Category Archives: hymn

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.

Anthem: Shall the Blessed Saints Surround Us

Shall the blessed saintsFor the 150th anniversary of Emilie United Methodist Church in Levittown, Pa., I was commissioned for an anthem, sung this morning by their choir, led by Music Director Ryan Fleming.

It’s SATB accompanied by either organ or piano. I’ve actually written out two separate versions, rather than a one-size-fits-all “keyboard” version (don’t read too much into that statement: I’ve written anthems with those kinds of accompaniments, too).

The anthem is based on a hymn (pictured), an unusual one if for no other reason than that I wrote the words, too. The text is based on this striking passage from Hebrews, chapter 12:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

I wrote all about the hymn here, including the complete hymn text and what I hope is not too much of a stretch, vignettes about Shostakovich and The Philadelphia Story, which are merely special pleadings that hymn-writing is difficult. I don’t know why, especially, I thought that you would think that it wasn’t, but there it is. My thinking about the rhyme and what turned out to be an unusual hymn rhythm is also described.

I want to congratulate Emilie United Methodist on its anniversary, and to thank them and Ryan for this opportunity!

Anthems performed at Ursinus College

Bomberger HallA big thank-you to John FrenchAlan Morrison, and the combined Ursinus College Choir and Meistersingers for their work on my six anthems tonight at Ursinus College. What a beautiful concert! Even when some nice people entered Bomberger Hall late!

Also on the program were two works I didn’t know but was glad I heard. They featured saxophonist Holly Hubbs, who performed brilliantly. She played alto on the Richard Proulx Fantasy on “Veni Creator Spiritus,” and, with the choir, soprano saxophone on the James Whitbourn Son of God Mass.

My anthems the choirs performed (with great feeling) were:

  • Behold, the Best, the Greatest Gift
  • Come, Gather All
  • Holy Mountain
  • I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew
  • My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
  • Unto the Hills

Thank you, John, singers, Alan, and Holly for a wonderful evening. Thank you, Ursinus, and by the way, congratulations on your new Music Major program!

Anthems in concert at Ursinus College

UrsinusBombergerHallI’m looking forward to hearing a whole slew of my anthems sung by the combined Ursinus College Choir and Meistersingers this Saturday, April 20th, 7:30 pm at Ursinus College. John French conducts, and Alan Morrison is the organist.

I attended rehearsal last week and the music was already well in hand. John French shaped inner lines with a fine ear for depth and color. (It’s at times like these that I’m glad I worry over inner lines.) Some of the anthems (Behold, the Best) are recent; some (Unto the Hills) go back quite a ways. Some use existing hymn tunes and some of the melodies are original.

John asked me to speak to the choir during the rehearsal, and I hope I was able to shed some light on the music, or at least didn’t get in the way of it. Kind of like composing, come to think of it. The anthems are:

  • Behold, the Best, the Greatest Gift
  • Come, Gather All
  • Holy Mountain
  • I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew
  • My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
  • Unto the Hills

They will also sing the James Whitbourn Son of God Mass on this concert. Along with organ accompaniment, it has an extensive part for soprano saxophone, which Holly Hubbs will play.

Thanks to John, and to the students and community of Ursinus!

Come, Ye Sinners

ComeYeSinners2012p1Written and published years ago, Come, Ye Sinners harks back to the music I’ve always harked back to, early American hymnody. The text is by the 18th-century Englishman Joseph Hart, the tune by the 19th-century American Benjamin Franklin White, one of the engines behind that monument of American musical independence, The Sacred Harp.

Joseph Hart was a Christian who kept losing his way in life, and who made the mistake of attacking John Wesley. Not that Wesley even noticed Hart’s tract The Unreasonableness of Religion, but Hart was convinced that the Holy Spirit did, because Hart later underwent a complete conversion, on Pentecost Sunday, 1757. Two years later he published Hymns Composed on Various Subjects, which included “Come, Ye Sinners.” He had also apologized to Wesley.

Along with this hymn he left us this quote: “Pharasaic zeel and Antinomian security are the two engines of Satan, with which he grinds the church in all ages, as betwixt the upper and the nether millstone. The space between them is much narrower and harder to find than most men imagine. It is a path which the vulture’s eye hath not seen; and none can show it us but the Holy Ghost.”

B.F. White’s tune for this is called Beach Spring (sometimes spelled Beech Spring). In this anthem I have adopted the ancient, and as it turns out, anachronistic technique of “lining out,” so old I don’t believe it would’ve been used at all by White’s time. In colonial days, before songbooks were available, a pastor or deacon would stand in front of the congregation, sing the first line of a hymn, then direct the people in its repetition. They would proceed through the hymn this way, line by line.

That’s the first verse. The second is completely imitative; each voice sings the exact same melody, canonically, over the words “Let not conscience make you linger, Nor of fitness fondly dream. All the fitness He requireth Is to feel your need of Him.” The organ then breaks forth, as do the voices into four parts, for the second half of that verse, “This He gives you, this He gives you, ‘Tis the Spirit’s rising beam.” The first verse is then repeated simply, to close the anthem.

I mentioned that this had been published and it was, meaning not self-published. Fortress Press picked it up in 1985. It eventually went permanently out of print (publishers call that—and composers do too, ruefully—going POP), and then Fortress itself went, in a way, to its reward, subsumed into Augsburg Fortress. The copyright has reverted to me and so I’ve brought it out under my publishing arm, Tau Imprints. It is the most used of my anthems, owing, I believe, to the magnificently pure tune which I succeeded not to get in the way of. It received a good notice from the Journal of Church Music: “Compelling… attractive… straightforward, driving rhythm.”

Powers of Heaven, Advent Vespers

advent3aThank you to Jackie and the choir of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Abington, Pa., for singing my hymn, Powers of Heaven yesterday. The hymn is a setting of an Advent text by the Rev. Dr. Michael Tavella at Holy Trinity.

It was Vespers for this Third Sunday of Advent, preceded by the Vesper Recital in which the hymn was sung. Cellist Elena Smith played the obbligato for a second week in a row, amazing everyone, not least of all, her proud father. She topped that with the Prelude from the Bach Suite No. 2 in D minor. So that’s how you write for cello.

Vespers featured the Praetorius Magnificat super Ecce Maria et Sydus ex claro. Strong, exalted, deceptively simple. So that’s how you write for choir.

Powers of Heaven

Advent2Thanks to Musica Concordia for singing my hymn, Powers of Heaven, yesterday at St. Cecilia’s Church in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia. The hymn is a setting of an evocative Advent text by Michael Tavella; we’ve used it in church a few times already.

Cellist Elena Smith singingly played the quite oboistic obbligato, written a couple of years ago for her older sister, oboist Priscilla Smith. Time to hear this on horn before too long, I’d say.

Jacqueline Smith is the founder and director of the ecumenical choir. Thanks to Rudi Trickel, Fathers Bonner and McCabe of St. Cecilia, the parishioners and community who came to listen, and of course all the wonderful singers of Musica Concordia!