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.