The Cross in the Close – RPC Music Notes, 22 Sep 2019

Choir of St John’s College Cambridge (NB: score is in F major, but motet is sung in A-flat).

I had some of my most formative experiences in the early 2000’s playing organ continuo for the legendary Hellmuth Rilling during the years of the Toronto International Bach Festival at U of T.

Rilling brought an incomparable international reputation, an immense discography, a devotion and gravitas concerning the music of Bach and a formal yet productive rapport with an orchestra and choir of the city’s top musicians. But the now-86 year old retired icon brought something else very particular to me, a feat he seems invariably to accomplish with young musicians. In my case it was a greatly enriched appreciation for symbolism in music: Bach was a master not only of the art and craft of musical composition, but also of the meaningful incorporation of rhetortically significant musical devices in the service of text.

Just one among dozens of allusions Bach ‘baked’ into his vocal and choral music is variously known by “chiasmus”, “circulolo”, “grupolo”, the “X-motif”, or even just “the sign of the Cross” (German: ‘Kreuze’). It is a short four-note melodic shape: a note, a higher note, a LOWER note than the first, and finally a HIGHER note than the first. This notation shows three examples of the use of this distinctive four musical notes which, when connected by line 1 to 3 and 2 to 4, form the sign of the cross.

No.I is from Bach’s Cantata BWV 4 (Versus V) – the “chiasmus” depicts the word ‘Kreuzes’. No.II is a version Bach enjoyed: by inverting (turning it upside-down) and using the German name ‘H’ for the note B-natural he, and many many composers paying homage since, could sign his name.

No.III is by turn-of-the 17th century English composer Orlando Gibbons, who historian Frederick Ouseley crowned “The English Palestrina,” and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould named as his favourite composer. (Gould wrote of Gibbons’ hymns and anthems: “ever since my teen-age years this music … has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.”)

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities,
And in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth Thy right hand
to help and defend us.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Collect for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, The Book of Common Prayer (1549)

Bach did not invent the trick of writing a cross-shape into a Christ reference – indeed Gibbons “Almighty and Everlasting God” was written a half-century before Bach’s birth (and by an Englishman not thought to have left his home country), but it is interesting to see the device unmistakably in use at the close of this beautiful short anthem, on “Through Christ our Lord”, the first and only reference to Jesus in the text.

My musical ears and brain were attuned to this and many other hidden building blocks of music with Maestro Rilling: as Wes takes us through the incomprehensible parable of the Dishonest Steward, let us always look for the ‘hidden gem’ that touches and heals, even while it seems to confound.

“Verse by Verse” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 15 Sep 2019

The adult Choir of Christ Church, Bronxville, offers Teach me, O Lord by William Byrd.

The verse, one of the parts into which a poem, a song, or a chapter of the Bible or other text is divided, is often a major organising structure in music. We take this familiar concept for granted much of the time, especially in church, where versified text runs throughout hymns, psalm settings and choir anthems. This week, let’s take a closer look.

Hymns and other songs have the most obvious verses found in church services – but those verses can have a variety of natures and origins (for example the verses of #431, Jesus, where’er thy people meet originate in a poem by 18th century English poet William Cowper, whereas those of #625, Karen Lafferty’s Seek ye first the kingdom of the Lord, are drawn from three seemingly unconnected sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew).

The ‘verse anthem’, of which both William Byrd’s Teach me, O Lord and William Mathias’ Lift up your heads, O ye gates are examples, takes a group of verses from scripture (usually the Psalms), setting them in different musical ways – with (Mathias) or without (Byrd) a ‘refrain’. As in the case of versified hymns the musical setting provides a heard structure that reinforces the verses of the original text. With this post on I’ve provided a link to a performance of Byrd’s setting, which alternates three treble solo, and three choir verses from Psalm 119, plus a doxology.

Why do we even have verses, rather than huge uninterrupted stretches of text? Put that way the question answers itself: verses help our limited brains to accommodate and organise large amounts of text more easily. Sometimes devices like rhyming and acrostic help further with cognition or memory (to say nothing of beauty).

“… verses can allow a text not just to exist,
but to progress.”

But the most compelling reason for me lies in story or other narrative arc: verses can allow a text not just to exist, but to progress. Returning to the hymns mentioned above, compare how on one hand Cowper develops the idea of a gathered community, prays for its engagement in worship, and affirms God’s power to make it happen – whereas on the other Lafferty more statically states well-known but unrelated sayings of Jesus.

Versification makes many contributions to larger texts – it helps us accept, understand, remember and appreciate them. But with Wes’ sermon today exhorting engagement rather than complacency, perhaps they can also help us think less about faith as something that is than something that happens.


“Stolen Songs” RPC Music Notes, Sunday 8 Sep 2019

Bulgarian cellist Lachezar Kostov and Japanese pianist Ai Shimizu perform J.S. Bach’s Adagio from Organ Toccata BWV 564. 2009 Sakura Hall, Tokyo.

Beginning in September 2019 RPC’s weekly “Music Notes” may also be found on the Ideas About Music website, online at

My introduction to classical music (indeed, to most music) was at home, through my father’s record collection, some of which I have inherited and still enjoy to this day. An amateur musician and poster-boy for the Golden age of the audiophile, my dad made a point of gathering into our home a decent stereo system, and a diverse and standard repertoire of symphonies, oratorios, chamber music, keyboard literature (including that of the organ) and so on, as well as musics of all other sorts.

But one unique feature of dad’s collection was his fascination with Bach transcriptions – compositions of the great master re-written to be played by a different instrument or instruments than intended. Bach was by no means the only composer in history to have been honoured – or perhaps robbed – by the ‘stealing’ of his music for new uses: but he is likely the composer whose oeuvre has most often been raided, indeed many times by himself, but also by his contemporaries and those who have followed to this day. The middle movement of one of Bach’s great organ works, the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue BWV 564, is a lyrical song of such surpassing beauty that it has been transcribed many times, most famously by Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (you will find a link to another fine performance I have selected if you visit online).

There has been much punditry spent on just what it is about Bach’s music – now exuberant, now touchingly sombre, now gloriously majestic or strikingly simple, that lends itself so well to transcription for an astonishing range of musical forces ranging from jazz quartet to modern symphony orchestra, to percussion and other ensembles – even choral voices singing instrumental parts. But speaking as one who has engaged in this art – or sin – of transcription of music, both to and from my instrument, the organ, as well as other ensembles I have a simple answer: love. Transcription is no simple theft – it is painstaking effort and reimagination, often encountering technical problems and sometimes lacking in hoped-for success. But it always originates from the transcriber’s love of the original piece, and that love is the product truly being shared. There is much interest today as ever in ‘who owns what’ in music, but how is that frank discussion of property affected when the ‘thief’ stole one’s song out of love and the will to share?

Wes’ sermon today interrogates Jesus’ proposition of a child-like faith: perhaps we can find a useful metaphor by ignoring the musical properties and legal questions that make a given transcription project possible, or even advisable – instead honing in on the fact of sincere love for the original, and the wish to share it?


“The robb’d that smiles, steals something from the thief; He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.”
― William Shakespeare, ‘Othello’

IAM – Fall reboot, 2019

The Karl Wilhelm organ and Communion Table Cross
of Rosedale Presbyterian Church, Toronto

Big Reveal: the initials “I-A-M” in my occasional blog, podcast and website were never actually JUST about abbreviating “Ideas About Music.”

In the famous “Burning Bush” conversation, God answers Moses’ request for His name with a seemingly-evasive or even dismissive phrase usually translated to English “I AM that I AM.” Though I make much of my music in the secular world, I have made no secret that music holds a sacred-calibre place in my life. I don’t preach or prosletise, but I see music as God’s gift, which like most others can bear fruit for all people, regardless of faith story, lack thereof – or potential for one. It has always struck me that in this singular act of self-identification, God instead asserts not so much identity as existence – and not any simple, rational form existence like that of a mountain or a chair (as people sometimes try to claim or demand), but rather an entirely different kind that defies proof or disproof, resting instead in possibility – perhaps infinite in nature. Music, despite its unquestioned power and perhaps more mundane existence, also represents possibility: when we make it, when we encounter and hear it we might like or dislike; we might attend or dismiss, we might learn or simply experience.

Following my latest battle with the familiar bloggers’ bane of “too-little-time-and-energy-to-keep-producing-regular-content” I’m excited to shift things to incorporate the new emerging media ministry of Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto, where I am beginning my fourth year as Director of Music.

The IAM blog, which you can find at will now feature weekly notes on RPC’s service music, themes and ideas that I and my colleagues craft weekly into our 10:30 service, along with occasional recorded content captured in those services.

SO – subscribe to the Ideas About Music blog, or return anytime to for a weekly look into what the music of the week – its history, its quirks and contrasts – it’s power and poignancy – is suggesting to one mind inclined to wonder. You may also bump into random snapshots from my ongoing musical travels, which continue to take me to new and interesting places. And always feel free and welcome to check-in in person any Sunday at 10:30am at Rosedale Presbyterian Church, 129 Mount Pleasant Road in Toronto, just minutes from the Rosedale, Bloor/Yonge and Sherbourne subway stations.
– CD

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

Genre Implosion – 10th Anniversary episode publication


Things became pretty quiet at IAM at the conclusion of my service to the Organ Century year of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto, whose employ I left in July 2015 after an exciting and deeply satisfying two year opportunity with its excellent staff and congregation, contributing to a milestone in the life of both the instrument and institution.

The big news for Easter 2016 was the 10-year anniversary of “Genre Implosion,” the radio show on Hamilton’s CFMU FM 94.4 that formed a part of my 2004-2006 M.A. degree in Music Criticism at McMaster University. At that time I published the entire 19-episode archive (there were in fact 21 episodes, but regrettably two of them were lost). You can still access the entire series on the “Listen IAM” link of, and I will now begin posting the episodes over the coming weeks.

Enjoy Genre Implosion for now – I am still proud of much of it, although it’s always hard to look more than a few years back at one’s creative work without thinking of high school yearbooks, haircuts and other artifacts.

Musical Genre is a fascinating system, phenomenon or construction, but I still say, as I do at the start of every episode – they’re your ears – BELIEVE them.


TEMC “Organ Tweet” for Sun 1 March 2015

Organ Poetry II

Psalm150Praise ye the LORD!
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with string instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD.
Praise ye the LORD! #TEMCmusic

– from Psalm 150




Follow TEMC Organ Century online at
Twitter       @TEMCmusic
Facebook   Timothy Eaton Memorial Church Music

TEMC Organ Tweet from Sun 22 Feb 2015

20150215_114117Tucked away in the east corner of the sanctuary’s South Balcony is a small division of organ pipes you might not have noticed, partly because of its unusual location. Installed as part of the organ’s 1938 relocation to the chancel the Echo division, a remarkable piece of technology requiring its own blower and hundreds of feet of wiring, was designed for gentle, touching effects whose main characteristic is eminating from away from the main instrument. It is from here that the Choir hears it’s notes to sing the concluding ‘Amen’ of every 11 o’clock service, from here that the traditional chimes play the final verse of ‘Silent Night’ every Christmas Eve.

In 2016 if all goes according to plan, Phase II of the Trustees’ Organ Century refurbishment and enhancement project will see the Echo division joined in the South Balcony by a very different set of pipes, not tucked away in a chamber, but proudly adorning the back wall around the stained glass. Also designed to add the dimension of space to the organ’s art, this ‘Antiphonal’ division will sound very differently, and feature much stronger stops including a Festival Trumpet ‘en Chamade’ mounted horizontally, projecting out from the wall. Distinguished former Crystal Cathedral organist Fred Swann, who paid TEMC a visit in January, enthusiastically endorsed the Trustees’ plan, agreeing it would “really bring the organ’s sound out to the people,” enhancing our celebrations, and our song.

Follow TEMC Organ Century online at
Twitter @TEMCmusic
Facebook Timothy Eaton Memorial Church Music