Monday, June 2, 2008

The very merry, nearly nary, month of May

Mondays have gotten away from me lately, and te decet hymnus has taken the hit. As we roll into summer and a different rhythm to the week, I hope to regain some momentum in ongoing reflection on music, the public assembly for divine worship, and ministry.

Today we celebrated the life of a non-musician, whose musical wife sings in the Chancel Choir. Dr. Earle Cairns celebrated his 98th birthday one week ago today, and passed into glory last Wednesday. He and JoAnn had ample time over the years to prepare his service, and while he was no musician he did have a discriminating appreciation for music, loved hymn singing, and was a fan of the Chancel Choir.

So it was a privilege for the Choir to be asked if we would sing Earle’s service. In particular, we were asked to sing the Harry Rowe Shelley setting of “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” This classic anthem (copyright renewed in 1914!) has long been in this music library, but has not been used in worship by any of the last three choir directors (including myself). I’m not sure why. Some anthems get overused, I think, and set aside; and it takes a while – or a special occasion or a special request – to rediscover them. In this case, I have pulled the octavo several times to consider its use, realized that we don’t have enough copies in the library to use it, and been too busy, distracted, or lazy to do anything about it.

I have to admit that in my prep for this morning, I was still somewhat ambivalent about the anthem. I was sure it would sing well, it wasn’t that. I just wasn’t sure how I felt about the piece. Add to that the uncertainty of who all would show up to sing, and how the sections would balance … Well, I made some notes about how we could combine voices, balance parts, cover solo sections, etc. We would make it work, and we would not be embarrassed to offer this anthem in service honoring a dear saint and his chorister widow.

So it was with a deep joy that I learned how lovely this psalm setting (Psalm 23) is. We sang it through first with my suggested alterations, but with 4 perfectly balanced sections and the sweetest sound imaginable, we fell back to the voicing as given. “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” was written for Solo Quartet and Chorus. We did use unison women on the Alto solo, and unison men on the Bass solo. But beyond that we let each section sing throughout, whether marked Solo or Chorus. It was a glorious, almost numismatic sound.

You’d never mistake the melody for a new tune. It seems very distinctly 19th century, and yet not distractingly dated. The organ accompaniment is interesting and supportive. I repent of my pride and indolence, and now intend to find and purchase enough copies for the full Chancel Choir to use in the year ahead.

It’s a constant learning, unlearning, and relearning. Oh for the grace and humility to grow into this work!


Christopher Charles Horatio Xavier King III, Esq. said...

Great post! It's wonderful to read about this touching coda to an excellent life.

Can you describe to this musical-terminology-challenged person what is meant by a "numismatic" sound? Are there any recording examples out there you can think of? Otherwise, I will need to hope for an encore on my next visit to College Church.

Chuck King said...

Actually it's a non-musical term. If I've used the right word, I mean spiritual/mysterious/awesome. But - ha! - now I see that the word I wanted was simply "numinous" which makes sense since that's already an adjective. What a dope! "Numismatic" relates to currency. I guess I could say that although this is an old anthem, it sounded "au courant" - but that bilingual pun is probably worse than just using the wrong word to begin with. NUMINOUS, that's the word I wanted.

Christopher Charles Horatio Xavier King III, Esq. said...

Haha, okay, thanks! That makes sense. A "numismatic" song is an interesting thought, though. Now I've got Pink Floyd's "Money" stuck in my head...

Chuck King said...

Oh, then I'm glad some good came out of my ignorance.