“How shall we?” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 20 October 2019

Petite Suite – Gerald Bales; performed by David Simon, organ
4 May 2017, Norton Presbyterian Church, Darein, CT USA

The composition of music begins – yes, with a touch of inspiration and yes, often with some germinal idea (be it a melody, chord progression, text or other foundational premise) – but on the road to a finished piece of music before long a composer is faced with a host of choices, the ‘best answers’ to which are sometimes difficult, and rarely obvious.

The late Gerald Bales (1919-2002), whose music features prominently in today’s service, was a kind-of international rock star among Canadian church musicians. Canada’s church musical history has many facets, but one noticeable one is the predominance, particularly in English Canada, of leading figures born in other countries. Bales was not just a home-grown leading musical figure who rose to international prominence in his field: his harmonically and energetically unique and creative compositions have taken their place among others emanating from our many great adopted ex-pats (Healey Willan, Derek Holman and Barrie Cabena to name but three). Foremost among these is his Petite Suite, which at RPC today accompanies his worthy but largely-ignored Jubilate Deo, a choral setting of Psalm 100.

Fast-forward to 2017 – Canada’s now-50-year-old Summer Institute of Church Music, which in the late 2000s began honouring distinguished Canadian church musicians with the title “Fellow of the Summer Institute of Church Music” (F.SICM) selects Toronto’s Patricia Wright as 2017 honoree, selects a young Canadian composer, Patrick John Murray, to create a new piece in her honour, and the two of them manage to come up with a third ‘Pat’, Toronto poet Patricia Orr, to create a new text. Unable to resist the coincidence SICM issued its press release of this tri-Pat collaboration on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March 2017. The result, now published by Vancouver’s Cypress Music, is Murray’s Morning Hymn (you can read the text and listen by searching the above info, or if you’re reading this online at ideasaboutmusic.ca, by clicking here).

A particular detail of verse two of Orr’s text has always struck me. She seems to ask two (actually four) “How shall we…” questions:

How shall we touch the rafters, raise the roof, disturb the sky,
How shall we mark the rhythm of our days,

Morning Hymn – Patricia Orr (excerpt)

Just to be safe, Orr provides no question marks to confirm ‘questionhood’ – but even if they are more poetic declarations i.e. “(Look), how we shall…!”, they strike me as fitting into the composer’s – or indeed any artist’s – voice when engaged in creating, or even when deciding how to create. Whenever Bales, Murray, Orr, or anyone creates, the “How shall we…” ‘s are unavoidably there, shaping and/or celebrating the gift.

Our Associate Minister, Rev Lt Seaton Brachmeyer, is far from the first to turn to scripture in asking one of the greatest ‘How shall’ questions, “How shall I then live?” Artists may not find all the answers to their creative ‘How shall’ questions in scripture, but the questions they ask, and the answers they reach have a kind of gravitas – a kind of holiness – to the creative process and the final product. Perhaps it is more the act of asking that confirms the outcome than the existence of clear and obvious answers?


“Countless Gifts of Love” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 13 October 2019

John Rutter’s popular seeming fusion of “Now thank we all our God” with his “Gloria”

Martin Rinkart’s “Nun danket alle Gott” is one of the most popular hymns on earth. The tune (Nun danket by Johann Crüger, heard several times in today’s service) named for it and associated with it since inception is far better-known than even the quintessential (and century-older) Lutheran chorale tune, Ein feste Burg by Luther himself.

Catherine Winkworth’s 19th century translation (#457 in our Book of Praise), taking its cue from Rinkart’s text, fits to the metre 6868 6666, a very symmetrical, practical, some might say ‘square’ organisation of syllables and rhymes. Like many hymn tunes of its day, including those of the Scottish Psalter so important to the Presbyterian singing tradition, the emphasis is on learnability and memorability. In other words, upon great utility to the early Protestant project of teaching and sharing the faith through congregational song – rather than to, let’s say, creativity, poetic freedom or other more ‘artsy’ objective.

So, how does a piece of such ‘square’, utilitarian music rise to the ‘greatest hits’ of hymnody? This is NOT how Bach’s Passions or Beethoven’s Symphonies did it! Well – though it might shatter your visions of inspiration – regularity, and to a degree simplicity, are precisely how it happens. Here’s another metre: 8686, like the first half of Nun danket with long and short lines reversed, and known (for reasons that will immediately become obvious), Common Metre or C.M. Want to know what fits it? Amazing Grace, probably the world’s favourite hymn (and hands-down the most popular in the English language). Want to know what else it fits? O God our help in ages past, Praise God from whom all blessings flow, It came upon a midnight clear, O for a thousand tongues to sing… etc, etc… and just for fun, also the Gilligan’s Island theme.

How do pieces of such ‘square’, utilitarian music rise to the ‘greatest hits’ of hymnody? This is NOT how Bach’s Passions or Beethoven’s Symphonies did it! Well, regularity, and to a degree simplicity, are precisely how it happens.

Yet, though simple, the tunes you might already be imagining while reading the above list of texts are not simple ‘appliances’ for conveying the text. Each has aspects that have combined with their associated texts to contribute to their achievement, at least within Christian circles, of ubiquity. Returning to Nun danket, the tune’s unusual shape stands out (the first two phrases begin high and fall, ending low; the third begins low and journeys to high (a musically interrogative gesture?); the fourth returns to the earlier pattern, bringing all to a satisfied resolution). This happens within a simple, clearly mathematical pattern of syllables hardly changing from line to line – easy to learn, easy to sing, easy to remember.

In seeming exception to its easily-countable syllables, Winkworth’s first verse ends with a phrase that has always struck me, “countless gifts of love.” An English poetic clean-up of unzählig viel zu gut (‘innumerable way too good!’), it adds to Rinkart’s enthusiastic sentiment about the immensity of God’s gifts the softer, Victorian idea that they are all inherently gifts of love. There can be no doubt that bits of text (this one follows direct on the heels of the invocation of God’s blessings on our way “from our mothers’ arms”) have also aided the hymn’s rise.

Wes’ message today is about our own giving – in some sense the very best possible response to God’s giving – that should appropriately be as unsegregated as God’s own. Let us take the analogy one step further: while Wes warns against our own designation of sheep and goats among the people around us, we should remember also that, just as God gives in love, so too should we.


“Cantus Firmus” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 6 October 2019

Cantata BWV 180 “Schmücke dich” – Gabrieli Ensemble/Paul McCreesh

“Once upon a time there were only melodies.” This axiom of introductory Western music studies is at best over-simple, and at worst, misleading. Despite thousands of years of human song joined by improvised harmonies and instrumental accompaniment (and it should be pointed out, to a far more sophisticated degree in Asian and African cultures than in European “cradle of civilisation”), generation upon generation of music student starts their historical journey in the 9th century, with the beautiful simplicity of Gregorian chant, followed by the gradual emergence of the tonal, notational, orchestration and cultural systems that came to define Western music.

Simplistic though this account of history is it hints at a truth that seems consistent across music: melody matters. Composers will often emphasise a familiar foundational melody to encourage connection with the listener. Even in music not designed to have a melody our ears yearn to perceive one, often latching on to either the highest, or the loudest part – it is what we walk away humming, singing, whistling, or even just remembering.

Soon enough after Pope Gregory I compiled together a patchwork of mostly-existing chants into the system that now bears his name, early polyphonists begin to notice the value of adding parts, played by instruments and/or voices. A description of this technological and stylistic development over the following centuries into the full Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina and Lasso is FAR beyond the scope of this note, but it is worth knowing the term that was needed to distinguish the original melody from all added parts… “Cantus Firmus,” the firm or unchanging song.

Soon enough, with the emergence of Protestantism’s interest in congregational singing, an explosion of new melodies were needed to set texts in the vernacular (the language of the people, rather than the traditional Latin). These differed in many ways from the chants that had so defined sacred music for centuries, but a notable similarity was their treatment: as before the “Cantus Firmus” was important, but very often not the end of the story: with ever increasing complexity and creativity these new melodies would have parts, instruments and structures added, flowering of course in the early 18th century in the works of Bach.

This morning’s service features one of these melodies, Johanns Frank and Crügers’ beautiful communion hymn “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele”, which we know as “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”, #533 in the Book of Praise. Framed by Bach’s beautiful Choral Prelude BWV 654, and a set of variations by his lesser-known contemporary Johann Godfried Walther, the service contains three further settings – the hymnbook version, a simple choral setting by Englishman Arthur Shepherd, and a closing ‘Amen’ quoting the tune, composed just this week.

The Cantatas of J.S. Bach, which took this form to its apex in the 1730s and 40s, set each verse (there are nine in Frank’s original German text) differently, all for use during one service! Is this, or even five versions of the same tune at morning worship “too much of a good thing?”

I will always remember playing for Communion in a Reformed Protestant church and playing a setting of Schmücke dich during the distribution of the elements and noticing that the congregation was quietly humming the melody. Besides refuting forever the pervasive idea that a non-singing congregation is by definition somehow ‘excluded’ during worship, it confirmed for me the value of repetition, and the internalisation of both word and music that accompanies it. It is a form of ‘buried treasure’ after Wes’ sermon on the parable by the same name. A melody, like the Gospel, belongs not just in sight, on our voices – it also belongs invisible in our minds and our hearts.


“Text and Tune” – RPC Music Notes, 29 Sep 2019

IAM is a ‘thought-vehicle’ fundamentally concerned with music itself, but there can be little debate on the inherent broadness of that topic. Not only is music an ancient and mind-bogglingly diverse human practice – but, too, as in all human creations, aspects of its creators and their contexts hold real implications for the groupings of notes, rhythms, harmonies and other elements one might otherwise be tempted to examine for their own sake.

This week we’ll look a bit deeper into a famous combination of tune and text. Where did it come from? How and why was it ‘made’? Why does it sound the way it does? What makes it famous or obscure, mundane or great?

Picture a time very different from our own, New England, 1830. The young American nation is building, industrialising and expanding. Full and thriving churches form the very centres of their communities, and increasingly as wealth grows, homes and schools are full of music. A 22-year-old Yale divinity graduate, Ray Palmer, takes a good job teaching in a private girls school, but endures a post-graduation year of illness and loneliness. He encounters a German poem evoking a kneeling sinner that moves him deeply. He translates the short poem, then adds a few verses of his own, giving us our hymn #677 in the Book of Praise.

1 My faith looks up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary,
Saviour divine!
Now hear me while I pray, take all my guilt away;
O let me from this day be wholly Thine.

2 May Thy rich grace impart strength to my fainting heart,
my zeal inspire;
as Thou hast died for me, O may my love to Thee
pure, warm, and changeless be, a living fire.

3 While life’s dark maze I tread, and griefs around me spread,
be Thou my guide;
bid darkness turn to day, wipe sorrow’s tears away,
nor let me ever stray from Thee aside.

4 When ends life’s transient dream, when death’s cold, sullen stream
shall o’er me roll,
blest Saviour, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul.

– Ray Palmer, My faith looks up to Thee (four of original six stanzas)

Palmer later stated, “The words for these stanzas were born out of my own soul with very little effort. I recall that I wrote the verses with tender emotion. . . . When writing the last line, “O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!” the thought that the whole work of redemption and salvation was involved in those words. . . brought me to a degree of emotion that brought abundant tears.”

Two years later Palmer, apparently by chance, meets his old colleague, composer and educator Lowell Mason, in Boston. Mason, who is at the time gathering material for a new hymn collection, asks Palmer for a contribution, who supposedly hands over a leather notebook he happens to have on his person in which he had previously written his hymn. Mason immediately admires “My faith looks up to Thee,” composes a tune named ‘Olivet for its unusual 664.6664 metre (which it shares with only a few other tunes, perhaps most notably ‘God Save the Queen’), and publishes it in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (1832). Mason, when he saw Palmer again later, said,

“Mr. Palmer, you may live many years and do many good things,
but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author
of ‘My Faith Looks Up To Thee.’”

– Dr Lowell Mason (1792-1872)

Mason’s tune combines a simple repetitive rhythm (all five of the six-syllable lines use the same rhythm, giving it a litany-like, even Rosary-like flavour). It also has a simple harmonic structure: most notably the last four lines remain settled almost entirely on the tonic (home) chord. This unusual static device seems to convey the firmness and conviction of a sure and confident faith. Likewise ‘Olivet’s unusual jump between its last two notes, A to D (the dominant and tonic): this gesture stands out as an unusual melodic feature – but in code, it is the musical epitome of closure.

Mason was correct about Palmer being best remembered for this hymn: it has been called the greatest American hymn; and Palmer, one of the greatest hymn writers of his day (and to boot, Mason himself the ‘father of American church music’). My faith looks up to Thee appeared during a golden age of hymn writing and publishing in America, was told from a deeply human story, was equipped with an easy-to-learn and moving tune, and went on to give comfort to individuals and institutions alike as America descended inexorably into war. These truths far outweigh my own humble musical observations and conclusions about Mason’s tune above, key though perhaps they were to the success of Palmer’s hymn.

Declaring unequivocally that God was working in that dark hour of Palmer’s life through this creation, as Wes suggests He was in Paul’s own rise from bitterness and suffering (Acts 8:1b-3) is comforting, if difficult to prove: but it is also folly to assume He was not. Either way, let it be so more and more in the human creative acts that so enrich us and our world.


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 ideasaboutmusic.ca 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 http://ideasaboutmusic.ca

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 http://ideasaboutmusic.ca 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’