[First published 26 Mar 2013 in the Broad Street Review and reprinted with permission.]
We continued our tradition of the chanted Passion this morning, Palm Sunday. Three singers, as Narrator, Christ, and Speaker, chanted this year’s appointed setting, which is from Luke’s gospel.
We’ve broken up the chant in various ways over the years. The congregation always sings, at times, verses from the Johann Heermann / Johann Crüger hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.”
For other places, I’ve composed instrumental interludes, tweaking them from year to year. Or I write new ones, depending on who is available from the congregation to play. We’ve had recorders, strings, and handbells, with or without the organ, and when Priscilla was able to be here, a soprano shawm—very nasty, very effective.
This year I wrote all new interludes. We had two French horns, a cello (all high schoolers), and—to be played with mallets by two from the bell choir—12 handbells hanging from the bell-tree.
One bell player teaches school, one is an office worker. As for the singers: One works in a bank, one writes computer programs, one does something with music.
Orff “timpani” (tuned tom-toms) have been played over the years at various points by children and/or adults. Mike, who sells earth-moving equipment, played two of them today. Half-note and two quarters: two mallets on two drums together, over and over from up in the balcony, in the back of the sanctuary, at the moment when Jesus is arrested.
One drum is the lowest C, one is the F above, but I didn’t bother even to tune them, because when they’re that low they’re mud: just thumps: just perfect. Any lower and the tuning keys start to chatter.
Years ago, Mike showed up at September’s first handbell rehearsal with his young daughter. “We’d like to play,” he said. We thought he was using the royal “we,” speaking for his daughter; but no, Mike wanted to play, too. He didn’t know anything about music, so we taught him.
Mike learned that the open note gets four beats; the open note with a line gets two; the filled-in note gets one. Every week he learned.
For a year Mike played just one bell: the D in the bass clef. The middle line. Now he plays D, C and others if you need—accidentals, special effects, hand chimes, whatever you want. His rhythm is solid.
Mike’s daughter’s not in handbells any more. Mike is.
Rehearsing, 45 minutes before church, I look at Mike in the balcony and cup my hand to my ear. He nods, plays louder.
There are many other things that are good about church music, but at this moment I can’t think of any.