Monday, December 22, 2008

Redemption or Sellout?

Last night College Church celebrated what is for me the pinnacle of our December services: Christmas Communion. Oh yes, I look forward to Christmas Eve, and especially to ending "Silent Night" at midnight. But Wednesday's services are the afterglow of the season. The burning heart, for me, is the Christmas Table: God With Us and God For Us, Incarnation and Atonement.

O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
Oh come to us, abide with us,
our Lord, Emmanuel.

Yes, yes indeed the music of the service hath its charms: a skilled exquisite choral ensemble, a close and smoothly blended women's trio, cello, and the congregation in full voice. But the hour-long meditation on why God sent his Son - it's all there in the best classic Christmas songs and hymns: "Christ was born to save!" What a night.

One potentially fatal selection of congregational song kept me wondering right up until its last thoughtfully sung note. "Can a congregation, even this congregation, really sing Londonderry Air, credibly?" It turns out they can, and even if that's just because they're kind of expected to, at least it worked.

But it raises some questions:
  • Why this tune with a sacred text? Well, I understand the text was written with this tune in mind. Indeed, while it is not an eccentric meter, it is distinctive; it's hard to imagine the text was written and then someone said "oh hey, you can sing that to Londonderry Air!"
  • Why this tune in a sacred context? The issue here is the association (strong in my parent's generation and a little later) with "Danny Boy" and swing bands and crooners. Personally, I am able to look back beyond Danny Boy and say, well it's a folk tune with an older and reputable history. Or at least if not reputable (because I don't know that for sure :~) at least uncertain or unknown. In other words, I can dissociate the tune from Danny Boy. Even while I recognize that others may not be able to. (As an interesting side note, it was someone from "that generation" who first pointed me to this song.)
  • Why this tune, which is so hard to sing? Ah, that's a tougher call. Those who criticize some kinds of P&W tunes often cite the extreme ranges (notes go both too high and too low in the same song) need to take note that this is nothing new. Like STILLE NACHT, some classic melodies also have this kind of reach. If they weren't already familiar, they would be criticized for this very feature. But of course, that's the answer, too: we can pull it off (if we can pull it off) because it is familiar, even if no longer "popular."
  • So, if we use this tune with its checkered associations, why not others? Have we redeemed this tune, or have we sold out? Why aren't we singing "Amazing Grace" to "House of the Rising Sun" after all? And I guess in a sense, there you've got me. Certainly the degree of ill repute (get it?) has something to do with it. I might argue that the character of the melody is more fitting. (This text and this tune fit better than that text and that tune.) Definitely honoring "authorial intent"figures significantly into the decision. And finally - this is the part that I love ... and that scares me ... I get to decide! Ha ha.

I was thinking about the first time we used "I Cannot Tell" in this service, some years ago. Kent Hughes was our pastor, and he had already expressed to me his reservation about using "Danny Boy." But he was sold on the text, and we decided to give it a go. As it worked, the people could sing it, and as far as I know there was not a negative response to it. Still, it bears reconsideration, and I never repeat it lightly. A word of caution: don't try this with a congregation unless you have a choir in front of or with them. Unaided, man must fail. Led by a soloist or worship team, and you may get too close to "Danny Boy." But where it can work, it really works.

And now, here is the "it" I have been rambling on about. You see how it is representative of why I so look forward to this service each December:

I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship,
should set his love upon the sons of men,
or why, as shepherd, he should seek the wanderers,
to bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that he was born of Mary,
when Bethlehem’s manger was his only home,
and that he lived at Nazareth and labored,
and so the Savior, Savior of the world, is come.

I cannot tell how silently he suffered,
as with his peace he graced this place of tears,
or how his heart upon the cross was broken,
the crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, he heals the broken-hearted,
and stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
and lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
for yet the Savior, Savior of the world, is here.

I cannot tell how he will win the nations,
how he will claim his earthly heritage,
how satisfy the needs and aspirations
of east and west, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see his glory,
and he shall reap the harvest he has sown,
and some glad day his sun shall shine in splendor
when he the Savior, Savior of the world, is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
when, at his bidding, every storm is stilled,
or who can say how great the jubilation
when all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
and myriad, myriad human voices sing,
and earth to heaven, and heaven to earth, will answer,
“At last the Savior, Savior of the world, is King!”

W. Y. Fullerton, 1929

Saturday, December 20, 2008


That is both, "OK" and "the end."

Neither are exactly accurate, and yet both are apt: this morning I have finished the season-long work of properly dividing hymn texts into their singing syllables. From that work on each hymn, a document was sent to be dropped into the music, already engraved. This is a task which, were it not done by 2009, I had promised to drink poison. Now free of that pressure, or threat, what does this actually mean?

What it does not mean:
  • it does not mean that my work on the College Church hymnal is done - it is perhaps (hopefully) the last major piece to which I personally need to give a lot of concentrated time.
  • it does not mean that even this piece is actually 100% complete - I have a dozen or so hymns with particular questions that require some research before sending them on: tune suggestions, text emendations, attributions to check, etc.
  • it does not mean that we will be singing out of a new hymnal at College Church for Epiphany or even Easter!

What it does mean:

  • we are in sight of a 2009 completion and publication for the hymnal
  • we see even more clearly where there are gaps, holes, weaknesses in the collection; this will require a few forays back into the selection process
  • there is a ton of work still to be done, and I'm sure I don't know the half of it, such as - more engraving, all the copyright permissions, indexing (themes, first lines, titles, tunes, etc.), massive proof-reading of the hymn pages, checking and double checking attributions and credits ... you get the idea

And so it goes. This has been the most productive year for this long, tedious, frankly dispiriting project. I have held things up more than moved them along. But I have been encouraged, humbled, and amazed by the ongoing volunteer work that this year has produced

  • the hymn pages, with music, words, information, scripture reference, and category labels (Thank you, Ed!)
  • an extensive - and I mean extensive - scripture allusion index; so full of information that we cannot practically include it all in the hymnal proper - suggesting an online or digital "companion" for those who will use it (Thank you, Harry!)

So, yes, today this project is fine, and in a sense, Fine. End of the movement, but not the symphony. A good place to stop and enjoy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lessons and Canticles

It is properly a Christmas service - at least the classic King's College Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is. There are Advent Lessons and Carols services, to be sure. And I suppose those churches that genuinely embrace the whole Advent ethos must enjoy them. Where I live and work, we have a lovely Advent season, but not so much the patience to specialize in Advent songs and music. Not so much as we might.

But we love the service of Lessons and Carols, and if we do this Christmas service mid-Advent, there's no reason to be disappointed with that. It is the perfect kind of service for College Church: extensive readings from the Bible, song texts that carry along the story and are rife with scripture, a warmth and wealth of congregational song, and something special for the Choir to do. I can say from personal ministry experience: this trumps a Christmas extravaganza any day. (OK, personal preference.)

There is no time in the life of our Choir that we are not mindful that music is a ministry of the Word. It's how we see the role of music here; it's what we do. But a service like Lessons and Carols highlights that specially in a season that is more culturally prone to ... well, to extraneous accretions to the Christmas story. So it was with a heightened focus and a keen eagerness that we sang this year's Service of Lessons and Carols. Oh yes, and Canticles.

In order to accommodate 3 of the Christmas canticles, we limited the Lessons to six - retaining the arc of the redemptive story-line, maintaining the Genesis to John thread, but limiting Isaiah to one reading (contra last week's post!), regretfully passing over Micah about Bethlehem, and foregoing this year the Matthew reading. We filled in those gaps in our singing - congregational and choral - but I missed them. (Though it was reassuring to hear people say they hadn't realized there were fewer readings this year.)

The canticles we used:
Magnificat - a very close paraphrase set to the Scottish tune CANDLER, by Carl Schalk, sung by the congregation
Gloria in excelsis - using the complete Vivaldi setting in D
Nunc dimittis - a recent Rene Clausen composition for choir and organ
Three very different treatments, for very different forces. Along with plenty of singing for the congregation, and just one more choral anthem; what a rich, full celebration.

The service of Lessons and Carols is broadcast internationally, live, beginning at 3pm GMT, from King's College. You may be able to find it on a radio or computer near you.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Isaiah Advent

Probably no part of scripture is referenced more in Advent worsthip, than the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. Certainly, if we would see the whole grand sweep of the season, it would have to deal with Isaiah - and Jesus's birth - and Jesus teaching about the kingdom - and the theology of new creation - and the Revelation of St. John ... which of course also takes us back to Isaiah!

I was a little slow coming to the bandwagon that is "The Dream Isaiah Saw." I heard it somewhere, had a couple of choral directors commend it to me, and sort of reluctantly added it to our choir retreat repertoire in Fall 2007. The choral score (Oxford) is printed with accompaniment by organ and piano; the ideal performance forces are organ, brass, and percussion. Drums. Lots of drums. 2 percussionsists handling 8 drums. Big drums - toms in pairs, in 3 sizes, and 2 bass drums. Once you've sung or heard "The Dream Isaiah Saw" with brass and percussion, it is hard to imagine it any other way. (But this is a good sub without organ!)

Composer Glenn Rudolph has set a thoughtful, harrowing setting of Isaiah's prophecy (chapter 11), written by Thomas Troeger. The text is below; one rarely sings a poetic treatment that keeps the prophetic punch. I'd like to hear a recording from our use of this work, in our morning services yesterday. At some level, the choir has never sounded better. But something special happened yesterday, that probably was not captured in a recording - it was more than singing with brass and drums, more than singing with a full choir in all 3 morning services. A service that began with the choir singing Paul Manz's "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come," included the congregation singing from in dulci jubilo, "oh, that we were there!" and reached its musical peak with this vision of what that day will bring in "The Dream Isaiah Saw." As director, I found myself awed by this grand vision, and I read in the singers' faces as well - they got it! Dare I say it? It was a morning in which the choir was truly filled with the Spirit. Wasn't it just the emotion? No, not this time: when the choir left the loft, singers spoke of being humbled by the prayer (see below) and seized by the picture of what is to come. This is what we long for, and what Advent reminds us of while we wait!

The Dream Isaiah Saw
Lions and oxen will sleep in the hay,
leopards will join with the lambs as they play,
wolves will be pastured with cows in the glade,
blood will not darken the earth that God made.
Little child whose bed is straw,
take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
life redeemed from fang and claw.

Peace will pervade more than forest and field:
God will transfigure the violence concealed
deep in the heart and in systems of gain,
ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.
Little child whose bed is straw,
take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
justice purifying law.

Nature reordered to match God's intent,
nations obeying the call to repent,
all of creation completely restored,
filled with the knowledge and love of the Lord.
Little child whose bed is straw,
take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.

Thomas Troeger, c. 1994 Oxford University Press

There is a professional recording available, sung by the choir that commissioned the work, the Bach Choir Pittsburg. I, for one, am ordering it immediately.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advent Hymns 2008

November 30, 2008 - the First Sunday of Advent. Lovely morning services, with nary a Christmas carol in the mix. The evening service began with a nice extended set of Christmas carols. Something for everyone at the start of the season.

Young preacher begins his evening sermon along these lines ... "Don't you enjoy singing the songs of the first Advent, preparing for the celebration of Jesus' birth? But don't you also long to sing songs of his second Advent?" Music pastor's antennae spring up ... it isn't often his selections are publicly denounced or dissed. Quick review of the day - was there really no reference to the second coming, in all these songs of the day? (Well, sure, there is the not-too-oblique "O Lord, how shall I meet you?" of Paul Gerhardt.) I let it pass.

At the end of the sermon, I realize what the good ministry resident meant, by what he reiterated. Ah yes, of course! Yes, I do; I do long to sing the songs of the second Advent ... the songs that we sing after Jesus returns. Maranatha! Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come!

Or, as the choir will sing this coming Sunday (as choirs have for over 50 years now, courtesy Paul Manz):
Peace be to you, and grace from Him who freed us from our sins,
who loved us all and shed His blood that we might saved be.
Sing holy, holy to our Lord, the Lord Almighty God,
Who was and is and is to come;
Sing holy, holy Lord!
Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein, rejoice on earth, ye saints below,
for Christ is coming, is coming soon!
E'en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more;
They need no light, nor lamp nor sun, for Christ will be their All.

And now, another great Advent text, this one for congregation:

From the Father’s throne on high
Christ returns to rule and reign.
Child of earth, he came to die;
Judge of all he comes again.

Darkened be the day at noon
When the stars of heaven fall;
Earth and sky and sun and moon –
Cloudy darkness covers all.

Ancient powers of sin and death
Shake to hear the trumpet blown;
From the winds’ remotest breath
God will gather in his own.

So behold the promised sign,
Sky and sea by tumult driven,
And the King of kings divine
Coming in the clouds of heaven.

Come then, Lord, in light and power,
At whose word the worlds began;
In the unexpected hour
Come in glory, son of man!
USA © 1987 by Hope Publishing Company
Yes, this too is how we should be singing in the meantime between Advents, and specifically in December 2008.