How Music says Home – RPC Music Notes, Sun 22 Dec 2019

The Road Home – Stephen Paulus
Conspirare under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson

In one of our anthems this morning, which I reserve each year for what we call here at Rosedale Presbyterian Church “Homecoming Sunday,” the late Stephen Paulus brought an American folk hymn tune ‘Prospect’ (appearing first, it is thought, in Southern Harmony (1835) under the title “The Lone White Bird”) to writer Michael Dennis Browne, who wrote three beautiful stanzas on the idea of coming home after a time of wandering. Paulus’ setting of Browne’s words has proved very popular, but while those words are surely key to its emotional purchase with conductors, choristers and audiences, let’s set them aside and look at Paulus’ setting of the music.

The Southern Harmony hymn tune is ‘pentatonic,’ that is, it employs just five of the seven notes traditional major scale (specifically the ones we we sometimes call do, re, mi, so, la, omitting fa and ti – Fraulein Maria taught you, I and the Von Trapp kids about these in The Sound of Music). The omission of the ‘unstable’ notes (fa which longs to fall to mi, and ti which longs to rise to do) conveys an incredible stability or groundedness. One simple way to explore this unique sound is to play only the black notes on the piano: interestingly it is the foundational harmonic system of many world musics, most famously those of China, Japan and other Asian cultures. To accompany this basic system of harmony Paulus employs a familiar sound from 20th and 21st century choral music, ‘added harmony’ – that is, despite the melody’s harmonic simplicity, the choral harmony is often enriched by added mild dissonant notes from within the scale, but again, in a stable sort of way that more colours the moving chords, than tells them where they need to go. Critically, the idea of home in music has a sound that is both stable and beautiful.

“Rise up, follow me, come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart as the only song;
There is no such beauty as where you belong:
Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home.”

In perhaps the anthem’s most compelling feature, just after Browne’s second stanza alludes to the existence of a ‘Voice’ that will lead the wanderer home, Paulus adds a new element, a soprano descant over the hymn tune to personify that Voice. The implication to some persons of faith, a loving God calling sinners home, is self-evident, and had Browne been not a 20th century writer, but rather the 18th or 19th century writer of an original text attached to this melody, that would be the whole story here.

But the notion that ‘home’ is not so much an abstract place of our ordered and perhaps irresistible return – perhaps like other species like salmon or monarch butterflies; rather, what we understand about home is a deeply human idea, and the addition of a solo voice to the until then exclusively plural choral texture tends, for me at least, to seal the deal.

I write this as one who has always enjoyed the privilege to discern, and to mostly choose a meaning to attach to Browne’s phrase quoted above, “where you belong” – and I acknowledge that this concept that many of us idealise and take for granted has it has often been, and continues to be used by people that look like me to control others.

Welcome home to RPC if you have returned from your wandering this Christmas season; enjoy your unique version of home, be it a place, people, evocative music such as the carols you hear and sing – or all of the above. Or if you lack home in any sense this Christmas, may God’s comfort and music’s balm both rest upon you.

-CD

The Power of Melody – RPC Music Notes Sun 15 Dec 2019

Choral Prelude on ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’, BWV 650 – J.S. Bach
Ton Koopman, Silbermann organ

With the possible exception of the Gregorian chant-descended hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel” no tune better captures the spirit of the Advent season than Martin Luther’s 1523 composition (both tune and words), Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland (Now, come, Saviour of the Nations). Our service today offers no fewer than six unique settings of this tune.

Three of those settings are the triad of organ preludes from Bach’s Leipzig Chorales, BWV 659-661. The haunting BWV 659, perhaps Bach’s most sublime setting of any melody for the organ, is written in a style known as alio modo, in which imitative voices in the left hand and an ornamented solo line in the right are united, phrase by phrase, over a simple independent ‘walking bass’ in the pedal. BWV 660 is a more academically- oriented trio in which left hand and pedal trade references to the first musical phrase of the tune, while the right hand presents the entire tune, again well-ornamented. BWV 661 is a grand and vigorous full organ setting in which the pedal presents the entire tune while the right hand offers a three-voice fugue based more loosely on the tune material.

The other three settings of the tune appear in the latter part of today’s service, first a duet and chorale taken from one of Bach’s four Advent Cantatas, BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor. The duet Brooke, Nancy and I offer today, originally scored for two oboes d’amore and continuo, presents the tune richly ornamented by both voices, the two solo instruments, and the continuo line in roughly equal partnership. The chorale that closes Cantata 36 turns out to be the exact words of our usual Doxology, but, you guessed it, set to our “Melodie von heute.”

Briefly, what is it about this tune, which continues to appear regularly in hymn books 500 years later (although, alas, not our Book of Praise)? It has a few unusual properties, most obviously that the first and fourth phrases are identical. And though to our ears it lies solidly in the key of G minor, it skips the all-important raised leading note (F#) we usually like in minor keys (if your ears are trained and tuned in to this sort of thing you might notice that today’s many Bach settings, despite the difficulty voices have in singing it before the B-flat that must follow, often add it).

The unusual structure of Nun komm’ (the last phrase being the same as the first) might be as simple as helping illiterate 16th century congregations in learning, let’s remember, mostly for the FIRST time EVER, to sing hymns at all, especially in their own spoken languages. The F-natural on the third note of the first and last phrases suggest the musical time Luther lived in, not yet by any means moved on to the more recent major/minor hegemony that seemed to abolish the older church modes except as a theoretical abstraction. Also, it’s not hard to see why simple intervals (like the perfect fourth from F-natural to B-flat) would be easier and more intuitive to help get the Church’s first real foray into full-congregational singing.

Finally, I have added an ‘Amen’ setting to my series composed for the RPC Choir. In it our wonderful altos, who so often suffer with simple and repetitive parts while others enjoy singing the real tune, are given the tune throughout, while the other parts add an ornamental tapestry befitting the entreaty of a coming Saviour.

-CD

Cantata – RPC music notes, Sun 8 Dec 2019

Classic Choral Society & Orchestra, Artistic Director: Janiece Kohler
United Church of Christ, Blooming Grove, NY Dec 2016

Over and over as we regard history, things we might have supposed to be older turn out to have fairly recent causes, and one such example is the tradition in Protestant Churches of “Special Music” and at this time of the year, that special instance of Special Music, the ‘Christmas Cantata.’

The Italian term ‘Sonata’ describes a multi-movement work for instruments. Its root ‘Sona-‘ comes from sound: it is music to be heard. The related term ‘Cantata’ describes a work similar in most ways, except that it incorporates voices, and comes from ‘Canta-‘: it is music to be sung. The seemingly parallel terms Sonata and Cantata are in fact not parallel, though – the former describes how the piece is received (through sound), whereas the latter describes how it is offered (by singing). Presumably Cantatas, also received through sound, should just be a special case of ‘Sonata’, right?

Wrong. In the Biblical context singing, as opposed to other sorts of music making, seems to have a special imperative all its own. True, the Psalms and a handful of other biblical stories mention instruments, but instances and explicit exhortations to singing, perhaps the most intimate and personal way of making music, far outnumber them.

So much so, that when in Reformation times our denomination’s Calvinist precursors were ‘cleaning house’ of various corrupt and non- or dubiously-scriptural practices, instruments (including the organ) were summarily removed from worship, while singing remained. Along with selling indulgences (essentially ‘salvation paid for in cash’) and the instruments went the elaborate ritual practices and sublime choral music of the Catholic tradition. Ah, you say, but what about the Lutherans and the great Cantata tradition of Bach? Yes, on this point (as well as others) Lutherans and Calvinists appear to have differed, and Lutheran worship retained, at least in principal churches, a place for elaborate music.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, when scholars of both music and liturgy became deeply interested in returning to both the works and the ‘authentic’ practices of earlier times. The Calvinist streams of Protestantism had by then re-introduced instruments and non-scriptural sung texts (i.e. ‘hymns’). And a society placing some emphasis on music in education and public life was producing fine musicians to lead public worship, who felt drawn to the riches of the Cantata tradition, then re-emerging mostly on the concert stage. The accomplished and aspirational church musician sought occasional special musical goals for their church choirs and other ensembles, and found in history (or created brand-new in history’s honour) – the Cantata.

So, music from an earlier tradition is restored (as we do at RPC this morning with masterpieces of the German Baroque before Bach), and a new repertoire of Christmas, Lenten and Easter Cantatas emerges, mostly in the English west – not every week as in the impressive practice of Bach at Leipzig – but rather on special occasions and in special seasons.

The Church Cantata today reminds us of the unique role of singing in worship throughout God’s church, of the aspirations of choirs like other ministry teams working in service, and the compelling ability of artistic beauty to offer us a window upon a Gospel of truth.

-CD