Icon of the Pentecost, Russian, 16th century.
“The king stablished all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.” (Le Morte d'Arthur, pp 115-116)
Yesterday was Pentecost, a major feast day in the Anglican Church. It falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter, and commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus' death. In Greek, Pentecost means "the fiftieth [day]" and originally refered to an ancient, historical Jewish festival commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In modern Judaism this festival is called Shavuot.
As had happened with the Jewish festival, in early Christian England, the theological observance of Pentecost was conflated with already-existing pagan ritual of Beltane. In the Arthurian legends, not only did the King have his knights swear their most solemn oaths on the day of Pentecost, he also refused to go into the dining hall until he had seen some miracle or wonder; it's one of the ways that Arthur's other-worldliness and spiritual leadership is shown in the legends, in contrast to Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery, as well as some of the other knight's acts.
In later England, though, Pentecost was more often called Whitsun, or Whitsunday. The Wikipedia has a good entry on the possible etymology of the name "Whitsun", or "White Sunday", in the late Middle Ages, and on the possible conflation of "whit" (white) and "wit" (understanding) :
"The name is a contraction of "White Sunday", attested in "The Holy-Ghost, which thou did send on Whit-Sunday" in the old English homilies, and parallel to the mention of hwitmonedei in the early 13th-century Ancrene Riwle. Walter William Skeat noted that the Anglo-Saxon word also appears in Icelandic hvitasunnu-dagr, but that in English the feast was always called Pentecoste until after the Norman Conquest, when white (hwitte) began to be confused with wit or understanding. According to one interpretation, the name derives from the white garments worn by catechumens, those expecting to be baptised on that Sunday. Moreover, in England, rather than the more usual red, were traditional for the day and its octave. A different tradition is that of the young women of the parish all coming to church or chapel in new white dresses on that day. However, Augustinian canon, John Mirk (c1382 - 1414), of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, had another interpretation:
Good men and wimmen, this day (Dies Penthecostes) is called Wytsonday by cause the holy ghost bought wytte and wisdom into Crists dyscyples, and so by prechying after in all Cristendom and fylled him full of holy WytteThus, he thought the root of the word was "wit" (formerly spelt "wyt" or "wytte") and Pentecost was so-called to signify the outpouring of the wisdom of the Holy Ghost on Christ's disciples."
However, today the liturgical color for Pentecost in our tradition is red: red for the "tongues of flame" that supposedly showed the presence of the Holy Spirit. Lots of parishioners, too, wear red on that day. Yesterday we had a liturgical dance by the kids, carrying trailing "flames" of yellow, orange and gold transparent cloth, three baptisms, and we sang a lot of special music - more about that later. I've never been too keen on the idea that the "Spirit" only appeared in the world at that time, and only to these early Christians, so I was happy that our Dean preached about the Spirit being present to all human beings, of all creeds and none, from the beginning of time. He also made a point of calling it "Her."
For our part, we had two services filled with music, much of it for eight-part double choir. In the morning we sang a terrific unaccompanied contemporary mass setting, the Missa "Cantate," by Bob Chilcott (unfortunately no recordings or videos of this that I could find.) It ends with an Agnus Dei written with aleotoric sections: that's where the singers are some instructions but then asked to improvise or repeat it individually and freely according to certain restrictions: these may be a set of notes or a specific phrase, and a time period. We then "gather" on a specified note at the director's instruction, and move on to the next section, which may be written out conventionally, or proceed to another set of instructions.
The effects created can be absolutely mesmerizing: murmuring sound clusters, voices emerging out of a cloud of sound, repeated words, created musical "atmospheres" in a less defined progression than usual, that invite a different type of listening experience: sometimes meditative and minimalistic, sometimes surprising, sometimes eerie, often emotional. I had never seen scores like this before joining this choir, and was really intimidated when I first had to perform them but quickly became fascinated. It was, as you can perhaps imagine, perfect for Pentecost.
We also performed another aleotoric piece, this one written by our own director, Patrick Wedd, for a Vancouver choral festival, on the Pentecost text (and one of the oldest hymns of the Christian church), Veni Creator Spiritus. Patrick's piece is almost all aleotoric, with certain voice parts singing the hymn, while others improvise on sets of given notes in the key of B-flat major. But in addition to the voices, the piece also includes a score for handbells: in this case, all the bells in the key of B-flat major. We have a beautiful multiple-octave set of Whitechapel handbells at the cathedral, and use them every week for the psalm chants, but not so often as part of other music. I like playing them (being an old instrumentalist at heart) so I had fun trying to coordinate my bell, the hand-written score, and my improvisational vocal part, while keeping an eye on the director and trying to turn pages and not drop anything -- my expensive bell in particular. Maybe one day we'll have a recording of this piece that I can share with you; I think it came off pretty well.