Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

It is New Year's Eve, a secular holiday that the church hardly seems to notice. Can you think of a single hymn that is appropriate for the start of the new calendar year? We consider the church year to begin with Advent, but even then there aren't many tunes for the change in calendar. Perhaps that is a purposeful symbol of God's unchanging and timeless nature.

It also marks a change in the relationship of the church to our everyday lives. We no longer have a hymn to mark every occasion the way that many old hymnals did. In my inherited and collected stack of old hymnals there seem to be tunes and texts for every occasion - from a new home to the birth of a child. There are songs praying for safe travel, thanks for a good school year, and of course hymns for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. These hymns have fallen away in favor of hymns that are more generally theological and appropriate to worship because we no longer make our own music and sing our own hymns every day.

Tonight, many of us will sing Auld Lang Syne and hear plenty of rock music. Take a moment to thank God and offer prayers for a good year to come. Here is one hymn text on the topic for this night:

The old year now hath passed away;
We thank Thee, oh our God, today
That Thou hast kept us through the year
When danger and distress were near.
...
Oh, help us to forsake all sin,
A new and holier course begin!
Mark not what once was done amiss;
A happier, better year be this!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas continues

The stores already have their Christmas decorations down, but the Christmas season continues at church. This week, Cassie, David, Anna, and I will be singing a quartet of a famous Christmas text. It has been set to music many times over the centuries, and we will be singing one of the most famous arrangements of it by Tomas Luis de Victoria, a Spanish composer who lived in the 16th century.

This year we observed what we might call a "liturgically correct" season of Advent, truly spending the time in preparation. So it only makes sense that we spend these days after Christmas continuing our celebration and remembrance of Christ's birth. Thus, we will be singing the following text (translated from the Latin):

O mysterious birth and wondrous solemn promise
That lowly beasts attended the Savior's birth and cradled Him in humility.
Blessed is the Virgin whose pure body bore Jesus Christ the Lord
Alleluia!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Merry Christmas!

It's ironic that in this season where church music is everywhere my blog became silent. Perhaps it's fitting: we all know the tunes and the texts - what could I add? But we did have very successful Christmas Eve services at Bethany this week, in my opinion. I hope everyone enjoyed our guest brass players. They are all students at Baldwin Wallace college and are excellent players, who provided our services with festive hymn arrangements to celebrate the holiday.

I also hope that you found the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ to be a meaningful part of the service. David spent many hours on his computer writing up the music for us, and there was a great deal of input and participation by many others on the Worship and Music committee and staff. We took an ancient text and modernized it, used some familiar hymn tunes, and hopefully got the Christmas service off to a great start!

Thanks also to the Chancel Choir and Bell Choir for their participation and to the Altar Guild who decorated the church so beautifully. It was a great holiday thanks to everyone I've mentioned and no doubt many more. I hope everyone enjoyed the day with family and friends.

Tomorrow will be our service of lessons and carols. Christmas continues! Come join us to sing the hymns that celebrate the season. And tune back into the blog next week as life returns to its more typical schedule and pattern!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pachelbel's Magnificat


Today is the last day of the semester, consisting of my last final exam, turning in my last term paper, and finishing up my grading. At long last, I will be able to turn my attention to preparing my home for guests and putting finishing touches on church music! This week our brass players rehearsed the music for Christmas Eve, and it only heightened my excitement for the services. There should be an abundance of beautiful music.

This Sunday, however, it is still Advent, the time of preparation, and my musical focus continues to be the Magnificat. The Psalm for the week is the text of Mary's prayer of thanksgiving from the Gospel of Luke (making the name "psalm" a bit of a misnomer, I suppose). This often overlooked musical moment in the service is the text and inspiration of much of the music for these past weeks.

I've mentioned before that I grew up in a very Catholic town, very aware of their veneration of Mary. Of course, the novels of Dan Brown and other popular works have reinvigorated interest in the "divine feminine." Lutheran theology and music certainly don't elevate Mary to the point of worship, but in this season of preparation I find the text of the Magnificat to be an important reminder of the physical reality of Mary's pregnancy.

A famous Latin Christmas chant begins "O Magnum Mysterium," reminding us that the incarnation is a great mystery. This week, my prelude will be selections from Pachelbel's Fugues on the Magnificat, Mary's prayer of mystery and exaltation. This last Sunday of Advent provides us a chance to express the wonder and the joy and expectation of the festival to come. I encourage you to pay special attention and sing with extra gusto during the Psalm!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I'm Glory Bound

On Tuesday night we held a memorial service for a dearly loved member of our congregation. Like all memorial services, it was a night of laughter and tears and joining together to remember and celebrate the life of someone who will be greatly missed.

This particular service included plenty of meaningful music as well. Pastor's homily reminded us that living a Christian life and sharing the Gospel does not have to be about words. Bill's life seemed to epitomize the well-lived life of quiet leadership and action that reflected a deep, personal faith. It seems appropriate, therefore, that more than any of the words that were spoken last night, it is the music that has stayed with me.

On this sunny day, as I hurried from my car to my classroom, I found myself humming the choir anthem. It is so apparent to me why Bill would remember and request such an upbeat song. That music now stands as part of his legacy and one more memory of a good man and member of our congregation who understood the power and the joy of the Gospel story.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Preparations

It's clear that a church near my home has put a new person in charge of their sign, because they have gone from the typical staid church announcements to the jokes that you sometimes see on such signs. Today I noticed that the sign says "Beat the Christmas rush. Come this Sunday." It's a good reminder in our season of preparations that we should still focus on the present moment.

It's so easy for a Lutheran church musician to succumb to the cycle of Reformation-Thanksgiving-Christmas-Easter-Pentecost, constantly preparing for the next festival and shortchanging the services in between. Every piece of music related mail that I've received in the past month has mentioned Lent and/or Easter. We're always preparing for the next thing.

I'm reminded of a sermon I once heard about the joy of being a post-Easter people. The minister's point was that there is no longer a need to prepare for Christmas or Easter, because the holidays we celebrate are simply anniversaries and reminders of events that we know well and traditions that we cherish. We are preparing ourselves for a larger mission and life ahead of us than simply a date on the calendar.

Musically, I was thinking too of music that reminds us of the importance of every day. There are no "minor Sundays" or "lesser festivals." Perhaps no better text sums up that attitude than Psalm 118 (often set to music, from Sunday schools to concert music): "This is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Just like the journey is sometimes more important than the destinations, it seems to me that the preparations of Advent are actually the highlight - the main dish that comes before the dessert of Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Be prepared

You know how sleep deprivation and the looming deadlines of exams and final projects can make you a little loopy? Well, I was trying to think about something pithy to say about Advent and the theme of being prepared when an old Boy Scout song started replaying in my mind (over and over):

Be be be prepared,
The motto of the Boy Scouts.
Be be be prepared,
The motto of the Scouts.
Prepared! Prepared!...

It's not exactly a brilliantly composed piece of music, is it? But you certainly can't miss its message, nor why it came to my mind during Advent. A motto is meant to be a short, catchy phrase that reminds you of a greater message, a deeper truth. While I certainly can't say that I turn to Baden-Powell or the BSA for all of my moral instruction, on this topic of being prepared, the BSA handbook has something to say that is relevant for us in this season:

"...all Scouts should prepare themselves to become productive citizens and to give happiness to other people. [Baden-Powell] wanted each Scout to be ready in mind and body for any struggles, and to meet with a strong heart whatever challenges might lie ahead. Be prepared for life - to live happily and without regret, knowing that you have done your best."

Those are goals worth singing about and ideals worth remembering at this busy time of year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Oles are coming

I received my copy of the Bethany News a few days ago, so I know the word is now out there about the St. Olaf Choir's performance at Severance Hall at 7:30 on Feb 1st, 2010. I really want to encourage people to attend that performance, and I'll post a sign up sheet on the bulletin board to purchase group tickets at $25 each. It should be a night of great music and fellowship.

You might have heard the choir perform around the holidays. In fact, the Christmas Festival concert was this past weekend, and there will be more opportunities to hear them on the radio and see them on public television. You might also be familiar with their recording of Great Hymns of Faith, but of course it's even better to hear them perform live! This is a unique opportunity to hear a fantastic group at a reasonable price.

It also has never ceased to amaze me how many of the people I have met in the greater Cleveland area have never been to Severance Hall or haven't been there for a concert in years. We're so fortunate to have not only an incredibly beautiful building but also one of the world's great orchestras and other performances so nearby. It should be a fun night, so please join us for what should be an incredible concert, and be in touch with me if you want any more information.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Snow, at last, and more Magnificat


It's starting to feel like December now that we have a few snowflakes on the ground. I love the crisp air of winter and the dark nights of silence that are a black canvas for the music of this season. The stars seem to sparkle more in the winter, like candles at a Christmas eve service, and the sunshine reflects even more brightly. Our Advent season of preparation is one of contrasts, light against dark.

The Magnificat also exemplifies this contrast of the season. The news of Mary's pregnancy is joyous and startling; her hymn is one of praise and wonder. The music of these four Sundays reflects that dichotomy.

Some hymns reflect the darkness and mystery of the season. "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" epitomizes that style and sound, along with "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." The choir's anthems "Stay with Us" and "My Song in the Night" also emphasize the dark yearning and mystery of our prayers of preparation.

Last Sunday we also sang hymns from the other tradition, hymns of praise that echo the language of Palm Sunday: "All Earth is Hopeful" and "Prepare the Royal Highway," the latter of which includes the text: "God's people, see him coming: your own eternal king! Palm branches strew before him! Spread garments! Shout and sing!...Hosanna to the Lord, for he fulfills God's word!"

One of my favorite parts of Sunday's early service was the bright sunshine streaming through the stained glass at the back of the church. It seems like 9:00 is the perfect time to enjoy the light lately and to remember that even as the days get shorter, we can savor the light we do have as we sing the great hymns of Advent.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Magnificat


One of my favorite Bible passages is the Magnificat, which my Good News Bible titles "Mary's Song of Praise." It's a poem of praise that has been set to music countless times. I particularly remember hearing it performed as part of "The Black Nativity" in Minneapolis one year. That year the star of the show was Jennifer Holliday (of "Dreamgirls" fame), who played the role of an angel, and she sang several incredible show-stopping numbers that had the crowd on its feet over and over.

But in the middle of act one, sandwiched between raucous gospel songs, was the simple beauty of a woman signing the Magnificat. She had just been told that she was pregnant and she smiled and laughed with pure joy before launching into a sweet and simple melody. The opening phrase of the song is still one that I sing to myself. If I close my eyes, I can remember seeing her elated smile. It helps remind me of the many blessings in my life and reasons to be thankful.

This Sunday, I'll be playing Buxtehude's Magnificat as the prelude. If you don't listen closely, it might sound just like any other Baroque organ music. But I hope that you notice the ascending scales, the sixteenth notes that trip over each other with joy, and that you meditate on the famous text "My soul doth magnify the Lord" as a great way to start celebrating the second Sunday of Advent.

The anthem of the day will be "My Song in the Night," arranged by Paul J. Christiansen. It's a Southern folk hymn that ties into the theme of joy, beginning with these words: "O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night, come to us with Thy tender love, my souls' delight. Unto thee, O Lord, in affliction I call, my comfort by day and my song in the night."

(My writing has been sparse this week because I've been caught up in end-of-semester projects on top of decorating the house and all that goes along with the holidays. I appreciate all the comments and dialogue on the blog lately, though, and I'll try to maintain my writing pace next week!)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

Welcome to Advent and the start of a new church year. This past Sunday was a refreshing change of pace in so many ways. For one thing, the altar guild had hung banners, put out the Advent wreath, and changed the altar colors to blue. I also noticed the stark contrast between Wednesday night's service when all the windows were dark. The silence of an evening service always seems heavier and more contemplative. By contrast, this past Sunday the light through the stained glass seemed especially brilliant.

We also switched our liturgical setting. We've returned to ELW setting 3, which is familiar to us from the LBW. This is honestly the first time since the ELW was introduced that I didn't feel a sense of relief upon returning to the familiar music. I had become used to the sound of the upbeat music of setting 2, and the "new" setting seemed almost pedestrian by comparison. I still love the music, but it no longer provides quite the same sensation of returning home. Do other people feel the same way?

The choir had the week off, but they'll be hard at work with Christmas preparations. It's so appropriate that Advent is the season of preparation and anticipation. A musician can never forget that! Everyone is busy with preparations - whether decorating, cleaning, making travel plans, or just trying to finish the school semester and holiday season still in possession of your sanity. Of course, none of those are as important as the spiritual preparations we come together to sing about every Sunday at the beginning of this new year.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Unorthodox Wisdom - Buffy and Victor Hugo

Empathy and love of neighbor is at the heart of Christianity and also a theme of some great music and literature - To Kill a Mockingbird is the classic example. But I was thinking of it this week when I watched an old rerun of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer."

The mere mention of that show (or any work by Joss Whedon) is sure to inspire nods of recognition of his genius from rabid fans, looks of derision from the uninitiated, and shrugs from the majority of the population. You can guess my bias in that continuum, but the show is a great guilty pleasure of mythology and philosophy in a story that turned the traditional vampire plot on its head. The young blonde girl doesn't twist an ankle and get eaten; she's the strong heroine of the story.

At any rate, in this particular episode, Buffy prevents a classmate from committing suicide. He is depressed because he feels invisible and lonely, ignored by the popular students, and burdened by personal pain that no one notices. Rather than offer the typical platitudes and comfort, however, Buffy responds with this monologue:

"I was wrong. You are an idiot. My life happens to, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it's not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own...If you could hear what they were feeling, the loneliness, the confusion. It looks quiet down there. It's not. It's deafening."

Her speech reminded me of a scene in Victor Hugo's novel commonly known as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The priest's brother observes him in a moment of extreme emotion, and Hugo depicts his reaction:

"...he knew not with what fury that sea of the human passions ferments and boils when it is refused all egress; how it gathers strength, swells, and overflows; how it wears away the heart; how it breaks forth in inward sobs and stifled convulsions...The merry scholar never dreamed of the boiling, furious, and deep lava beneath the snowy brow of Etna."

Music can express and expose those emtions within us. As a congregation and as Christians, we are obliged to open our ears and our eyes to those around us, in their joy and in their suffering. When we sing a hymn, think of our voices blending; listen to each other; notice how our shared music erases the divisions among us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Join us for Thanksgiving worship


Didn't it feel great to have a full church this past Sunday? By having only one service to accomodate the budget meeting, we really packed the pews. That created an energy and vitality in all aspects of the service, and I especially loved to hear the congregation singing with gusto, even on a relatively unfamiliar hymn.

I invite you all to help us fill the church again: tomorrow is our Thanksgiving Eve worship service at 7:00. We have some fantastic music planned, including guest trumpet players and a flashy arrangement of "Now Thank We All Our God" that I hope you'll love to sing.

The choir's anthem will be "Stay With Us" by Egil Hovland. It's a beautiful composition with lush chords and harmonies. The middle section with four-part women's harmonies is sung particularly well by our small group. I hope our congregation realizes that we are blessed to have such strong dedication from our choir (and we're always happy to welcome other to join us, of course!). The text of the anthem is based on the last chapter of Luke's Gospel, when Christ appears on the road to Emmaus and interprets the scriptures for his disciples. The text comes from the moment when Christ appears to be leaving, and they urge "Lord, stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over."

They proceed to eat dinner together, with Jesus blessing the meal. It's a quiet moment in the Gospel story, gathering together to give thanks and to comfort each other. The modern Thanksgiving tradition does similarly tend to be about coming together with family and friends (in contrast with the secural corruption of Christmas). However, don't forget that the true origin of the holiday is a day of prayer and thanks for the many blessings in our lives. Surely, we can take time out from cooking and cleaning to come to church for worship and fellowship!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom - Marvin Hamlisch

Not too long ago, I listened to an interview on public radio's "Studio 360" with Marvin Hamlisch. He was talking primarily about composing the music for various films, including his most recent work for "The Informant." It was interesting to hear him describe the process of thinking about a character and having a musical motif simply come to mind. The host went so far as to describe it as a kind of synesthesia.

I don't think of myself as a composer, though I dabble in small things for church. But I think the truly great composers think primarily in a musical language that is their mother tongue, in the way Hamlisch is describing. They hear text and immediately translate it into music; they feel an emotion and hear a melody.

Church music is elevated prayer, whether or not it includes text. At its best, it is the sublime expression of praise and penitence, prayer and proclamation. Of course, Hamlisch composed music for "A Chorus Line," which encapsulates this process in the medium of dance. In particular, the song "Music and the Mirror" talks about expression through dance. I'll close with a portion of that song's lyrics today:

Give me somebody to dance with.
Give me a place to fit in.
Help me return to the world of the living
By showing me how to begin.

Play me the music.
Give me a chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance for you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Chancel Choir sings gospel


This week, the choir will be singing a popular gospel song titled "He Never Failed Me Yet." It'll be a big change of pace for us and an important part of hearing a variety of musical styles. We've been having a lot of fun singing it in rehearsals.

Beyond the musical style, though, gospel and spiritual traditions contrast with traditional Lutheran music in their text as well. Usually, the text is built around a repetitive chorus that allows for musical improvisation and a focused spiritual message.

In his book Church Music, Edmund Lorenz describes the style as "A sacred folk song, free in form, emotional in character, devout in attitude, evangelistic in purpose and spirit... These hymns are more or less subjective in their matter and develop a single thought rather than a line of thought."

We've enjoyed rehearsing the piece, and Lisa does a great job improvising the lead vocal part. I think you'll enjoy the anthem, and I hope it has you inspired to tap your feet and maybe even clap along with us!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

We, like sheep

Last Sunday, we had a guest pastor, which is always a harrowing experience for all concerned. Every church, like every family, has its idiosyncratic practices. When those are violated, it can create a brief moment of discomfort, but it can also call us to greater participation and leadership, refreshing our worship experience.

I'm thinking of one specific moment during the service, following the offering, when we are used to a certain way of presenting the offering on the altar and a particular offering prayer. Pastor then turns to face the congregation and makes eye contact with me at the organ so that I know we can being the Great Thanksgiving. Without our usual practices, the acolytes didn't know what to do with the offering plates, I didn't know when to begin the music, and the service faltered for just a brief moment. Of course, it was a minor issue, and the service continued.

From a musical perspective, it made me think of two things. First, the rhythm and melody of the liturgy and the hymns can truly unite a congregation, even if the prayers are offered with a slightly different verbal stress or the service is not one hundred percent aligned with our past experience. When I travel and attend services, there is a sense of being an observer, until the music begins. When a congregation is singing, we are all together in one endeavor.

Second, we (like sheep) do go astray when we don't have strong leadership. Once, a choir director of mine asked the group who was the leader of our music. Most people said the director, some said the accompanist, some pointed to section leaders or particularly strong singers in the group. But the director said all those answers were wrong. Every single member of the choir needed to be a leader for it to work. If you wait for the person next to you to sing, then you are already late, of course. The best choirs have a confidence and shared trust among themselves because they are all leaders.

Perhaps the experience of having a guest pastor can shake us up a bit and encourage us all to step up and take responsibility and leadership. A congregation is a community, and it thrives on participation, in its ministries and its music.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Unorthodox Wisdom - Peter Vaill

Next week we have our congregational budget meeting. Like all mission-driven organizations, churches struggle to balance priorities, mission, and budget. Of course, the struggles of Catholic churches around the Cleveland area have been prominent in the headlines, and no congregation seems to be immune from the demographic and economic challenges around us.

The biggest danger is to think that we will restore all our priorities "when things calm down" or "get back to normal." When you prepare music every week, you quickly learn that things never do settle down into the free time you'd like to have to accomplish all your goals. You simply do the best you can, ask for help, and try to look at the big picture as much as possible.

It all reminds me of the business management writings of Peter Vaill. One of his books is titled Permanent Whitewater, and the premise is that the business world is always in flux. You must make decisions in times of turmoil and hope for the best. I'm hopeful that we will make prayerful decisions, keeping in mind our mission and planning for the future.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Manz tribute and a choir repeat


A few weeks ago, the world lost one of the greatest organists and sacred music composers in recent history, Paul Manz. He had a profound influence on Lutheran church music and earned numerous awards, including an honorary docterate from my alma mater.

Manz was actually born in Cleveland, though he became most well known for his work in Chicago and Minneapolis churches, as well as concerts around the world. As a Lutheran, he was steeped in the hymn tunes, literature, and traditions that we all know so well, but he updated them with a spicier, more rhythmic sound for a fun change of pace.

His work has a large following - certainly, he is admired and idolized by Lutheran organists everywhere. I often use Manz's hymn arrangements; in fact, when you hear a hymn arrangement with a "modern" sound, you can probably safely assume that it's his. This week, the postlude will be "Lord, You I Love with All My Heart." It seems like an appropriate tribute for a church musician, since it epitomizes the church musician's philosophy since the time of Bach: "Soli deo gloria" (To God alone by the glory).

The choir will be reprising the anthem from last week: "Go, Ye, Into all the World." By repeating the anthem, we can focus on other places we can enhance worship, including the acclamation and antiphon, as well as a hymn descant. We're also hard at work preparing music for Thanksgiving. Make sure Nov. 25th is on your calendar for the Wednesday night service!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Concert series: Mount Union College Choir

Next Friday night (Nov. 20th at 7:30 pm), the concert series at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist continues in downtown Cleveland. The Mount Union College Choir will be performing a wide variety of works. The promo information I've read simply lists the composers (Handel, Victoria, Seelinck, Lauridsen, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Whitacre), so I don't know how much of it will be sacred, but it's a safe bet there will be a great deal and that it will all be beautiful.

This is a great chance to hear some of the best choral literature performed in our own backyard, and it's another free event - free will offering only. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Military hymns


In honor of Veterans' Day, I wanted to mention some of the music of our soldiers. Growing up, I spent every Memorial Day playing in the band at the cemeteries of my hometown. Since I played trumpet, I was often called upon as well to play taps at military funerals. While I don't come from what I would consider a military family, I know that both of my grandfathers served our country, and one of the most moving aspects of the funeral of my one grandfather was the presentation of the flag to my grandmother in recognition of his service.

To be reductionist about military music, in general it comes in two varieties: marches and hymns. Of course, even the hymns can be a bit triumphalist for comfort sometimes (sing the opening few lines of the Marine Hymn and you'll see what I mean). The music that I find so powerful and relevant are the hymns of comfort and solace, the hymns of prayers for safety and a quick end to war.

My favorite (and probably the best known) in that category is the "Navy Hymn," known to us as "Eternal Father, Strong to Save." It was sung at the funeral of FDR and played at JFK's funeral procession as well. It's a popular funeral hymn, and I think that stems from the powerful symbol of God as Father, a strong protector and a comforter. This version of verse 4 epitomizes that in its text:

O Trinity of love and power!
Our family shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoever we go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

The triune God of love and power is our protector whom we thank with hymns of praise. That's a succinct message of what the Christian faith means to many of us. To hear a midi version of this hymn and to read more verses (including some more specifically to the military) you can click here.

In closing, thanks to everyone, everywhere who serves our nation. I'd like to offer special thanks to my National Guardsman brother-in-law and prayers for everyone serving overseas. Please feel free to add your own names, thanks, and prayers in the comments.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Culinary musings

For lunch on Sunday, I grabbed a quick bite of fast food, still humming church music to myself. One of the dangers of the choir anthem from last week was that the chorus could easily get stuck in your head (or at least in mine). While eating, I was reflecting on the morning's services and thinking about the variety of music. (For second service people who haven't heard our "rock sound" yet, you'll get to hear the same anthem this coming week.)

My culinary musings had me thinking about the need for variety in our lives. Recently I prepared a meal that included a creamy pumpkin and squash soup, and in a moment of ambition I had decided to start the whole thing by making my own vegetable stock, in an all day project that made the house smell great. But Sunday there I was eating a hastily prepared sub sandwich and chips. They were about as different as could be, but I liked them both, in their own way.

Sometimes we hear and sing classical music that is complex and intellectual, like the Buxtehude prelude. Other times, we get to enjoy ear candy like the choir anthem, simple and fun. We can enjoy them both on their own terms and for their own merits. One could even make a case that the anthem's text provides the piece with more direct religious content than the organ prelude with its subtle symbology.

Of course, we can't subsist on a diet of junk food, candy, and dessert. We even need a variety of healthful foods to stay healthy, just like Bach alone won't cut it for church music. I'm at work planning a smorgasbord for this Sunday; I hope you enjoy all the courses!

Friday, November 6, 2009

From Buxtehude to "rock"


This Sunday will demonstrate my usual goal of incoporating music from a wide variety of styles. The service has some of the greatest hymns from the ELW, including "At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing" and "On Our Way Rejoicing," the latter of which will include a choir descant on verse two.

The prelude will be Passcaglia in d minor by Buxtehude. I hope that's a name that is becoming familiar by now. This particular piece is built on a simple 7-note ostinato bass. An ostinato is a short phrase that is repeated throughout the piece, much like a canon. Pachelbel's Canon in D is familiar to most people, of course, and you can probably think of how that piece involves a repeated chord progression.

The Passacaglia in d minor represents Buxtehude's interest in symbolic numerology (an interest he shared with Bach and many other notable men and women of their era). The 7 note ostinato takes up 4 bars and occurs 28 times over the course of the piece. Overall, the structure modulates into 4 different keys, each of them for 28 bars. I've heard it described both as a tribute to Mary and as symbolic of the phases of the moon.

The choir's anthem, titled "Go, Ye, Into All the World," is composed in an entirely different style, with a driving rock beat (or at least as rock-like as a traditional ELCA service normally gets!). The song alternates between an up-tempo chorus that encourages us to "Spread the Gospel to every people" and lyrical verses. Overall, the text is based on Christ's "Great Commission." Not only is it a great piece of music on its own, but it also provides the perfect contrast to the Baroque prelude.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Psalm for a Lost Summer

I had to share a poem by that name, don't you think? Snow fell yesterday, and I spent part of my day today raking (yet again given our many trees). The summer has ended and is therefore lost to us. I can hardly read this poem without humming one of the psalm tones. It begs to be chanted! But I hope you enjoy and remember to savor the passing of the seasons.

"Psalm for a Lost Summer"

1. By the rivers of Estes Park, there we sat down, yes, we sighed, when we remembered Italy.
2. We pressed our pens against paper, and we sat under the pine trees, listening to the crows.
3. For there in Colorado we were captive at a high altitude, required to write without breath; and if we could not write, our consciences required us to read, and improve our minds.
4. How shall we write our poems in this strange land?
5. If I forget you, Venice, let my right hand forget to wind the fettuccini around the fork.
6. If I do not remember balmy Sorrento, let me never taste lemons again; if I prefer not Capri above my chief joy.
7. Remember, O Muse, the couple who strolled about Assisi; who said, How lovely this is, but next year let's vacation at home.
8. O Citizens of Assisi, do not blame us for the earthquake that destroyed your basilica; how happy we were, looking at your frescos during a thunderstorm.
9. Happy we shall be again, when we dash from this rented cabin, and drive down from these great stone mountains forever, Amen.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Take a break

It's a busy week for me, full of exams. We all have weeks that get a bit hectic or challenging for a variety of reasons, and I'm always reminded that they seem to go better when I have a break to work out, to listen to music, or to practice the organ or piano. It's important to step back from our busy, project-filled lives to have time to breathe and reflect on what's most important to us.

That's true not only at the level of our daily lives but within worship as well. Sometimes the logistics of worship can distract us from a prayerful attitude. Sometimes the repetition and the ceremony overpower the meaning. I recently reread a quote from an Anglican priest named Gordon Giles who wrote several books and articles on church music. On this issue he wrote:

"We say 'Lord, have mercy' so frequently that it can seem unremarkable and automatic, and seeking God's mercy in worship can become so common and instinctive that we barely notice that we are doing so. Similarly, we tend to sing hymns without thinking about what we are really singing to ourselves or to God or to each other...The Kyrie is all about seeking forgiveness, not only for ourselves, and for any individual sins we feel we may have knowingly or unknowingly committed, but also for the sins of the world, past and present, which, as we study history or read our newspapers, we very much lament."

It's important for us to sing and listen thoughtfully in worship. The tune and the text are simply vessels to convey deeper truths. This week take a moment to focus your attention on the text of our hymns and to the kyrie especially. Let your meditation refresh your spirit for the busy week ahead.

PS For my non-Ohio readers, there was a bit of snowfall here today. Christmas planning suddenly seems ever-so-important!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Requiescant in pace


That's Latin for "rest in peace," the reason that so many Halloween decorations include the abbreviation RIP. But don't worry, no more Latin from here on out.

In recognition of All Saints Day, this Sunday's choir anthem will be a selection from Rutter's "Requiem." Many people have heard it and recognize it as a favorite choral work. It has beautiful lyrical melodies, and the text is a powerful prayer of intercession as we remember family and friends who are no longer with us:

Grant them rest eternal,
Lord our God, we pray to thee.
And light perpetual
Shine on them forever.

We'll also be singing the classic hymn "For All the Saints," which was composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It has a great folk-song sound, and this Sunday I'll be playing several different variations on it as we sing its several verses. The concept is that the hymn will grow from a unison call to worship, symbolically like one voice in the wilderness, that will grow in intensity and volume to the final verse and its mention of the gates of heaven and all of the earth singing praise to God.

Last, a quick mention of the prelude. I'll be playing three movements from J.S. Bach's Fifth French Suite on the harpsichord. The French Suites are collections that are based on Baroque dance music. You might be able to imagine men and women in powdered wigs and period clothes. Or you can simply enjoy the upbeat music to begin your morning.

Don't forget to set your clocks back this weekend!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom - cages or wings?


Pastor's mention of birds in cages in his sermon last week immediately brought to mind the musical "Tick, Tick, Bomb" by Jonathan Larson (better known for creating "Rent"). The story is a meditation on turning 30 in the year 1990, being a member of Generation X, and searching to find your way in life. The song "Louder Than Words" is full of important and rhetorical questions for us to consider, including the refrain "Cages or wings? Which do you prefer? Ask the birds. Actions speak louder than words."

These are great questions for us on all levels - as individuals, as a congregation, a community, and a world-wide church. Why is it so difficult to overcome inertia and increase involvement, to take risks and try new things? One of my favorite memories from Kushner's writing is that he says the Talmud states that God will someday ask each of us to justify the choices we made - not just what we did, but what we chose not to do in life. That would go beyond sins of omission to simple experiences and risks that could have been taken that would have made us (and/or those around us) happier. There are so few risks in my own life that I truly regret, and there are so many minor things that we should all try - even simple things like singing the proper Gospel Acclamation, for example! Here's Jonathan Larson's words on the subject:

Why do we play with fire?
Why do we run our finger through the flame?
Why do we leave our hand on the stove
Although we know we're in for some pain?

Oh, why do we refuse to hang a light
When the streets are dangerous?
Why does it take an accident
Before the truth gets through to us?
...
Why should we blaze a trail
When the well worn path seems safe
And so inviting?
...
What does it take
To wake up a generation?
If we don't wake up
And shake up the nation
We'll eat the dust of the world
Wondering why.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poetry and music

There is a complex relationship between poetry and music, the interplay of language and melody. Of course, the rhythm and sound of language is inherently musical, and Lutheran hymns are built around the poetic text. I want to share a beautiful, meaningful poem from Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac from last week, the poem "Baptism" by Ted Thomas, Jr. It seems so appropriate for the many baptisms we've been celebrating at Bethany lately, and it beautifully depicts the "circle of life."

Baptism

Cold wind.
I help my father
into the shower
with his good hand
he grips my arm for support.

Inside he sits like Buddha
on a plastic stool
and waits for me
to begin.

I drench him
with warm water,
soap his head, his back,
the flabby stomach,
the private parts
private no more.

I had not before seen my father's
nakedness, nor the changing
contour of his being,
his growing helplessness.

His brown skin glistens
and I think of him
as a young man on the night
of my conception...

I pat him dry,
he lets me dress him
in the white
hospital clothes,
oil his hair,
put him to bed
and forgive him.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reformation wrap up

On Reformation, the choir participated in a little experiment with the proper Gospel acclamation. That's the verse that comes in the middle of the Alleluia. The "generic" version is the one we all know from other settings of the liturgy: "Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." However, there is a rubric that provides an appropriate (or proper) verse for every Sunday to line up with the Gospel. Just like the prayer of the day, the hymns, and the sermon, everything revolves around the lectionary cycle and the scripture. It helps create and reinforce a cohesive message.

With all the special music that came along with Reformation and the choir singing at both services, it seemed like a good opportunity to try out the proper verse. You might have noticed that the verse that we sang included words from the Gospel lesson ("The truth will make you free"). We're going to sing the proper verse for All Saints' Day this coming week as well. Listen closely during the Alleluia, and please share your thoughts - Can you understand the text? Would you like it printed in the bulletin? Or would you prefer just to sing the "generic" verse?

To wrap up Reformation, I want to thank Carolyn (our guest trumpet player), the Rainbow Ringer (kids bell choir, who played at second service), and the choir, who generously gave up their morning to sing at both services. I heard from many people that the meditative prelude ("Berceuse" by Godard) was familiar from piano lessons in years past. I hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane, if you knew the piece. In general, I heard many positive comments about the music, which is always great. Your feedback and participation of any kind is always welcomed and encouraged!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Grace is a way of life


I drove by a church with that quote on its sign the other day: "Grace is a way of life." I think it sums up Reformation Sunday and Lutheranism pretty well. Of all the church holidays, this is the most artificial; it isn't based on Gospel events. Sometimes, though, I like to think of it as a fall celebration that echoes the themes of Easter. Plus, it's a favorite of mine as a musical highlight of the fall.

This Sunday's prelude will be my personal favorite arrangement of "Ein Feste Burg" (before I put the tune away for a few months, I promise). It's by David Johnson, a great modern composer and organist, and it features a pedal cadenza in the middle of a bombastic arrangement that I just love to play. It's a big piece for a prelude, but I think it will get the morning off to a great start and have us all humming and smiling as worship begins.

The meditative prelude, on the other hand, will be a lyrical piano piece titled "Berceuse" (French for lullaby) by the French composer Godard. I'll also be playing the piano during communion - a great piano arrangement of "The Church's One Foundation." For those of you who prefer modern sounds from the piano, I think you'll really enjoy both.

The choir will be joined by a guest trumpet player to enhance several parts of the service: a descant on the opening hymn, the Psalm antiphon, and of course the anthem, which this week will be "Upon the Rock of Faith." On Wednesday night, Lisa commented that Reformation is "all about the rock," which is a great way to summarize the music and the hymns this week. Remember to wear red and come ready to sing and celebrate!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is there a new addition to Cassie's family?

I think it's safe to say that this has been the most frequently asked question in church for the past week, and I learned today that the answer is now yes! On behalf of the choir and the congregation, I want to offer congrats and best wishes to Cassie and James, as well as a hearty welcome to Sarah (Or perhaps Sara?). I'll let Cassie share any further information if and when she chooses, but I couldn't wait to share the good news.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

They missed the music and the art!

Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting article on religion that you can read online at this link. It explores some of the myths and realities about the religion and its place in modern life. Don't be thrown off by the opening headline "God is dead." It's there mostly for shock value, and the article goes on to say that religion is here to stay. I would say that the article, on balance, argues that religion has been a positive force throughout history.

What I noticed, however, was the notable absence of any mention of music or art. So much of our literary, artistic, and musical heritage stems either directly or indirectly from the church. My personal experience has been primarily in the culture and traditions of liturgical Christianity, of course, but I'm also aware of the beauty and meaning of great art in the traditions of Islam, Buddhism, etc. Think of how different art museums might look or how different our music might sound without the vast influence of the church. What would Bach have done for a living, after all?!

If you're going to debate the role and influence of religion, you need to look beyond politics and science, because faith is an all-encompassing construct of life. It's a paradigm through which we view all aspects of our existence. In one of the classes I teach right now, I have a Muslim student who excuses himself for daily prayer, and the sound of his mellifluous chant has become a fixture of the environment already. When thinkers and writers overlook that daily, lived experience and its many expressions (including music), they miss so much of the point. Read the article because it's interesting, but don't forget the music!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Luther and hymns

Most Lutherans love to sing the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." It is certainly Luther's best known contribution to church music. But Luther was a prolific writer of texts as well as tunes. He was an acclaimed singer. Most of all, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the importance of congregational singing.

This was in marked contrast to a thousand years of precendent before his time. In the 4th century, the Laodicean Council made this argument: "If laymen are forbidden to preach and interpret the Scriptures, much more are they forbidden to sing publicly in church."

Martin Luther's stance was the diametric opposite. "Let God speak to His people through the Scriptures; let His people respond with the singing of hymns," he wrote. Furthermore, he held music in such high esteem that he remarked, "Next to theology, I give the first and highest honor to music."

Luther's music was an important tool in shaping the Reformation and winning adherents to his cause. Joyful hymns should continue to be a highlight of our services. As Kenneth Osbeck wrote in his book Singing with Understanding, "Atheism has its arguments but no songs...the entertainment world introduces thousands of new lyrics and melodies each year, but few meet the heart-felt needs of the human soul and thereby survive the test of time."

Our Lutheran legacy and theology are encapsulated in the ELW - sing it loud and proud, knowing how valuable those hymns are!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Baptisms and the ACT in Cleveland

In an entry last week, I referred to an "Eeyore problem" that I had observed around Northeast Ohio. Somehow it managed not to draw a flood of negative comments. I would hope that even if people might be tempted to agree that they will do their best to make a change. I reread the entry today and noticed that it certainly reflected more than my usual amount of cynicism. I suppose that was my point: in spite of our challenges, we should all strive to count our blessings and work toward a better future.

Church this week (and this month) seem particularly able to encourage such optimism. While the hymn "If You But Trust in God to Guide You" may be not be the most hummable, familiar tune, the text of trust and grace epitomize the hope and optimism that I always find at the heart of Lutheranism. Of course, the many baptisms in our church lately are always happy moments. We welcome a new member to our congregation and family in Christ.

I was thinking about the sharp contrast between my daily life and the practice ACT test that I administered at a public school in Cleveland this past week. Walking into city high schools can be a depressing experience, the institutional browns and yellows and fluorescent lighting, the teachers shouting for attention, and the sometimes listless or disrespectful students. However, in the midst of this setting, in a raucous room and a challenging environment, I watched a young woman in a Jr. ROTC Air Force uniform put all her effort into the ACT. She wasn't alone; in that crowd were a handful of students who were clearly focused and determined to do their best. I still haven't lost the hopeless romanticism and optimism that shine from those students.

With education and students on my mind, I was flipping through the ELW and discovered that nine hymns are listed under the heading "Education," including ELW 676 "Lord, Speak to Us, That We May Speak." To teach, to lead, to raise children, and to spread optimism (what Tillich collectively referred to as "the courage to be") all require a source of strength and inspiration, which this hymn expresses in its third verse:

Oh, teach us, Lord, that we may teach
The precious truths which you impart;
And wing our words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Continuing our Reformation theme this Sunday


I wonder what Martin Luther would think about our unofficial, month-long recognition of the theme of Reformation (both in Pastor's sermons and in the music). I suppose in some ways the existence of our church is a perpetual notice of Reformation and its themes, the "solas."

At any rate, the Reformation theme will continue in this week's postlude. I'll be playing an arrangement of "Ein Feste Burg" by Pachelbel. As I play multiple versions of the piece this month, I hope it's a fun challenge for you to listen to the melody as it transfers between the voices - from soprano to the bass pedal line. The various composers will also invert the tune, add ornamentation, and insert their own interludes or episodes. I'll be playing the piece in many different styles, but all of them are meant to evoke the text of Psalm 46 and the foundations of our faith.

The choir will be singing at the late service this week, a piece by the 18th century British composer William Crotch. The anthem repeats the same brief prayer several times as its text:

Comfort, O Lord, the soul of Thy servant
For unto Thee do I lift up my soul.

I hope, as always, that all the music lifts up your soul and aids your prayers and worship at the beginning of a new week.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Eeyore problem


I was talking to a friend the other day who is also a Cleveland transplant (me from Minnesota and her from Buffalo), and we commented that hometown pride seems less common than in our previous homes. Then I read Connie Schultz's article from this past Sunday's Plain Dealer. She said of the citizens of Cleveland: "We're not just modest, we're mopey. Too many Eeyores, not enough Tiggers."

I've never believed that attitude is innate; I belong more to the Viktor Frankl school of thought: the one thing that you can always choose or control is your attitude. It's why I loved running a scrappy theatre company, why I love playing church organ, and even why I adore the tv show "Glee." My optimism that we can accomplish great things is based on the institutions of the public library, schools, and churches. And I find that optimism best expressed in great hymns of faith (as well as great musical theatre).

We all face challenges, and the "rust belt" has had suffered more than its fair share in a struggling economy. But that's no reason not to maintain a positive attitude and to work hard for a brighter future. Churches are one place that optimism, the "Good News," should be a bright light of hope for our community and the world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tom Hanks

If you read Sunday's Plain Dealer, you couldn't miss the flurry of coverage about Tom Hanks visit to town to help raise money for the Great Lakes Theater Festival. The music and theatre community in the Cleveland area is amazingly vibrant, and we're fortunate to have so many opportunities around us. My favorite quote from Hanks, though, was that he called the Hanna Theatre a place of "artistic worship."

Yes, theatres can be places of inspiration and worship (which is different, by the way, from saying that churches are places of theatre). Our faith should inform our lives, actions, thoughts, and attitude every day. We bring our lives back to worship on Sunday to share, to worship, to seek forgiveness, and to recharge for the week ahead.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Article in "The Lutheran"

Yesterday, I read in the church council minutes that Bethany will be ordering fewer copies of The Lutheran in the future because there isn't enough demand in the congregation to justify our current order size. I found the timing ironic because the latest issue includes an article on how to reach people through a "multichannel church." (You can read the whole article here.) Reading about and staying current with issues in the broader ELCA community represents one of those multiple channels through which the church can touch our lives.

The overall thrust of the article is that Sunday-centric churches will continue to struggle in the future. Churches need to reach out in as many ways as possible, and encourage participation through multiple channels. Of course, music is one way that you can be a part of the church service - that means choir rehearsal on Wednesday night or playing an instrument as well as just confidently joining in during the hymns on Sunday morning.

Bethany has plenty of other ways to participate as well - Bethel Bible study is just one high profile example this year. Of course, I also think this blog and the web in general are important ways that the church can increase its profile and participation. Sunday is actually the day with the lowest web traffic here, so I know it's a way for some people to stay involved outside the traditional service.

This issue and the discussion about it are so important for the ongoing health of any congregation and the church as a whole. The website for The Lutheran has plenty of discussion forums on this and many other topics. (Among the issues I saw discussed there - how are pastors and staff supposed to keep up with even more interactions and forums for participation? Certainly that is just one question we need to explore.) Any thoughts or experiences you have on how to increase participation?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Reformation hymns


This Sunday we'll continue our build-up to Reformation Sunday at the end of the month. Pastor's sermon series is providing the perfect reason to play variations on "A Mighty Fortress" at various points in the service each week, including this week's meditative prelude. Ever since Luther first wrote the hymn, composers have found inspiration in the hymn and have written countless arrangements and interpretations of the tune.

The process of building upon past tunes and musical ideas is part of the total experience of music. Music is about patterns, and our ears learn to hear and even expect certain chord progressions and melodies. I've heard it suggested that the reason we sometimes dislike music (even to extreme cases like the riot that occurred at the premiere of "Rite of Spring") is because we cannot recognize the patterns within the music.

From that point of view, some of the best church music is endowed with its meaning and structure from its incorporation of meaningful motifs. Like a Wagnerian opera where each character has its own leitmotif, a prelude that incorporates "Ein Feste Burg" inevitably provokes thoughts of Luther while "Lasst Uns Erfreuen" conjures up Easter memories. This October, I hope your prayers and meditations consistently include that confident phrase from Psalm 46 that God is our refuge and strength, a truly "mighty fortress."

This week we'll also be singing the great hymn "Thy Strong Word," and the choir will change gears from the classical sound of Bach to a romantic melody by Brahms. We hope you enjoy listening and joining in with us in worship and praise.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Baroque music concert

Next Wednesday evening (Oct. 14th at 7:30 pm) is the first concert in the fall concert series at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Cleveland. The performers are the group Tempesta di Mare, based in Philadelphia. They play Baroque music on period instruments. (You can see in the picture that it involves recorders and lutes, and they also use a harpsichord, of course.)

For you Bach fans, this concert will be a unique opportunity to hear his music performed authentically. Plus, it's a free concert (good will offering only).

Choir members, I guess we'll be missing this one, but I'll write about the other concerts in the series as they arrive.

Unorthodox wisdom - sounds of silence

Isn't it amazing how a phrase can become so completely associated with a piece of music? In church music there are simple things like "Holy, Holy, Holy," which immediately conjure the rousing march-like hymn tune or Biblical passages (often Isaiah) that for some people instantly spark motifs from Handel's Messiah. Simon and Garfunkel will forever "own" that phrase, won't they?

I've been thinking a lot about silence lately and how integral it is to the experience of music. When the choir sang "Verily, verily" a couple of weeks back by Tallis, I encouraged them to think about the driving eighth-note beat that lays underneath the piece as if it began long ago and continues well after the piece is done. Even in the rests between phrases, that tactus continues to carry on - music is heard sequentially in time so the silences can have meaning.

When a piece comes to an end, the silence can be a profound moment of contemplation, even a reaction to what was just heard. (I personally detest when an audience member insists on being the first to applaud, as if proving how much he or she loved the music. In my opinion, if you loved it so much, you'd be savoring the experience of the silence.)

I'll be musing on the "meaningful silences" of the church service and music in general in the coming couple of weeks. But I figured I should lead with the most famous lyric that starts from a simple memory of a dream and goes on to tell us much about the power and meaning of silence:

"Hello darkness, my old friend,
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Time and talent

First, I want to be sure to thank the bell choir for playing on Sunday morning. I heard lots of positive comments, and I think they added a nice touch to a familiar hymn. It's amazing how little things like different harmonies, arrangements, or descants can make us hear a piece of music in a new way.

That also provides me a chance to recruit a bit here. I know that all our members have received their "Time and Talent" forms to help drum up participation. I really want to encourage you to consider the musical opportunities - not just choir and bell choir - but perhaps you play an instrument? Or maybe you can't make the time commitment to choir but would be willing to sing a psalm or a solo?

The Bible mentions participation and music so many times. One of my favorites is Psalm 100: "Make a joyful noise to the Lord." It's a great reminder that we should all participate in making music together. You notice that it doesn't say "Sing joyfully in perfect four-part harmony to the Lord." In fact, I have sometimes seen it translated as "a joyful shout." There are ample opportunities for musicians of all abilities to participate, as well as learn and grow. Please consider it as you fill out your forms, and as always feel free to approach me or Cassie to learn more!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Chancel Choir this week

This Sunday, the Chancel Choir will be singing one of the finest examples of J.S. Bach's musical genius - "Jesu, Joy of Man'd Desiring" (text found here). This piece is from his 147th cantata, "Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben" (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). This cantata was just one of hundreds that he wrote. While serving at the St. Homas church in Leipzig, the compositional demand on Bach was immense, requiring him to write 58 cantatas per year. Despite the quality of his music and talent, Bach was not really known outside a small part of Germany. He was probably paid the equivalent of what a tradesman would be paid today, and was not even of high enough standing to be buried with a headstone.


I'm reminded of one of Pastor's sermons where he began with the fading and transient existence of mainstream celebrity. What is artistic and musical greatness? Is it marked by the ones with the most fame, money, and influence of the time? As in Bach's case, not necessarily. His music has endured for hundreds of years, expressing the beautiful universality of his works by his faith and devotion to Jesus Christ. It was not until many years after his death that 180-some graves were unearthed so that his body could be found and reburied properly in the Thomaskirche.


This Sunday hopefully our musical offering will suffice, with beautiful phrases such as "Hark, what peaceful music rings" and "...drink of joy from deathless springs."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Vincent Lubeck Prelude and Fugue


My regular readers and listeners will know that I tend to draw heavily from hymn-based materials for my service music selections. I take great pleasure in weaving together the hymns and service music in coordination with the choir, readings, and sermon to present a unified message for the week. On some occasions, however, it's a nice change of pace to play a piece from the standard classical organ repertoire, providing a chance to enjoy the music and your own personal silent prayer and meditation.

When you think of Baroque organ music, and in particular German organ music of the 17th and 18th centuries, the only name to spring to mind is likely Bach. If you're a regular reader of my blog or a real music connoisseur, you might know of Buxtehude as well. However, that place and period were a hotbed of organ composition. Bach is the acknowledged master of the craft, but he flourished amid very talented contemporaries.

One of those fellow organ composers was Vincent Lubeck. He was the organist at St. Nikolai in Hamburg, which was home to one of the world's largest organs at the time. Unfortunately, much of his music has been lost over the centuries. There is also added confusion because his son shared his name and profession, and it's unclear whether some pieces were composed by the father or son.

This Sunday, I'll be playing a Prelude and Fugue in a minor believed to be composed by Vincent Senior, splitting it between the prelude before the service and the fugue after. The music demonstrates several characteristics of the period - the ornamentation, virtuosic scales (particularly the opening few measures), and inversion and episodes in the fugue. It may sound like Bach to a casual listener, but it's a great opportunity to expand your repertoire of Baroque organ composers.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Public Radio: Composer's Datebook

I suppose it's odd that I've written numerous entries on the joys of public radio, but I've never mentioned the program "Composer's Datebook." Thanks to a suggestion from Pastor, I'd like to rectify that situation today.

This past Saturday, the show featured a performance of "Genesis" by composer Charles Wuorinen. He is an American composer who fully embraced and enhanced the sound of "modern classical music." He is well-known for incorporating ideas of math and geometry into his music, and his work has been acclaimed with a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur "genius grant." Despite all of that, he remains largely unknown to the public because his music is far from easy to understand and enjoy. (To hear a free sample of "Genesis," click here. It's not a melodic, listener-friendly piece, but it may be the perfect sound for the chaotic process of creation!)

Wuorinen is particularly articulate on the distinction between art and entertainment, just as we might analogously attempt to draw a line between worship and entertainment. In a New York Times interview, he says, "I think there's a very simple distinction [between art and entertainment]. Entertainment is that which you receive without effort. Art is something where you must make some kind of effort, and you get more than you had before." In other words, great music and great art have a lingering influence on our lives and worldview.

However, despite his claim that it is a "simple" distinction, the line can admitedly become blurry. For instance, while I would argue that my vibrant memories of seeing Les Miserables on Broadway for the first time represent an artistic highpoint of American theatre, other people would surely rate it as entertainment. Individual perspective, experience, and even level of music education matter greatly in determining the difference between art and entertainment. Church musicians thus face a weekly struggle to find music that can reach people and yet transcend entertainment. It's a delicate balance, but the best hymns and service music will provoke thought and prayer as well as delight your ears.

No two people hear a piece of music in the same way. What brings an audience together, though, is the shared experience of hearing and making sense of a performance. On "Composer's Datebook," Wuorinen is quoted as saying, "Art is like nuclear fusion. You have to put something into it to get it started, but you get more out of it in the end than what you put in. Entertainment is its own reward and generally doesn't last." Replace "art" with "worship" and the same comparison is valid - worship demands participation and has everlasting reward.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Get out your Kushner


Tonight's sundown marked the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It has been a long personal tradition of mine to reread one of Rabbi Harold Kushner's books during this season. He is primarily known for the best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but he has written more than a half dozen other books equally insightful in interpreting the Old Testament texts for our modern lives.

After Pastor's sermon today on the stumbling block of "if only," I was inspired to reread Kushner's book on the life of Moses, titled Overcoming Life's Disappointments. In a chapter titled "A hard road, not a smooth one," he writes:

"It may be that instead of giving us a friendly world that would never challenge us and therefore never make us strong, God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience. It was in the harshness of a desert that God, through Moses, forged a band of former slaves into a people on a quest."

He goes on to describe a college writing assignment where the first sentence must be "It is only after many surprises and choices, detours and dissapointments, that I have arrived somewhere I could never have anticipated." Many of us regard our current situation, he muses, with "a mixture of regret and astonishment." From a personal point of view, I certainly never planned to live in north-east Ohio, but I'm loving the beauty of this fall season as the one-year anniversary of our home purchase draws near. It was such a pleasure to read Kushner's thoughts on the surprises of life. Having heard him speak once and having read all of his words repeatedly, he seems like an old, wise family friend.

The Jewish Holy Days (in my understanding) are a time to ask for forgiveness and be forgiven, to plan and hope for a better year ahead. We look forward in hope, setting aside regret and the allure of "if only." In closing, to turn the blog back to my proper topic of music, let me close by quoting the final verse of the old hymn "Be Still, My Soul." (It didn't make it into the ELW):

"Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last."

Friday, September 25, 2009

And now for something completely different...


This coming week, we'll be leaving behind the sounds of Bob Dylan in favor of Bach and Tallis. Our ears may suffer from a bit of musical whiplash, as we zip back in time hundreds of years!

The prelude will be a selection from Bach's Orgelbuchlein or "Little Organ Book," though it is often referred to as "The Liturgical Year." Bach had planned to compose 164 chorale preludes that would span the liturgical year, thus providing music for every Sunday, but he completed only 46 of them. For the most part, they are four-voice counterpart arrangements of famous hymn tunes. They present the familiar melodies in a novel setting, so that we hear the melody in a new way.

The particular piece for the prelude is a setting of "In Dir Ist Freude," which we translate "In Thee is Gladness" in the ELW. It's a text that I have quoted before, noting that the confident declaration of faith and joy is even more powerful when we realize it was composed during a time of religious turmoil and battle. We'll be singing the hymn during the service, and I felt it provided a great opportunity to hear Bach's version of this well-known hymn.

The choir will be singing during communion, a piece by Tallis, who lived for most of the 16th century. It has a strong rhythmic element, and to our ears will sound like a minor key (though technically modal). Don't let your ears get lazy, though, the investment of attentive listening to the text and the rhythmic vitality will help you realize that even music that is nearly 500 years old can still be relevant, exciting, and even fun to listen to.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A quick quiz

Here's a quick, one problem quiz for you:

Name two different pieces of music that I have played during communion at a worship service any Sunday in the past 18 months.

Can you name anything other than "Blowin' in the Wind"? And that, my friends, is a primary reason that I think it was a great addition to this past Sunday's worship: it was memorable. It made people talk. (In fact, some people who came to second service had already heard about it.) Now, I'm not saying that church musicians should be controversial simply for the sake of controversy and conversation, but it can be exciting to see people actually discussing the music, rather than blithely ignoring it.

Many mega-churches have gone to the extreme of contemporary music, having no pipe organs at all in place of a praise band, for instance. Rick Warren famously said that people don't listen to classical organ music in their home (or on their iPods), so why should they have to do so when they come to church? I have three responses to such a critique. First, the unique nature of the language and music of church is what sets it apart as a santuary for our community. Second, some of the music people don't listen to is among the greatest ever composed (just as some of the books we don't read are the truly great classics), and we have a responsibility to aid their propagation. Finally, we can maintain our traditions while also being flexible and welcoming new music, technology, language, and ideas - the most promising trend in church music is toward "blended" worship.

Plus, I do believe that philosophers, artists, composers, and musicians continue to grapple with the same driving questions about the human condition that the Bible raises. In this particular instance, Bob Dylan's answer "in the wind" is not that different from the ongoing search of the book of Ecclesiastes.

I hope you enjoyed the musical change of pace, and whether you did or you didn't, I'd love to hear from you any week!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Music Near the Market"

Last spring, I had managed to arrange my academic schedule so that I could attend the Wednesday afternoon concerts at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ohio City. I wrote then about the great experience of hearing their von Beckerath organ and the joy of an afternoon in Ohio City and shopping at the West Side Market. Unfortunately, this semester will not allow me to attend any of the concerts, but I want to help spread the word about the great opportunity to hear beautiful organ music in the area.

On Sept. 23rd at noon, Robert Myers will play a concert of "Point counterpoint," featuring the music of Bach and Pachelbel.

On Sept. 30th at noon, Linda Kempke and flutist Julie Wesolek will be performing together.

If you happen to be free, these events promise to feature incredible music in a beautiful setting!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Choir Notes from Cassie

This Sunday both the Chancel and Handbell Choirs will be joining us for worship. The bells have been working several weeks on an arrangement of the melody Hydrofol that you will all hear as the gathering Prelude.

Fun Handbell Fact:
Handbells began as a neighbor-friendly method of practice called change ringing.

The Chancel Choir will be singing K. Lee Scott's arrangement of "The Apple Tree." The text of this piece was found in the anonymous collection of Joshua Smith from the time that he came to the New World. Not only can you reflect on the text during worship, but perhaps also as apple-picking season arrives. As we harvest from fruit-bearing trees and enjoy our delicious Ohio apples and pies, remember the following:

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ, the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excell:
By faith I know, but ne'er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ, the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I missed of all; but now I see
'Tis found in Christ, the apple tree.

I'm weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest a while:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ, the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ, the apple tree.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom


I heard the news about the death of Mary Travers today, and it really has created a sense of melancholy around the day. It certainly isn't hip or cool or trendy to be a fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary, but I have always liked their music. For one thing, there is the beautiful three-part harmonies of their song. There is also the fun factor of some of their upbeat songs, but mostly there is the depth and power of their lyrics, even when they were simple. They sang brilliant songs of protest and commentary in an enduring style.

This morning, I've been thinking of Mary's husky voice singing these lyrics:

If you miss the train I'm on, you will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles,
A hundred miles, a hundred miles, a hundred miles,
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.

Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four,
Lord I'm 500 miles from my home.
500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles
Lord I'm five hundred miles from my home.

Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name
Lord I can't go a-home this a-way
This a-way, this a-way, this a-way, this a-way,
Lord I can't go a-home this a-way.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chinese Christianity

This summer I read Rob Gifford's account of his travel across China from Shanghai to the western border, published as China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power. He had worked for many years as the NPR correspondent in China, and his book provides the history and context of a top-notch journalist, as well as a stirring and thorough depiction of modern life across China.


At one point, in the middle of the country, he decided to attend a church service. We all know that China has a sometimes-troubled history with several different faiths, but Rob Gifford discovered a powerful pocket of faith at a house church. In fact, he ended up being invited to preach. He wrote an eloquent description of the vividness of the congregation's faith:


"There is a purity and an intensity to Christian believers in China, and it overflows in their prayers. Mention Christianity to ordinary Chinese people, and they are not burdened by visions of crusading soldiers, fornicating popes, or right-wing politicians. They have heard about this belief relatively late in the faith's long and winding history, and for them it is a matter of the heart. That is perhaps how it was supposed to be..."


He goes on to describe a decrepit organ that cranks out the hymns that everyone joins in to sing. The description reminded me of the power of faith and worship and church music when you are first exposed to it. In Zen meditation it is called "beginner's mind," that mindset where life is wondrous and the joy and love of faith overwhelm us. Music can be one way to help create that thankful, powerful attitude, as can prayer and meditation, Bible study, or even simply going for a walk on a beautiful fall evening.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Contemporary worship

The latest newsletter of the Cleveland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists started a dialogue on "traditional worship in the 21st century." The article shared some interesting facts, and raised questions and shared ideas on how to use the organ in contemporary worship. I saw the driving force behind the dialogue as the author's question: "If the organ died tomorrow, would the council appoint a replacement committe or a committee to discuss direction and IF the organ should be replaced?"

Among the ideas shared there to help guarantee the relevance of organ music were two that I thought especially relevant for our church. One, maintain variety. The ELW has helped us by providing new hymns, psalms, and liturgies, but we've also been willing to use a variety of instruments and styles in all of our music. Two, provide information. This blog really grew out of my desire to do just that. I hope that my readers learn more about music, but I also want to encourage you to engage with me (and Cassie and Pastor and the WAM committee) in a dialogue about worship and music. We do our best to provide an interesting and dynamic worship experience, and I hope that organ music always remains a vital part of it, even as it continues to grow and evolve.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Even Schoenberg, Cage, and Manz would have been shocked!

What the heck were all those wrong notes emanating from the organ during the introduction to the Sanctus during the second service?!?!

Well, you see, the Great Thanksgiving we're using is in the key of E, while the rest of the liturgy is in F. Normally, to correct that I simply "sight" the Great Thanksgiving up a half step. Today, though, I decided to transpose the electronic pipes and make it easy on myself.

Unfortunately, I forgot to "untranspose" before adding the real organ pipes to the electronic sounds. So when I started the introduction, you were hearing the organ being played in two keys simultaneously - a half step apart. Not a pretty sound!

My first organ teacher had a saying that she didn't charge for the wrong notes; they were thrown in for free along with the right ones. So you can just think of that intro today as twice as many notes for the same price.

It's pretty much impossible to make a quiet mistake on a pipe organ on Sunday morning, but I hope you'll all forgive the mistake. I'll do my best to avoid a repeat next week!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Choir notes from Cassie

Long throughout myth and legend has man searched for the fountain of youth, looking for the answers to immortality. From our well known Ponce De Leon and his supposed Floridian discoveries, to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we see the desperate actions and tales scraping for this ultimate goal of eternity. Unfortunately, those characters grasp for continuing a mortal life destined to end, for Christ paradoxically states, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

This Sunday, the Choir will be singing the anthem O God of Youth, containing the final verse:

May we be true to him, our captain of salvation,
Bearing his cross in service glad and free,
Winning the world to that last consummation
When all its kingdom shall His kingdom be.

What does this hymn have to do with youth? As you will hear on Sunday, the word “youth” is only mentioned once in the hymn, yet was deemed so important as to be placed in the hymn’s first phrase. Virtues connected with Christ (our God of Youth) are sprinkled throughout the text in the form of prayer. Prayer for steadfastness, zeal, bravery, valiance, and His “clear-eyed” faith and light all reflect the virtues of youth needed to bear one’s cross through this life.

The melodic structure of this hymn also reflects the nature of the text’s message. You will hear the choir sing long, beautiful, flowing phrases-- phrases not confined to any one consistent meter. These lines produce the musical image of free-flowing streams and rivers that run on endlessly to that true fountain of youth where “all its kingdom shall His kingdom be,” and ages shall drop in it like rain.

Liturgy tweaks and some favorite hymns

The worship and music committee met this week to make plans through the end of the church year, as well as some preliminary discussions about Advent and Christmas. Just as we're getting settled into the fall season, we're already trying to get ready for the winter.

Among our decisions for this coming Sunday, we decided to make a few minor tweaks to the liturgy. During the Alleluia, the choir will be singing the verse before we all repeat the refrain. Then we'll be bringing back the sung responses before and after the Gospel lesson. The committee agreed that singing "Glory to you, O Lord" and "Praise to you, O Christ" is much more joyous than mumbling. In our opinion, it was a mistake to omit them from the ELW. You're always welcome to provide your own feedback on such issues, but we think it will be a welcome change to the service.

Of course, now that the choir has returned, we're also singing the Psalms again. This Sunday they will be singing an antiphon as well, further enhancing the Psalm. These aren't major changes, but just enough to help keep things fresh. I recently read O Clap Your Hands by Gordon Giles, and he wrote some thoughts related to these changes: "Our worship needs to be kept alive, kept moving by the familiar but also awakened by that which is new, challenging, or striking. Newness in music is not therefore necessarily something freshly composed, but something newly encountered."

This Sunday will also include some great hymns: "Lift High the Cross," "God of Grace and God of Glory," and "What a Fellowship." The last of those was composed by Elisha Hoffman, who has a Cleveland connection. The forecast is for a beautiful Sunday, so we can all get started with beautiful worship music and enjoy a great fall afternoon.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Live life with Glee


In Terrence McNally's brilliant play Master Class, the character of Maria Callas refers to the theatre as "a sacred place." If you understand that sentiment, or if you just love rooting for the underdog and hearing some great music, you need to watch Glee on Wednesdays at 9:00 on Fox this season. (The show had a premiere this past spring to help capitalize on the popularity of American Idol, but the season just started this week. You can catch the rerun of the premiere on Friday night at 9:00.)

The show so perfectly captures the angst and earnestness of high school theatre and music geeks that you simultaneously squirm but can't look away. The cast is hugely talented - Matthew Morrison played Link Larkin in Hairspray on Broadway and Lea Michele played the role in the acclaimed show Spring Awakening. The music and the dancing are both superb and hillarious.

How is it related to church music? Well, to me (like McNally's version of Maria Callas), music and musical theatre are their own forms of worship. At its best, it can awaken your soul while it entertains. The show also reminds us to be kind to each other and to live life with glee - that sounds like the Gospel message to me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Closed and fearful hearts

I fervently believe that there is a showtune for every occasion, and Pastor's sermon this past Sunday about "closed hearts" reminded me of a scene in "Miss Saigon." When the heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine given the tragic ending) of the story, Kim, finds out that her lover has remarried she sings, "I feel walls in my heart, closing in. I can't breathe. I can't win." Her belief in him and in love and in the American dream (the "movie in her mind") is shattered at that moment, and her broken and closed heart leads inevitably to tragedy.

At the heart of many of the world's problems is a stubborn, closed heart (and mind), because a closed heart leads to fear, anger, despair, and loneliness. Like Kim, we can suffer because our faith in other people can be destroyed, but true faith in God and prayer should never leave us suffering with closed hearts.

Similarly, much of the greatest music and art is about reopening our hearts to interact with the broader world. To close your eyes and lose yourself in a beautiful song, to take in deep breaths and relax, is to refresh yourself in a kind of meditative prayer. During these busy back-to-school weeks, I rely on music to help keep me connected to that supportive faith. I hope singing hymns in worship and listening to the preludes and postludes help perform a similar function for many of you so that you can act on Isaiah's injunction to be strong and have no fear.