Comparing Vespers to a CD by another over-50 Lutheran composer, David Patrick Stearns makes me smile and go Hm at the same time, here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer. As usual, he invites me to think. Phil Kline’s John the Revelator is the other CD, and both come in for praise, with large differences observed. I know just a bit of Kline’s music and have enjoyed it, having broadcast two of his pieces last year on Now is the Time. I have not heard what may be, to Philadelphians at least, his most-performed piece, Unsilent Night, which Relache stages every Christmas season, the city streets ﬁlled with boombox-toting audience members creating soundscapes as they walk.
Stearns rehearses the differences in music from composers who he says start from different philosophies: Kline has tension, shards, and angst, Smith has refuge, spiritual solidity, and solutions. While it would be ungracious to quibble in the face of a tremendously positive, even expansive review, I can’t help thinking that there is hardly anything more existentially problematic than the Introit for Vespers, Psalm 70 (and a big reason I found it such an attractive candidate for setting):
Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O LORD. Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward, and put to confusion, that desire my hurt. Let them be turned back for a reward of their shame that say, Aha, aha. Let all those that seek thee rejoice and be glad in thee: and let such as love thy salvation say continually, Let God be magniﬁed. But I am poor and needy: make haste unto me, O God: thou art my help and my deliverer; O LORD, make no tarrying.
What a sorry state the Psalmist David is in. I never noticed until composing this that it ends as it begins—so obvious, but so cast against type for what we think of as a praise text. If I had written the Psalm, I would’ve ended it at “Let God be magniﬁed” and have done with it. Then it makes a nice Problem Stated / Problem Solved. Just like TV, and a much easier ending for the composer. (The music for “Let God be magniﬁed” I also use in the raucous ending of Magniﬁcat.) But David, after all that, after getting to the “solution,” after ﬁnding the right place to be, falls right back to his former state. This is one of the many reasons Scripture compels: the more we discover of ourselves, the more of us we ﬁnd already discovered in it.
But Stearns’s review impels me to listen to John the Revelator, as I look forward to any likenesses or differences that may occur to me.