“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?


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