Category Archives: church music

Reformation and Mendelssohn and Bach

Detail of the door of the Castle Church, Wittenburg

Anniversaries bump into each other on this Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday at 5 pm on WRTI. It’s year 500 since the beginning of the Reformation, almost to the day, when Martin Luther posted 95 theological and ecclesiastical points he wished to debate with all comers. Nobody dared to take him up on it, but from the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517 a revolution in religion, humanism, freedom, and language swept across the world. And it was accompanied by music.

The dust was far from settling in 1530 when the “Lutherans,” as they were being called, put together a meticulously reasoned defense of what they believed, and presented it to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. They wrote it in Augsburg, so this Augsburg Confession became a founding document of Lutheranism, and by extension, a pivotal moment for what would become Germany. In 1830, the 300th anniversary of that Confession, celebrations took place throughout Germany, particularly in Augsburg itself.

Felix Mendelssohn had already begun composing a celebratory symphony for this in 1829. But because of illness and touring, he missed the deadline. He had offered a version of it to Augsburg, but the city turned it down. A Paris orchestra also demurred. Mendelssohn finally completed it and conducted the premiere in 1832, in Berlin.

He placed into the symphony’s beginning what is known as the “Dresden Amen,” a bit of liturgical music known well in both Catholic and Lutheran churches. Wagner would later quote it in Parsifal and elsewhere. But Mendelssohn put the big statement of the Reformation—its national anthem, you might say—in the last movement. Martin Luther’s music for his own versification of Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott) receives a grand treatment from Mendelssohn. He later didn’t care for the youthful work, but after his death this second symphony of his was discovered and listed as No. 5.

The 80th in the catalog of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach uses the same Luther tune, but it took a while to reach the form we now know. This “Ein’ feste Burg” Cantata was used in Leipzig, where Bach lived from 1723 until his death in 1750. But he actually wrote much of the music when he was in Weimar, mostly from 1708 until 1717. It was for Lent, but Leipzig would not permit extravagant cantatas during this penitential season, so Bach rewrote it for the Feast of the Reformation on October 31st, and revised it again, sometime in the late 1720s and early ’30s.

What a work this is. Many of the Bach cantatas are intimate and jewel-like, but this is a huge outpouring of jubilant praise and musical explosion. The expansive opening choral fantasia is one of the most elaborate motets ever written. This is the Bach that astounds us just he did Felix Mendelssohn, when the 20 year old revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for its 100th anniversary—in 1829, the same year he began composing the Reformation Symphony.

PROGRAM:
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Symphony No. 5, ”Reformation”
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Cantata No. 80, ”Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”

Give Ear, O Heavens

Give Ear, O Heavens. SATB, 4′. Commissioned for the 40th Anniversary of the Ordinations of the Rev. Dr. Michael G. Tavella and the Rev. N. Amanda Grimmer, pastors of Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Abington, Pa. Text is the canticle Audite Caeli. Premiered 23 Oct 2016, Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church Choir, Jacqueline Smith, organist and director of music.

If you would like to see the whole score, just let me know and I’ll send it!

Give ear, O heavens, to what I say,
and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like the drops of rain;
my words distill like the dew,
like gentle rain upon the grass
like showers on the growing plants.
I will sing of the LORD’s renown,
extol the greatness of our God,
the Rock, whose work is complete,
for all his ways are just;
a faithful God, who does no wrong,
righteous and true is he.
Remember the days of old;
consider the years long past;
ask your father to show you
and your elders to tell you.
The LORD will vindicate his people
and will have compassion on his servants.
Rejoice with him, you heavens;
all you gods, bow down before him.

—Canticle based on Deuteronomy 32, the Second Song of Moses

Kyrie and Gloria Patri

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Kyrie and Gloria Patri. For congregation and organ, with cantor or choir (opt. SATB). The choir may sing in parts or unison. In the Kyrie the choir or a solo voice may be cantor. Separate congregation part available for bulletin. Commissioned by the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Daniel Spratlan, music director, and Cynthia A. Jarvis, minister.

I have composed a Kyrie, a “Lord, have mercy,” before, in the Mass for Philadelphia, but never a separate Gloria Patri (the words traditionally end Magnificat settings, and I do have several of those). Dan Spratlan has begun to commission settings for his Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, and asked me for one, to be used beginning in the fall of 2017.

It is bliss to write challenging music for professionals, but is in some ways even more delightful to write successful music for amateurs. The largest group of amateurs who sing new music every week is the church congregation. I’ve composed hymn and liturgical settings for congregations most of my career.

While the difference in musical abilities between amateurs and professionals may be great, the composer’s challenge—and honor—is always the same: to serve them, to help them sound their best, and to reveal truths.

The musical opportunities in small forms like this Kyrie and Gloria Patri are as profound as one wishes to make them. To create dramas through the text while not obscuring the line is a useful craft no matter what the music is, but the task is heightened in music for a congregation, since the moment a congregation is unsure of itself, it stops singing. The music must always support and encourage the congregation, and thankfully, every facet of music is available to assist in that task.

I’ve done something slightly new in this. It is not unheard of in choral music, but it doesn’t happen often, where voices will depart here and there from a “doubling” accompaniment. You’ll see an example in the alto line in measure 5 above, at “have”; the altos sing a D while the organ plays a C. It is not only to avoid the direct 5th (and avoiding those as we were taught is, yes, generally a good idea—although I kept it in the organ part). There were other ways to fix that fifth. No, it rather comes out of thinking of the choir and organ as part of an ensemble—an orchestra, if you will—where lines follow their own lights and are not simply copies of each other. I first noticed this only a few years ago in a Wagner chorus I was singing. The choral bass part did something other than what the orchestral basses were playing (and what I’d expected), and it charmed me.

If an SATB choir is available, it will sing what it sings and won’t get in the way of the congregation. And that’s the other challenge the composer is constantly trying to solve—to get out of the way.

(The Gloria Patri is in G major and the Kyrie is actually in a mode, G dorian, even though it ends more on B-flat. A certain fuzziness in cadencing can be appropriate, I feel, if that conflict in mood helps to drive home the feeling of the text. A Kyrie should offer comfort only with the knowledge that one who is unworthy of comfort falls completely on mercy. That is why I do not hear the last chord as an add 6 (Bb+6) or a Gm7/Bb, even though it is both of those. I’m not sure, in this context, what the chord is.)

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Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Rejoice in the Lamb

Rejoice in the Lamb. SATB, 5′.

To Dr. John H. French, on the 25th anniversary of his ministry as organist/choirmaster of The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. Premiered 2 July 2017.

Live recording of the premiere:

 

Using the same title as the Benjamin Britten 17-minute cantata, and using words from the same monumental Christopher Smart poem, Jubilate Agno, that Britten used, this is a 5-minute a cappella anthem or concert work. The first two lines of my setting (text below) are also in Britten’s, but the other two lines are not. John French had asked if the Britten work, which he loves and has often conducted, could possibly inspire another setting, and so I looked closely at Britten’s piece, and then Smart’s original poem.

After long consideration—the poem is huge—the text began to take shape around the occasion I was asked to celebrate, French’s 25 years as organist and choirmaster at one of the great churches of Philadelphia, and a landmark on Rittenhouse Square, The Church of the Holy Trinity.

Smart was a profoundly pious man, and that did not make his life a smooth one. Taken to falling on his knees in the street and praying, he was viewed as unstable and was committed first to a mental asylum and then to a debtors’ prison. He wrote part if not all of Jubilate Agno in confinement.

The life of this poet and the circumstances of this poem colored the music’s character. The shifting between E major and a parallel mode of A lydian came out of this. I thought that the halting, almost-too-sweet “Give the glory to the Lord” was appropriate, as were the repeating Hallelujahs, driving to an ecstatic proclamation at the end.

I have been Holy Trinity’s resident composer since 2013, fortunate to have most of my anthems and another commission sung in that historic church. Among the distinguished leaders who have served there are the rector Phillips Brooks and the organist Lewis Redner, who created “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at that church for a Sunday School class in 1868. John French serves as the descendant of Redner, organist Robert Elmore, and many others who were dedicated to the spiritual growth of the congregation and the integrity of the music they produce, just as they are descended from Asaph of the Psalms, “the musician of the Lord.”

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable.
For a NEW SONG also is best, if it be to the glory of God; and taken with the food like the psalms.
Let Asaph rejoice with the Nightingale—The musician of the Lord! and the watchman of the Lord!
—Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

O Thou Who Camest from Above

O Thou Who Camest from Above. SATB, 4 ‘. Commissioned for the 90th Concert Season of the Greenville College Choir and Chamber Singers, Jeffrey S. Wilson, director. The tune is Hereford by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876), the text is Leviticus 6:13 and the hymn by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), is based on the Leviticus verse.

In April 2016 I was the guest composer for the Greenville College Schoenhals Fine Arts Symposium in Greenville, Illinois. At the end of my few days’ residency there, during which I taught classes and heard performances of works of mine, the chair of choral activities Jeffrey Wilson asked me if I would be interested in composing a work for their annual choir tour. They tour every year, and in 2017 they would be coming to Philadelphia and the East Coast, as it happened, during their 90th concert season.

[Live recording from Greenville’s Spring ’17 Home Concert]

I was happy to be asked to write for his excellent choir. Greenville is a Free Methodist university (previously a college, they received university status on 1 June 2017), and Jeff wondered if I might like to arrange this work by the great Methodist hymnodist Charles Wesley, set to music by Charles’s grandson Samuel Sebastian Wesley. I did not know the hymn but immediately liked both words and music, the tune Hereford.

Noting that the hymn was an application of one verse from Leviticus, I decided to set that verse as well, using it to open and close the arrangement. While setting those words, I only then noticed the assonance of its final words “go out” with the opening of the hymn, “O Thou,” so that explains the musical overlapping. To transition back to Leviticus at the end, I added the “Amen,” which in earlier generations ended the singing of every hymn.

Written for a college choir of about three dozen singers, this is of moderate difficulty and workable for any church choir with balanced sections.

[Here is the Greenville College Choir singing it at the WRTI studios, stopping by on 17 March 2017 to rehearse some of their tour concert. Jeffrey Wilson conducts:]


The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.
—Leviticus 6:13

O Thou who camest from above
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart!

There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze;
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work, and speak, and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And make the sacrifice complete. Amen.
—Charles Wesley (after Leviticus 6:13)

Driving on Broad Street

The best lane to drive in on Broad Street is the other one.

There are tendencies, but they are slight, and you cannot trust them. Above Roosevelt Boulevard, for instance, heading north, hie thee to the left lane because the cars peeling northwest onto Belfield clear out the left, and you can sail.

Except when you can’t. Because more often than you’d think, there’s a 1971 Ford Galaxie 500 four-door, medium blue metallic with white roof, in front of you — I mean, immediately in front of you — who decides, oh, maybe, he, too, would like to scooch into that Belfield left-turn-only lane, but because it only just occurred to him, like, right now, instead of, oh, ten, five, seconds sooner, he can’t get over, and so he decides it’d be perfectly meet, right, and salutary to sit there fat and happy and block you — with Broad Street an open runway in front of him all the way from Belfield to Rockland.

Bermuda Triangle

You sit and steam and cannot move; everyone streaming by you on the right is grinning. Their cars are grinning, too, their front grilles curling up at the corners, and it’s a conga line of traffic on balloon tires bounce-bouncing up Broad while you have a muted trumpet over your stationary vehicle playing wah-wah-wah-wah-wahhh.

Southbound, approaching Glenwood, you’ll want the right lane because traffic heads off there. Except when you don’t. It’s because Glenwood-Broad-Lehigh is the Bermuda Triangle. Buses appear out of nowhere. Camaros with bungeed trunks pull out from Rush Street, and nobody ever pulls out from Rush Street. Except when they do.

So you jog to the left, but you forgot: Traffic in the Bermuda Triangle always slows down in the left lane, for no reason. Nobody’s pulling a U-turn for a burger joint because there are no burger joints, nobody’s turning left on Lehigh — well, you can’t turn left on Lehigh — well, you’re not supposed to turn left on Lehigh, there’s a Not-Supposed-to-Turn-Left-On-Lehigh sign — although that didn’t stop the guy who veered into the northbound lanes and turned left from there, which you must admit is an admirable maneuver. And anyway, those cowboys don’t slow anybody down. They kill people, but when they’re not doing that, they don’t slow anybody down.

What congregations can’t do

So, tendencies are ever thwarted on Broad Street, and percentages are overturned, and if you think this is like composing music, you would be correct. At least it is for me. Writing an hour-long piece or a short hymn, it’s all the same. Whatever lane I’m in is the wrong one.

The hymn I just finished gave me fits immediately. I was writing it for the dedication of new organ pipes at our church, and the text had a well-defined rhythm to it, which stayed the same through all four stanzas. This practice is indispensable in hymn-writing. In songwriting, not so much, since songs are for individuals to sing and they can bend the words as they wish. This:

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see…

in “What a Fool Believes,” sung by Michael McDonald with the Doobie Brothers, would have to match rhythmically with this:

She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale
Never coming near what he wanted to say…

which, of course, doesn’t match, which is why Michael McDonald can sing it and a congregation — theology or grammar aside — can’t. Many church songs called “contemporary” (what’s my hymn, chopped liver?) follow this textualization. Such rhythmic disinterest can work with one singer and a microphone, but not with a hundred people or even five, no matter how loud the band is.

So, I had a solid rhythm: so far, so good. It sounded like it was in four — that is, four beats to the bar — so I started sketching out a tune in four. I got halfway through and realized that it wasn’t in four. Hmm. Must be in three, then.

So I switched lanes and put it in three. But that didn’t work either.

Getting to the end

Now, wait a minute. Hymns are either in four (more usual) or three; they’re either fox-trots or waltzes, if you forgive the worldly reference. Mine was neither. I was stuck. Time was whizzing by, grinning at me, and I couldn’t figure out something simple like what meter is this in?

So I broke it down into little bits. This phrase was in three, but that one… kind of three with a long middle. Did it have to be long? Well, I think, yes. Call it four, then. But then right back to three, then four, then three for a while. The very first syllable, the pickup, was an outlier, didn’t fit anything. Figure that out later. And near the end, right before the last two bars of three was a not-three and a not-four. It was a bounce: a whomp before the last phrase… no, a whomp-whomp before the last phrase. OK, it’s in two.

The hymn is all of 14 bars long; the music barely lasts 30 seconds (times four verses). It starts with a pickup, then a 3/4 bar. Then 4/4, 3/4, and 4/4 again. Then a straight run of seven 3/4 measures, the 2/4 whomp-whomp, and the final two 3/4s. The pickup eighth-note I take care of with the notational trick of robbing an eighth beat from the last bar.

Now that I think of it, there are hymns like this.

The composing of my hymn, off and on, took two weeks. I finished it today. I was still figuring out meters today, still changing lanes today. I felt like I was on Broad Street. But with all the changes, I got to the end only because of one reason:

I kept driving.

Residency at Greenville College

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Jeff Wilson rehearsing the College Choir

What a great three days I enjoyed in Illinois as the guest composer for the 32nd annual Greenville College Schoenhals Fine Arts Symposium. A Thursday night concert and a Friday morning college chapel performance of seven pieces wove around seven classes, a composer master class, rehearsals, a coaching, a reception, a tour of the college radio station… and lots and lots of eating.

Anthems O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, The Word of God, and God So Loved the World, along with last year’s commission from Lyric Fest and Singing City, The Heavens Declare, were sung gorgeously by the Greenville College choirs and the Greenville Free Methodist Sanctuary Choir, all excellently prepared and conducted by Jeff Wilson, who along with being the Director of Choral Activities and Music Department Chair at GC, directs the music at the church.

Chris Woods, who teaches music theory, composition, low brass, and is an excellent bass trombonist, led the brass quintet in two works of mine, a newly refurbished St. Theodulph March (on the hymn tune to “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”) and my arrangement of Benedetto Marcello’s Psalm 19. They also used the brass arrangement I had made for O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and one I put together two weeks ago for The Word of God.

Soprano Caitlin Hadeler sang brilliantly my Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with riveting accompaniment by Catherine Burge. I was so happy to have met Catherine a couple of months ago for coffee on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, where we talked over the songs; she was in town for a workshop. Caitlin is brand-new at the college and simply won everyone over with her reading of these fairly challenging songs, and surprised me by doing them from memory (after using music at the rehearsal). Good show!

O Come, O Come, EmmanuelThe Word of God and The Heavens Declare were repeated for the chapel, where I also spoke about what it’s like to be a composer with faith in a world that is often without it. I chose the text of John 21:1–14, wondering why on earth John would tell us that there were 153 fish in the net. The Schoenhals Symposium was founded to explore the interaction of creativity and Christian faith.

Chris Woods was my second composition teacher, back when I was beginning my college career at Philadelphia College of Bible, now Cairn University. He is as humble, unassuming, supportive, and spiritual a soul now as he was then. And he still rocks the bass trombone. I was blessed to have known him then, honored to know him now, and thankful to have shared a few days with him. I’m so glad we renewed our friendship a few years back.

Sarah Todd accompanied the choir beautifully; thanks to her and to all the staff at GC who put the details together to make this happen. Thanks to the faculty for inviting me into their music, theology, and communications classes, and to the church choir for letting me insinuate myself into their bass section at rehearsal! A special thanks to the Schoenhals family—specifically, Carolyn and Dale Martin—for their support, their warm welcome, and for keeping such an enriching idea alive. Greenville’s a great place to be.

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Concert sound-check