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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this recording and post. This piece was recommended to me for next Advent and wow what a powerful compsition.
Thank you.
Dr. Marcy Mittelstadt

Anonymous said...

As regards "The Dream Isaiah Saw," you will no doubt be interested to know that The Washington (DC) Chorus has performed this piece in our Christmas concerts for the past four years. It never fails to give us who sing it goosebumps, and to stir our audiences deeply. If you haven't heard our new Christmas recording -- just released this fall and being played on many public radio stations -- by all means buy a copy. Our rendition of "The Dream Isaiah Saw" -- the next to last selection on the CD -- will knock your socks off!

Ann Ramsey-Moor
Ellicott City, MD
(Wheaton College, 1970)

Chuck King said...

I look forward to hearing that! Thanks for the tip.
We used it again this year in a Carol Service, and ... well, it never fails to connect with musicians and audience alike.

Joy said...

We look forward each year to this season when we listen to our recording of Hodie Cantate by Pittsburgh Bach Choir singing The Dream Isaiah Saw. Thanks for the recommendation of the DC recording!

Chuck King said...

Joy - glad to find another fan of a fine, fine recording!