The Unity Light – RPC Music Notes, Sun 19 Jan 2020

The Amen from Bach’s Advent Cantata BWV 61 “Now come, saviour of the nations” is based not on that tune, but on the Epiphany Hymn “How brightly shines the Morning Star.”

It is no coincidence that, around the world, festivals of light like Christmas, Hanukkah, Divali, Kwanzaa (and many more) cluster around the time of the winter solstice – the emerging return of light to a world that has descended into darkness.

Epiphany, both the 6th of January and the following season, ends the classical twelve days of Christmas. Along with its traditional focus on the learned Magi from eastern lands who seek a newborn king in Palestine, another icon has emerged in the themography and music of Christian Worship – the star that led them on their journey, and more broadly the image of light as antidote not just to darkness, but to a host of other woes (including, but not limited to, evil, ignorance, paganism and atheism).

Epiphany, the beginning of Jesus’ mortal ministry, like the Day of Pentecost that ends it, represents the expansion of the faith of Israel into the broader world. The star’s emergence in heathen lands has long been employed as a symbol of evangelism. Ironically our December Christmas is likely because of a world already celebrating the light of winter solstice (rather than newly receiving the Light of Christ) at this time.

A musical incarnation of this we see today at RPC is Bach’s choice to end his Advent Cantata BWV 61 “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” with a beautiful Amen based on the Lutheran chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” prominent throughout today’s service. In the title of the Cantata’s foundational hymn Jesus is identified as “Saviour of the Nations” (in older translations it goes so far as to say “Saviour of the Heathen”), and so the connection to the arrival of the Magi at Jesus’ birth is unmistakable, as Bach, a devout Lutheran, sought musical symbolism to accompany text settings in all of his church music, and the Cantatas in particular.

Viewing all this it also seems no coincidence that the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity also falls in the Epiphany Season. First proposed in 1908 but really emerging on the international stage in 1948 with the founding of the World Council of Churches in the aftermath of World War II, it gathers notoriously divided Christians in the service of an annual theme of prayer and action. As we observe this remarkable occasion, let’s remember the growing light shining down upon, not just upon us hopefully united Christians, but also upon those of many other faiths in this holy season.

-CD

In dulci jubilo & 1st person – RPC Music Notes, 12 Jan 2020

In dulci jubilo arr. Pearsall/Jacques
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge under the late Stephen Cleobury

One of the most ignored factors in the culture of song is voice. When lyrical content is considered by the average listener (or singer, or critic), the significance of just who is understood to be speaking, and to whom, is often ignored.

An anthem entitled something like “Oppression shall be overcome” might have helped in the 1960s struggle for civil rights, but would it have been the same rallying cry as the self-implicating “WE shall overcome”? Or would a hymn entitled “Jesus loves us, this we know,” have represented the same comfort and security to millions as one sung in their personal voice (1st person singular), “Jesus loves me, this I know?”

Let’s consider a medieval Germanic carol melody prominent in today’s service, whose original Latin text “In dulci jubilo” has in English long given way to a different text, “Good Christians all, rejoice,” (BOP #141) composed in the imperative voice, that is, an autonomous voice giving to someone else an exhortation or command.

“Now give heed to what WE say:”

“Now YOU hear of endless bliss:”

“Calls YOU one and calls YOU all,
To gain His everlasting hall.”

For whom are we proxy in our singing of these words, and to whom are we addressing them? Is it us, the ‘Good’ Christians, addressing others we hope are, or wish were, likewise?

Now look back at the original Latin text (shown here in a common macaronic English translation), written entirely in the first person, both singular and plural:

In dulci jubilo [‘in sweetest joy’], let US OUR homage show:

OUR heart’s joy reclineth in praesepio [‘in a cradle’].

MY prayer, let it reach Thee,
O princeps gloriae! [‘Prince of glory’]
Trahe me post te! [‘draw ME unto thee’]

The purpose here is not to judge or critique choices in authorship, translation and ecclesiology – but rather to draw attention to the role of voice in the words we sing and to engage with their meaning, for those who hear, AND for we who sing. In a sense we grant words an awesome responsibility when we choose to enliven and empower them by the addition of music in our own singing – so such questions are not trivial.

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How Music says Home – RPC Music Notes, Sun 22 Dec 2019

The Road Home – Stephen Paulus
Conspirare under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson

In one of our anthems this morning, which I reserve each year for what we call here at Rosedale Presbyterian Church “Homecoming Sunday,” the late Stephen Paulus brought an American folk hymn tune ‘Prospect’ (appearing first, it is thought, in Southern Harmony (1835) under the title “The Lone White Bird”) to writer Michael Dennis Browne, who wrote three beautiful stanzas on the idea of coming home after a time of wandering. Paulus’ setting of Browne’s words has proved very popular, but while those words are surely key to its emotional purchase with conductors, choristers and audiences, let’s set them aside and look at Paulus’ setting of the music.

The Southern Harmony hymn tune is ‘pentatonic,’ that is, it employs just five of the seven notes traditional major scale (specifically the ones we we sometimes call do, re, mi, so, la, omitting fa and ti – Fraulein Maria taught you, I and the Von Trapp kids about these in The Sound of Music). The omission of the ‘unstable’ notes (fa which longs to fall to mi, and ti which longs to rise to do) conveys an incredible stability or groundedness. One simple way to explore this unique sound is to play only the black notes on the piano: interestingly it is the foundational harmonic system of many world musics, most famously those of China, Japan and other Asian cultures. To accompany this basic system of harmony Paulus employs a familiar sound from 20th and 21st century choral music, ‘added harmony’ – that is, despite the melody’s harmonic simplicity, the choral harmony is often enriched by added mild dissonant notes from within the scale, but again, in a stable sort of way that more colours the moving chords, than tells them where they need to go. Critically, the idea of home in music has a sound that is both stable and beautiful.

“Rise up, follow me, come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart as the only song;
There is no such beauty as where you belong:
Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home.”

In perhaps the anthem’s most compelling feature, just after Browne’s second stanza alludes to the existence of a ‘Voice’ that will lead the wanderer home, Paulus adds a new element, a soprano descant over the hymn tune to personify that Voice. The implication to some persons of faith, a loving God calling sinners home, is self-evident, and had Browne been not a 20th century writer, but rather the 18th or 19th century writer of an original text attached to this melody, that would be the whole story here.

But the notion that ‘home’ is not so much an abstract place of our ordered and perhaps irresistible return – perhaps like other species like salmon or monarch butterflies; rather, what we understand about home is a deeply human idea, and the addition of a solo voice to the until then exclusively plural choral texture tends, for me at least, to seal the deal.

I write this as one who has always enjoyed the privilege to discern, and to mostly choose a meaning to attach to Browne’s phrase quoted above, “where you belong” – and I acknowledge that this concept that many of us idealise and take for granted has it has often been, and continues to be used by people that look like me to control others.

Welcome home to RPC if you have returned from your wandering this Christmas season; enjoy your unique version of home, be it a place, people, evocative music such as the carols you hear and sing – or all of the above. Or if you lack home in any sense this Christmas, may God’s comfort and music’s balm both rest upon you.

-CD

The Power of Melody – RPC Music Notes Sun 15 Dec 2019

Choral Prelude on ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’, BWV 650 – J.S. Bach
Ton Koopman, Silbermann organ

With the possible exception of the Gregorian chant-descended hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel” no tune better captures the spirit of the Advent season than Martin Luther’s 1523 composition (both tune and words), Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland (Now, come, Saviour of the Nations). Our service today offers no fewer than six unique settings of this tune.

Three of those settings are the triad of organ preludes from Bach’s Leipzig Chorales, BWV 659-661. The haunting BWV 659, perhaps Bach’s most sublime setting of any melody for the organ, is written in a style known as alio modo, in which imitative voices in the left hand and an ornamented solo line in the right are united, phrase by phrase, over a simple independent ‘walking bass’ in the pedal. BWV 660 is a more academically- oriented trio in which left hand and pedal trade references to the first musical phrase of the tune, while the right hand presents the entire tune, again well-ornamented. BWV 661 is a grand and vigorous full organ setting in which the pedal presents the entire tune while the right hand offers a three-voice fugue based more loosely on the tune material.

The other three settings of the tune appear in the latter part of today’s service, first a duet and chorale taken from one of Bach’s four Advent Cantatas, BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor. The duet Brooke, Nancy and I offer today, originally scored for two oboes d’amore and continuo, presents the tune richly ornamented by both voices, the two solo instruments, and the continuo line in roughly equal partnership. The chorale that closes Cantata 36 turns out to be the exact words of our usual Doxology, but, you guessed it, set to our “Melodie von heute.”

Briefly, what is it about this tune, which continues to appear regularly in hymn books 500 years later (although, alas, not our Book of Praise)? It has a few unusual properties, most obviously that the first and fourth phrases are identical. And though to our ears it lies solidly in the key of G minor, it skips the all-important raised leading note (F#) we usually like in minor keys (if your ears are trained and tuned in to this sort of thing you might notice that today’s many Bach settings, despite the difficulty voices have in singing it before the B-flat that must follow, often add it).

The unusual structure of Nun komm’ (the last phrase being the same as the first) might be as simple as helping illiterate 16th century congregations in learning, let’s remember, mostly for the FIRST time EVER, to sing hymns at all, especially in their own spoken languages. The F-natural on the third note of the first and last phrases suggest the musical time Luther lived in, not yet by any means moved on to the more recent major/minor hegemony that seemed to abolish the older church modes except as a theoretical abstraction. Also, it’s not hard to see why simple intervals (like the perfect fourth from F-natural to B-flat) would be easier and more intuitive to help get the Church’s first real foray into full-congregational singing.

Finally, I have added an ‘Amen’ setting to my series composed for the RPC Choir. In it our wonderful altos, who so often suffer with simple and repetitive parts while others enjoy singing the real tune, are given the tune throughout, while the other parts add an ornamental tapestry befitting the entreaty of a coming Saviour.

-CD

Cantata – RPC music notes, Sun 8 Dec 2019

Classic Choral Society & Orchestra, Artistic Director: Janiece Kohler
United Church of Christ, Blooming Grove, NY Dec 2016

Over and over as we regard history, things we might have supposed to be older turn out to have fairly recent causes, and one such example is the tradition in Protestant Churches of “Special Music” and at this time of the year, that special instance of Special Music, the ‘Christmas Cantata.’

The Italian term ‘Sonata’ describes a multi-movement work for instruments. Its root ‘Sona-‘ comes from sound: it is music to be heard. The related term ‘Cantata’ describes a work similar in most ways, except that it incorporates voices, and comes from ‘Canta-‘: it is music to be sung. The seemingly parallel terms Sonata and Cantata are in fact not parallel, though – the former describes how the piece is received (through sound), whereas the latter describes how it is offered (by singing). Presumably Cantatas, also received through sound, should just be a special case of ‘Sonata’, right?

Wrong. In the Biblical context singing, as opposed to other sorts of music making, seems to have a special imperative all its own. True, the Psalms and a handful of other biblical stories mention instruments, but instances and explicit exhortations to singing, perhaps the most intimate and personal way of making music, far outnumber them.

So much so, that when in Reformation times our denomination’s Calvinist precursors were ‘cleaning house’ of various corrupt and non- or dubiously-scriptural practices, instruments (including the organ) were summarily removed from worship, while singing remained. Along with selling indulgences (essentially ‘salvation paid for in cash’) and the instruments went the elaborate ritual practices and sublime choral music of the Catholic tradition. Ah, you say, but what about the Lutherans and the great Cantata tradition of Bach? Yes, on this point (as well as others) Lutherans and Calvinists appear to have differed, and Lutheran worship retained, at least in principal churches, a place for elaborate music.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, when scholars of both music and liturgy became deeply interested in returning to both the works and the ‘authentic’ practices of earlier times. The Calvinist streams of Protestantism had by then re-introduced instruments and non-scriptural sung texts (i.e. ‘hymns’). And a society placing some emphasis on music in education and public life was producing fine musicians to lead public worship, who felt drawn to the riches of the Cantata tradition, then re-emerging mostly on the concert stage. The accomplished and aspirational church musician sought occasional special musical goals for their church choirs and other ensembles, and found in history (or created brand-new in history’s honour) – the Cantata.

So, music from an earlier tradition is restored (as we do at RPC this morning with masterpieces of the German Baroque before Bach), and a new repertoire of Christmas, Lenten and Easter Cantatas emerges, mostly in the English west – not every week as in the impressive practice of Bach at Leipzig – but rather on special occasions and in special seasons.

The Church Cantata today reminds us of the unique role of singing in worship throughout God’s church, of the aspirations of choirs like other ministry teams working in service, and the compelling ability of artistic beauty to offer us a window upon a Gospel of truth.

-CD

Revealing the Kingdom – RPC Music Notes, Sun 1 Dec 2019

E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come – Paul and Ruth Manz

As the new church year dawns this Advent Sunday, at RPC we have been thinking about a new kingdom. The annual observance of Reign of Christ Sunday followed immediately by Advent expectation of that kingdom is no coincidence.

But as we implied last week, with our varied musical conceptions of Jesus’ kingship, it is no conventional or even mythical kingship we await. The Kingdom, when it comes, dwells not in fortresses and palaces – it dwells in us – our choral music today explores this idea from three angles.

American Lutheran pastor and musician Paul Manz and his wife Ruth Manz wrote “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come” in 1953 during a time when their three-year-old son John was critically ill. Reflecting on the time, Ruth Manz reported, “I think we’d reached the point where we felt that time was certainly running out so we committed it to the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus quickly come'”. During this time, she had prepared some text for Paul for a composition based on the Book of Revelation. While at his son’s bedside, Paul began drafting the composition, which later became the current piece. Their son did recover, which the couple attributed to the power of prayer.

Elizabeth Poston’s sole contribution to the sacred repertoire, the beautiful “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is a deeply personal affirmation of the balm of Jesus’ indwelling that grows from a single voice to full higher voices, to full SATB choir, and then returns.

The French carol known as the hymn-tune Picardy has since the early 19th century been associated with the awe-filled Communion hymn “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”, rich in conventional kingly imagery. Today’s setting is by the late Sir Stephen Cleobury, longtime Director of the Chapel Choir at King’s College, Cambridge, who left this earth a week ago last Friday on St Cecilia’s Day, adding extra poignancy to our sharing it today.

If you noticed the prominence of Revelation imagery in today’s choral texts, this too is no coincidence: if a new kingdom is to be ours, it is to be revealed, rather than calamitously imposed. And as in the case of the author of the poem “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, and the invitation and answered prayer from Ruth and Paul Manz for healing of their little son, it is to visit and dwell among us in deeply personal ways, rather than “lord” over us from afar.

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“A Confused Homage” – RPC Music Notes, 24 Nov 2019

Acclamations “Suite Médievale” – Jean Langlais, performed at St-Clothilde, Paris
performed by Olivier Penin, Langlais’ third successor at that famous organ.

Here’s a question: What are the most common words in the Bible? The answer to this question is of course highly translation-dependent, but let’s assume the New International Version (NIV) of our pew Bibles at RPC, and leave out the articles, prepositions and other structural words which tend to be the most common in every text ever written in, or translated to, English.

The top ten ‘contet’ words include ‘Man'(#6) and ‘Men'(#8) – and though the gender-neutral ‘People’ beats out both at #5 another male term, ‘Son’ beats the lot at #3 (unsurprisingly female nouns fail entirely to appear). ‘Israel'(#7) and the more general concept ‘Land’ (#9) are there, along of course with ‘God'(#2). ‘Jesus’ squeaks in at #10, although to be fair he’s included in #2 above, and though prophecied several times earlier he doesn’t make an appearance by name until the New Testament.

If you’ve been keeping track you are probably wondering about #4 and certainly #1 – they are, respectively, ‘King’ and ‘Lord,’ two terms that might seem quaint or even irritating to us today, but which were commonplace and have clear associations with the life and culture of Biblical times.

What does ANY of this have to do with music? The last Sunday of Ordinary Time, now mostly known by the title “Reign of Christ,” brings us face-to-face with the image of God’s and Christ’s kingship, almost as if to prepare us for the traditional carols that will do echo it in the coming weeks. As with many other historic but less-current images to modern life the musical response is – a bit confused.

There is no shortage of grand, powerful, kingly pieces like the famous ‘Christus Vincit’ acclamations of today’s postlude in the sacred music tradition, but because our understanding of this particular view of Christ is now somewhat more nuanced there are other responses. Today’s Prelude, for example, despite its size and nickname “Little,” is one of the best-known and best-loved of Bach’s Fugues for the ‘King of Instruments’ – not the most clever connection, but perhaps the point is made in its dignity and calculating eminence, rather than the sweeping scale of larger works.

The text of both of today’s choral pieces, settings of Psalm 117, speak an imperative for any loyal subject, ‘Lobet den Herrn’ in German or ‘Laudate Dominum’ in Latin. Both initial words mean mean ‘Praise’, a word I would have picked for the ‘top ten’ above, and though apparently it didn’t make that achievement it surely can’t lie that much further down the list. Yet it would be hard to imagine two more different musical responses to setting the same text. Bach’s setting is earnest, vigorous and exuberant; Mozart’s is serene and personal, the soprano soloist supported and upheld by the choir, which only joins her half-way through her exquisite personal statement.

In the church we are sometimes bothered, but also often struck by the grandeur, dignity and power of arcane images such as the Kingship of Jesus. But Jesus is not changed by being called ‘King’: rather, being King is transformed by the person of Jesus the kind, the just, the self-sacrificial. Measure and consider, we should, the kings of the earth and our idea of kingship itself by the King of Heaven, not the vice-versa.

-CD