Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bach's Well Tempered Clavier

For the season of Lent, I've chosen to play some of Bach's preludes and fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier as the preludes. Bach wrote two famous volumes of these preludes and fugues, one in each of the 24 keys (major and minor). For him, they may have primarily been an academic exercise and lesson/practice book. Indeed, almost every major composer since his time has spent countless hours studying the structure of those famous pieces.

This Sunday, I'll be playing the c minor from book one on the harpsichord. It has a fiery prelude with an extended cadenza/coda and an easily memorable fugue theme. Listen for it as it repeats throughout the second movement.

You'll also notice throughout Lent that though I'm playing minor key preludes, they drift harmonically through the relative major sounds and almost invariably end on a major chord. That's a common musical flourish of Bach's era, but when I play it during Lent I like to think of it as symbolizing the eventual end of the season with the festival of Easter.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Meet our Choir Director

Today, your blogger is turning this space over to our choir director Cassie, who submitted a short bio so that you can get to know a bit more about her:

Cassie began her musical journies from the cradle immersed in the beautiful intricacies of Byzantine chant at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Warren, OH. At the age of 13, she began learning to play piano, intensively studying performance, music theory, and composition. She attended the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music, focusing on piano and harpsichord performance, composition, and theory under the tutelage of their esteemed faculty. Though, after meeting her husband James, a man deeply passionate about sacred music, she was overwhelmingly convinced that the secular music path was not the only path for her.

Cassie has been accompanying for and singing in choirs since the 8th grade. Before being hired at Bethany, she was the vocal assistant for the Vermillion High School and Middle School choirs and was the Music Director and Organist at Wakeman UCC. She now directs our Sunday School (1st - 3rd grade), Wittenberg (4th grade and up), Chancel (Adult), and Handbell choirs. Often marked as a tradtionalist, she simply supports truly sacred music and good liturgy.

She and her husband James live in Berea with their 6-month old daughter Gia. They advocate natural family living and love to travel. Cassie's favorite color is green.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

I grew up in a very Catholic town, where every school child was expected to "give something up" for Lent. The motivation for that tradition stems from an understanding of Christ's suffering and sacrifice. I'll admit, I always felt that attitude only told half the story.

Perhaps that's why Regina Brett's column in Sunday's Plain Dealer caught my eye. The headline asked what you'll be giving up, but her list of suggestions quickly morphs into positive actions. It reminds me of dieting: you can't just give up unhealthy eating, you have to replace it with healthy eating.

For Lent, we give up songs that proclaim Alleluia, and we set aside the more boisterous hymns of praise. Instead, our texts will contemplate Christ's sacrifice, and we'll hear more music in minor keys. I'll be playing with leaner organ registrations and with more music on the piano and harpsichord.

So I encourage you not simply to give something up, but to add something in its place. Give up your Wednesday evenings for church (or even better, come early for the soup supper and stay later to sing with the choir!). Sing the communion hymns; pray and meditate to the sounds of the prelude and postlude; discuss the readings and the sermon with your family over lunch. What will you give up for Lent? But even more importantly, what will you add to your life to enrich this season?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Voice of God

During Sunday's sermon, I wrote myself a note that I should blog about "the word of God" as it relates to hymns. As Pastor mentioned, the great tradition of Lutheran hymns is to write texts that are based on scripture and/or proclaim our theological understanding.

When I sat down to write today, however, I remembered that the title of the sermon was actually "the voice of God." And that, in musical terms, can be quite distinct from "the word of God."

For instance, think about singing "Jesus Christ is Ris'n Today" on Easter Sunday. It's a great hymn of praise, with brass, organ, and voices proclaiming the good news. That isn't necessarily God's voice speaking to us, though; it's our voices raised in praise to Him. It's the word of God.

God's voice can be heard in a multitude of places beyond hymns. For me, it could be the Cleveland Symphony playing "The Great Gate of Kiev" from "Pictures at an Exhibition." It could be a great Broadway showtune, like "I will never leave you" from Side Show or "I still believe" from Miss Saigon. By the way, that's me and Lea Salonga in the picture, taken on a NYC trip a couple of years back. Almost anything she sings (or Audra MacDonald or Renee Fleming or...) can make me think that only God could create such beauty. That is truly the voice of God to my ears.

I'm sure we all hear God's voice speaking to us in different ways. For some people, perhaps it's the sound of birdcalls on this sunny day or the rhythm of poetry or a baby's coo. Since this blog is primarily about music, though, I'd love to hear about people's experiences with the voice of God in music. What hymns speak most directly to you? What other music creates the greatest sense of reverence in your life?

Monday, February 23, 2009


Isn't that a glorious word for the sound of bells? The poetry of the English language occasionally provides just the perfect word to describe something, and tintinnabulation perfectly conjures up the music of bells for me.

For Transfiguration Sunday, the short prelude was played by the Bethany Bell Choir, whom you can see pictured here. When they play, it gives me a rare opportunity to clear my mind before the service begins. It reminded me how wonderful it can be simply to stop creating and working and striving, so that we can listen and hear God's word.

I hope you enjoyed their playing as much as I did, and even more I hope that you tell them about it! Also, I know they'd be glad to have people joining them in making their beautiful music.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mendelssohn juvenalia

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn's birth. As a consequence, you'll be hearing quite a bit of his organ music over the course of the year.

Mendelssohn's reputation has varied immensely over the past 200 years. During his life, he was touted and admired as among the best composers of his day. He was a child prodigy, popular in his home country of Germany, and beloved by Queen Victoria. In fact, her daughter's wedding ceremony in 1858 included his now-classic Wedding March.

His reputation declined partly due to anti-Semitism (particularly the blistering criticism of Wagner), but also to his musical conservatism. He lived and worked at the dawn of the romantic age, the era of Berlioz and Liszt, but his music still reflected the classical and baroque eras, more akin to Mozart and Bach than his contemporaries. The final blow to his status may just have been his association with and love of Lutheran chorales.

Mendelssohn's family converted to Christianity, and he firmly embraced Lutheran music. Among his familiar works are the "Reformation" Symphony and the Christmas carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Musical critics may occasionally sneer or sigh at the number of works that echo a chorale, but Lutherans can listen to it from a different perspective, finding additional layers of meaning and emotion in the familiar tunes.

This Sunday I'm playing two of Mendelssohn's early works, composed while he was still a teenager. The prelude is a basic chorale, sweet and consoling, while the postlude is a jaunty march. For Transfiguration Sunday, a day when Jesus appears with Elijah and Moses, we can contemplate the faith of this convert and the beautiful music he composed in praise of God.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

At the works of God's hands, I sing for joy

On a snowy Ohio morning, I'm on my way to practice at church. One of our hymns this week is "Arise, Your Light Has Come" (the tune of "Rise up, O Saints of God"), and it's one for which I always struggle to find the appropriate tempo. The Musicians Guide to the ELW lists a range of 62 - 70 for the half note, placing it in the category of a fast march. In fact, I find that when played as slow as 62, the tactus shifts to the quarter note and the hymn begins to feel too much like an army marching through mud.

Now, some hymns truly are marches ("Onward Christian Soldiers," to name the obvious one). For me, though, the text of "Arise" is just too joyous and enthusiastic for me to allow it to plod, and I've been known to push the tempo as fast as 80 bpm. At that tempo, it becomes a lyric piece that does inspire me to rise up and take action.

The best hymns, the best Bible verses, the best sermons - they all inspire us to act on our Christian faith and live it fully on a day-to-day basis. That's what the hymn does for me when I play it, and I want to share that with the congregation on Sunday. So hum a few bars of ELW 314 at some point today, acting out the psalmist's decree to declare steadfast love of God in the morning and evening to the music of lute, harp, and lyre (Psalm 92, paraphrase). Tell me if that faster tempo and that inspiring text don't provide the imptus for you to do everything in your day a little better and with a smile - despite the snow in your driveway.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Maintenance versus mission

As I was browsing the blogosphere, I stumbled upon a post about the difference between a congregation that is focused on maintenance versus mission. I fall firmly into the camp who believes churches are about constant renewal and outreach. This blog is one small part of our music ministry because I think it's important to move beyond just playing music during the worship service to being an integrated part of the community.

At any rate, I encourage you to take a look and think about the mission and purpose for which God is calling you: Maintenance vs. Mission

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why do we have two preludes every Sunday?

To understand why Bethany regularly includes two preludes, you need to consider the role or purpose of the prelude. There are at least two different perspectives:

1. The prelude is "background music" that creates an inviting atmosphere as people arrive for worship. In other words, it's okay to pay little attention to it while we take off our coats, greet friends, and scan the bulletin announcements before the service.

2. The prelude should be a time for prayer, reflection, and preparation for worship.

At Bethany, the worship and music committee felt the second philosophy was an important aspect of worship. For that reason, the prelude was played after pastor made the announcements and asked us "To prepare our hearts and minds for worship" during a brief prelude.

However, that created the dual problems of limiting the prelude to pieces of approximately one minute, while also creating an awkward period of silence as congregants arrived. This problem was addressed by creating a pre-prelude. Now, Tom is free to play more substantial pieces from the organ literature as people are arriving, fulfilling the first goal of the prelude. Then, after the announcements, the second prelude provides a transition from the ordinary business of life to the sacred environment of worship.

I don't know of any other church with this unique format, but I've grown to like it a great deal. I particularly like the freedom to program organ literature in the first slot, while reserving the second slot for short pieces that relate to the hymns for the day. I'd love to hear reactions both from members and from others reading about this for the first time.

Church tour - the harpsichord

At Bethany, we're fortunate to have a wide range of instruments available to accompany and enhance our worship. Over the next few weeks, I'll take you on a mini-tour of our music facilities. Today, we start out with a unique keyboard, our harpsichord.

The harpsichord was invented sometime in the 1400s and essentially peaked in popularity during the 18th century. It has appeared in a wide range of variations, but they all share the one common feature of plucking the strings. This is in contrast piano, which uses a hammer to hit the strings, and accounts for the more "metallic" or "crisp" sound of the harpsichord. This feature also prevents the harpsichord from producing as much volume as the piano, which was certainly a factor in its decline.

Today, perhaps the primary reason to play the harpsichord is for the music of J.S. Bach. At the late service on Christmas Eve, the congregation got to hear his harpsichord for two concertos, and Lent will feature a number of Bach's preludes and fugues. When performed on this period instrument, the music of Bach possesses clarity and character that cannot be precisely reproduced on the piano. One biased account from the link above states that by the year 1800, "The precision and clarity of the baroque had been replaced by mush and bombast." To put it another way, the Romantic era ushered in a very different sound, full of emotion, in comparison to the intellectual purity of Bach's time. Hearing music on the harpsichord gives us a new musical perspective and that variety can help keep worship interesting and stimulating.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why we sing

The book of Luke, chapter 19, verses 1-10 tells the story of Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector whom Jesus visits. It's a brief event, simply the introduction and motivation for a longer parable that follows in the chapter, and Zacchaeus does not appear anywhere else in the Bible. Why then, do I and so many Lutherans - especially Sunday school-aged kids - know this story? Because somebody wrote a song about it! Everybody sing along: Zaccheus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he...

Aiding our memory is just one reason to set text to music. Martin Luther (along with plenty of other composers) understood that one effective way to share and teach theology is to set it to music. Of course, that was particularly important for people who lived in the early 16th century when so many congregants were illiterate or lacked access to the printed word. The words we sing in the hymns are meant to work in concert with the liturgy, scripture, sermon, and even the visual aspects of the church (liturgical color, for example) to present a cohesive worship service.

Thanks to the hymns of our tradition, Lutherans can boldly proclaim from memory: "A mighty fortress is our God" and "Lord, keep us steadfast in your word." Parts of the catechism show up directly in the hymnal, with Luther composing settings of the Lord's Prayer (ELW 746) and the 10 Commandments (to be sung throughout Lent at Bethany this spring). These hymns are lessons we carry with us in addition to being beautiful music.

The ancient Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi tells us that what we pray is what we believe. To give one reason for why we sing in church, we can add (in a rather Yoda-like formulation): lex orandi, lex cantandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. What we pray, what we read, and what we sing, is what we believe and how we live.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What's this blog all about?

This blog will include a variety of content, but the primary focus that underlies it all is Lutheran church music. The blog is maintained primarily by the organist at Bethany English Lutheran Church in Cleveland, but it is written with input and assistance from the staff and members of the congregation.

This blog is different from most church websites, which tend to be relatively static or simply post the church's monthly newsletter online. With regular updates, this site is meant to accomplish a number of goals:

1. To continue the church's music ministry and outreach in a new format;
2. To examine and discuss music in the Lutheran heritage;
3. To connect in a dialogue with a broader audience of musicians and people of diverse faiths;
4. To explore the role of the arts in our Christian understanding.

Most of all, we hope this site becomes a hub for conversation and participation, a place to share ideas and ask questions. If you have a question or suggestion, please leave a comment here or email

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Meet the (primary) blogger

Welcome to the music ministry blog of Bethany English Lutheran Church in Cleveland! We'll be writing more soon about a variety of topics, including the purpose and aim of this blog, but it seems to make sense to start off with an introduction of our primary blogger.

Tom has been the organist at Bethany for nearly one year now. He is a relatively recent transplant to Ohio, having grown up in the small town of Melrose, Minnesota. He has played the piano since age 5 and organ since age 15, when he began playing part-time at his home church. Tom studied piano and voice (though without majoring in music) at St. Olaf College, which is perhaps best known for their annual Christmas concerts.

After college, Tom taught high school choir and drama, while working with a number of amateur and professional theatre troupes as music director and/or keyboardist. His favorite productions during that time include Les Miserables (student edition) and Children of Eden. Among his major performances, Tom has performed the Beethoven Chorale Fantasia, the Grieg piano concerto, and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Tom's philosophy of church music can be nearly summed up in one word: balance. By that, he means a balance of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, simple and complex, community and individual, law and gospel, bombastic and peaceful, praiseful and penitent. He'll be bringing that same variety and balance to the pages of this blog. We hope you enjoy reading and participating in the dialogue!