“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.


“To boldly go” – IAM for Fri 15 Nov 2019

Fanfare for the Common Man (1943) – Aaron Copland
members of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy

Why does this iconic music for brass and percussion, created at the request of Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinatti Orchestra on the USA’s entry into WWII in 1943, make not just the creators of the video above, but also all of the rest of us, think about space?

In the past two months, as part of my recent role as accompanist to the Orpheus Choir of Toronto I had the privilege of helping it prepare a program dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing on 20th July 1969. Among its beautiful and fascinating offerings of choral music interspersed with audio from NASA, Carl Sagan, the late President John F Kennedy and others, was the Canadian premiere of Tawnie Olson’s That’s One Small Step.

Olson freely admits to evoking Copland in the work’s second movement Longer Strides while setting John F Kennedy’s famous speech exhorting his country to support the space program. But what exactly did she do to reference this most quintessential of American composers, or more broadly to capture that spirit so important to American identity at the time?

It would be at best difficult, and at worst delusional to consider the cultural history of the moon landing without reference to the Cold War – this is a topic about which much has been written, and I won’t address it (although Olson certainly does in her composition). No, I am seeing a simpler musical connection from Tawnie Olson back to Aaron Copland and also – wait for it – the Star Trek “Original Series”, which debuted in 1966, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, which premiered in 1968.

The opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra which in 2001 A Space Odyssey was selected for the moment when the film posits our species’ move from simple threat and posturing of brute force to the more calculated use of weapons against one other. The work was composed in 1896, inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name, and it was as surely a part of the sonic backdrop to the moon landing as were the iconic stacked fourths of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from Star Trek‘s popular TV series, a visionary imagination of a diverse America in space.

Copland and other American composers were asked to contribute fanfares to the Cincinnati Orchestra because of a similar program that had solicited British composers to do the same during WWI. What Copland did in 1943, following Strauss’ example in Also Sprach Zarathustra, omitting the third from a conventional fanfare arpeggio, created a kind of ambiguity, a kind of modernity that was not the serial music of the 2nd Viennese School, and not the real or seeming randomness of aleatory and minimalism (all other significant movements in classical music at the time), but something based on fourths and fifths that somehow sounded like America’s aspirations that would ultimately lead it to put men on the moon.

The third of the chord, which had for centuries defined major keys against minor ones suddenly became – passé. As the world looked obsessively towards a post-World War future it needed something that sounded familiar enough, but that departed from the past with all of the ambiguity that modernity required. And so we built, and continue to build, tonal music based on fourths and fifths – because despite its ambiguity, it sounds like who we are.

So when Tawnie Olson set JFK’s famous words in melodic fourths and later harmonised them using techniques evoking Copland she was drawing upon a sonic axiom that is now deeply embedded in that country’s culture. It speaks, as did Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, to a deeply exceptional and aspirational concept of the United States of America.

With some hope, I wish that the USA, the country of my birth, will remain capable of someday becoming its mythologised, virtuous and noble self within a world that increasingly has to point out that it is not, and really has never yet been, that. The stars await.

Posted in IAM.

“Sing for the Morning”- RPC Music Notes, Sun 17 Nov 2019

By relative coincidence my entire musical life in the church can be characterised by the adage “twice on Sundays.” When my education began in organ apprenticeship to an Anglican Cathedral, each Sunday began with either Matins or the Holy Eucharist, and ended with Choral Evensong – a pattern that continued twenty years for me, until I finished 12 years’ service to Toronto’s St James’ Cathedral. Then, as the Georgetown Christian Reformed Church became a home for my growing family I was surprised to discover that it was one of the last in its denomination to worship twice on Sundays, a ritual that had been the norm in my wife’s youth.

Increasingly rare and even anomalous evening worship traces its history back to the monastic liturgy of the hours, which saw monks and nuns rise every three hours, all day and all night to pray and sing – but so too do the morning traditions of Lauds and Matins. There is a body of compositions, both hymns and anthems specifically geared towards the idea of rising and beginning one’s day in worship and praise… and at RPC today the Choir offers two very beautiful and very different ones.

Gabriel Fauré wrote his Cantique de Jean Racine, op.11 at the age of 19 as the winning entry in the 1865 composition competition of the Paris École Niedermeyer church music school, where he studied composition under Camille Saint-Saëns. The text, “Verbe égal au Très-Haut” (“Word, one with the Highest”), is a French paraphrase by Jean Racine of a Latin hymn from the breviary for matins, Consors paterni luminis.

“Word, one with the Highest, the Almighty, our only hope,
Eternal day of the earth and heavens;
We break the silence of the peaceful night,
Divine Saviour, look upon us!”

English translation of Cantique de Jean Racine (excerpt)

Across the Channel and a century later English poet and author Ursula Vaughan Williams’ (the late widow to composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) vivid and touching poetic tribute to Cecilia, Patron Saint of music and musicians, finds gorgeous partnership with the music of Herbert Howells for the Livery Club of The Worshipful Company of Musicians. Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day is November 22nd, so you will often find her music creeping into choral services around that time of year.

“Sing for the morning’s joy, Cecilia, sing
in words of youth, and phrases of the Spring,
Walk the bright colonnades by fountains’ spray,
and sing as sunlight fills the waking day.”

– Ursula Vaughan Williams, A Hymn for St Cecilia (excerpt)

Musical and poetic depictions of the morning have a special power in a beautiful created world such as ours – if the above examples don’t convince you look to the secular theatrical compositions for orchestra Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel and Peer Gynt by Grieg. Mornings signify reawakening, renewal, the defeat of night’s darkness and dawning hope for the day.

As Sunday morning worship remains ubiquitous while worship at other times is increasingly rare, it is worthwhile recalling a time and place where every part of every day was offered to God – and uniquely done so in songs for different times. We close our service today with a favourite hymn of mine that captures this outlook, “Lord of all hopefulness” by Jan Struther.


“Music and Memory” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 10 Nov 2019

“Lord, thou hast been our refuge” by RVW – a setting of Psalm 90, whose overarching theme is time – the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, under the the direction of George Guest.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), often said to be the father of English hymnody, had a particular vision for the language of faith. Watts was a poet – and a critic of ponderous and banal church music – from a tender age, famously annoying his family by rhyming in daily conversation (one attributed line spoken to his irritated father “Oh Father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”) That father, a learned deacon in the dissenting Congregationalist church, famously challenged him to improve on the rather functional hymn-psalm settings used by protestants in that time – Isaac accepted this challenge and wrote a new hymn every Sunday for two years, eventually contributing more than 600. One of which was the striking paraphrase of Psalm 23 “My Shepherd will supply my need” sung by the choir last Sunday, and another, the central melody of our annual Remembrance Service, a paraphrase of Psalm 90, “O God, our help in ages past.”

Music and memory are deeply intertwined, music often added to word to aid in our remembering. We continue to see, in children learning to speak right up to dementia patients, snatches of song and pieces of music entering first and remaining longest in memory. The new field of music and cognition continues to enrich our understanding of why pieces of music evoke, on simple hearing, memory of a time or place perhaps not thought of in years, or for any other reason.

“O God, our help in ages past,” sung and heard today at RPC to William Croft’s 1708 tune, ‘St Anne,’ picks up on the theme of time that Psalm 90 so grandly explores, even in the six of Watts’ nine verses still in use (and interestingly after a significant change made by John Wesley upon re-publishing it in 1738, changing the first line from “Our God…” to “O God…”). The simple ‘St Anne’ tune is masterfully incorporated into Ralph Vaughan Williams’ own choral paraphrase of Psalm 90, “Lord, Thou hast been our refuge”, figures into one of Handel’s ‘Chandos anthems, “O Praise the Lord with one consent,” and perhaps more dubiously into today’s postlude, the great E-flat major ‘St Anne’ Fugue.

“Time, like an ever-rolling stream” bears the memory of our war-fallen further and further away: several generations of us here in the west now have never lost a loved one to war, known a veteran, or been forced to suffer the experience of war. But we know that war continues – its refugees become our neighbours and our sisters and brothers. It would not be hard to argue that deeply evocative texts and tunes such as those running throughout our service today have become key agents in our remembering – but as Seaton suggests today, remembering is also about the future: our call to a gospel of peace, in contrast to a past of conflict. Perhaps our songs and verses can be repurposed in a similar way as we journey on.


“As Torrents” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 3 November 2019

“As Torrents in Summer” – Edward Elgar, Cambridge University Choir
under the direction of Christopher Robinson

In the 19th century Western music was rocked by an interesting “ethical” debate – so called “program music” (music that strives specifically to depict an extra-musical picture or story) versus “absolute music” (music which does not, that exists simply to be music). One side is symbolised by works such as Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, that depicts three scenes in the life and mind of an artist yearning for his beloved, and on the other the equally fantastic, but proudly non-depictive symphonies of Johannes Brahms.

Depiction in music did not begin in the nineteenth century, indeed it is one of the most ancient of musical fascinations, particularly in the realm of setting texts. The nineteenth century twist was the argument about whether it was right or wrong to do it… the counter-argument running that to contaminate music with an external “program” cheapens it; whereas great music can and should simply stand on its own. Music, Brahms would have argued, needs to be nothing “more” than music.

In a sense, texted music is automatically a brand of program music, even if it makes no special attempt to depict its text. Elgar’s beautiful choral song As Torrents in Summer (coming from his otherwise-mostly-forgotten Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30) would be just as musically beautiful sung without words or played on the piano, but when paired with Longfellow’s poem it takes on a special additional beauty. But here’s a question: is Elgar trying to ‘show’ the text in the music?

In a sense, texted music is automatically a brand of program music, even if it makes no special attempt to depict its text. Elgar’s beautiful choral song As Torrents in Summer (coming from his otherwise-mostly-forgotten Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30) would be just as musically beautiful sung without words or played on the piano, but when paired with Longfellow’s poem it takes on a special additional beauty. But here’s a question: is Elgar trying to ‘show’ the text in the music?

On the surface the answer is no: one certainly hears no rivers (half-dried or rushing), no far-off rainfall in the music – but what one does perhaps hear in the lush Victorian harmony is God’s fulfillment of fainting hearts to which those surprisingly risen rivers are being compared, and which, similar to those who marvel at unexpectedly rising rivers in summer, we fail to attribute to God’s own far-off work in those hearts.

So, is As Torrents in Summer programmatic or not? The text is deeply compelling either way, and it would be difficult to argue that any more intentionally pictorial setting of it would make it any more so. Sometimes, as McLuhan said, the medium is the message – beautiful words simply need beautiful music.


“Geistliche Lied” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 27 Oct 2019

“BRAHMS: Geistliche Lied”, arrangement for strings by Sir John Eliot Gardiner
(the organ set originally by Brahms, is just poetic backdrop to this performance)

Babel (Genesis 11:1–9, a tale of human ambition to godlike-ness and God’s efforts to thwart same) paints language as a kind of powerful super-weapon. By causing a linguistically (and we imagine culturally) uniform society to be ‘struck’ with many different tongues, God renders humankind unable to finish its tower-project, and scatters it along with its new languages to form the nations, cultures, ethnicities and ideologies that so beautifully colour – and in some cases so sharply divide – our world today.

Language is indeed a powerful weapon, but not because there are so many.  The phenomenon of thousands of languages and dialects may have given little help to our construction projects, but it has allowed cultural encoding of a rich kind. In other words, language is able to communicate much more than the semantic ‘meaning’ of the words: it teaches us much about whoever wrote or said them, and sometimes why. And at the vanguard of unlocking this treasure trove of hidden information is the art of translation.

Take the title of Brahms’ Geistliche Lied.  I first encountered this beautiful piece when I was a teenager, and recall our choirboy’s humor about what was, literally, a ‘ghostly song’ (and as an aside I still often seek a way to program it on the nearest appropriate Sunday to Halloween). But unlike ‘Lied’ which translates more-or-less literally to ‘song’ in English, ‘Geistliche’ in German means, not as we supposed ‘Ghost-like,’ but ‘Holy’. To miss or ignore this allows us a childish joke; to know it offers an admittedly non-specific, but reverent title for its gorgeous music and beautiful sentiment of trust in God’s plan over the fear and worry we so often substitute.

The word ‘Amen’ is shared by both languages: it means (to borrow Lennon & McCartney’s paraphrase) ‘Let it be.’ Arguably no single word in any language has been treated in more diverse musical ways, from the plagal two-chord Amen that was once a custom at the close of Protestant hymn-singing to the several-page “Amen Chorus” concluding Handel’s “Messiah”. In Geistliche Lied the elaborate setting of this word is easily the work’s most beautiful moment – indeed you may occasionally hear it sung, without the rest of the anthem, at the end of our services.

“What a great man, what a great soul…yet he believes nothing!”

– Antonìn Dvoràk, speaking of Johannes Brahms

In vocal and choral music having a text, the music itself also encodes a great deal of information – yet one thing you might not spot looking at this piece is that Brahms was an avowed atheist (his friend Antonín Dvoràk lamented, “What a great man, what a great soul…yet he believes nothing!”). Geistliche Lied displays Brahms’ passion and skill – even his Germanic style with its Lutheran Chorale-like entries (spiced here and there with shorter rhythmic bits and a polyphonic treatment), and tradition of elaborate ‘Amen’ settings. Yet it is not hard to imagine Brahms, with his famously lonely life (typified, according to some, by his love for Clara Schumann) finding comfort in Paul Flemming’s reassuring text, even without a belief in “God’s plan” to back him up. If the text touched him sufficiently to inspire this beauty, perhaps his relationship with it is not so different from that of a Christian similarly comforted, perhaps as St Paul and Timothy might have been had they ever read or heard it.

We are grateful this week to RPC chorister Nancy Olfert, who undertook a new English translation of Geistliche Lied, which in turn allowed me to create the new RPC edition we sing this morning.


“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?