“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’

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 ideasaboutmusic.ca 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 ideasaboutmusic.ca 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