. My feet, clad in thin slippers to look Madrigally, were blocks of ice against the marble floor of Redwood Hall. The air was lightly touched with the intermingled smell of coffee and candle wax, and the troupe began to quietly sing:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schlaft, einsam wacht,
Nur das traute hochheilge Paar
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.

As the crowd joined in, I looked out to the table where I had reserved seats for my family and there was my mother, my beautiful, troubled mother singing “Silent Night.” I could not hear her voice, yet I knew it was somewhere in the unison mix of emanating from the makeshift community of local townspeople, friends and families.

Out of the music, and the hazy glow of the shared candle light, came a truly holy moment for me. A moment of peace. A moment of transcendence. If only for this moment, things were ok. My mother was there, singing, I was singing, everyone was singing. We were singing about hope, about miracles, about light. Suddenly a song that had been significant simply for its place in the Christmas soundtrack of my life had new meaning, new depth. I found myself connected not only to the tune, but to the words as well...

In the years since that night, much has changed. My mother is no longer alive, my family doesn’t get together every December the way we used to, and I now find myself leading the singing of “Silent Night” not as a madrigal, but as a minister.

But singing “Silent Night” can still take me back to that night, now nearly 30 years ago, and has therefore become, like many other Christmas carols, more than just a song for me.  It is an annual reminder of the fragile gift we can be to one another…the temporary nature of our shared lives and the blessings that life has to offer…even in our suffering…even in our pain. The singing of “Silent Night” has become for me annual evidence of the miracle that we exist, that we can gather together, and share…and love, and lose…and keep living anyway.

Am I stretching this all too far? Maybe, but it seems to me that stretching is what the Christmas celebration is all about.

Mark Stringer, Ashland University, Class of 1989, BA in Theatre 
Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church of Des Moines
Former actor with Nebraska Theatre Caravan and various theatre companies in Chicago
MA, Theatre, Bowling Green State University
Master of Divinity, Meadville Lombard Theological School

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