Thursday, April 30, 2009

Another three Bs

Most people have heard of the famous "3 Bs" - Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. They are revered as among the greatest composers of all time, and we certainly hear plenty of their music. This Sunday's organ selections, however, come from a different trio - Bohm, Bruckner, and Burkhardt.

The prelude will be another setting of the Lord's Prayer by Bohm (1661 - 1733). It provides a contemplative, prayerful contrast to the bombastic Easter hymns that we are still singing this Sunday.

The "Silent Meditation Prelude" (the name suggested by Linda in an earlier comment - Do you like it? Have another idea? Weigh in with a comment!) will be a brief Andante movement composed by Anton Bruckner (1824 - 1896). His reputation has languished in the shadow of his more famous contemporaries, principally Wagner and Brahms. He is an important artist in his own right, however, and Sunday's snippet of music will give us just a taste of his late Romantic harmonies.

Finally, the postlude will be one of my favorites - "Toccata on Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow" by Michael Burkhardt (b. 1957). Burkhardt serves on the faculty of Carthage College (ELCA) and is a superb composer and arranger of Lutheran church music. When we reach the postlude, we'll have traversed over 350 years of music history.

You might recognize the postlude, since I played it once last spring, but it's such an uplifting piece of music that I think its worth hearing at least annually. I hope you linger to hear the strains of the familiar hymn and that it sends you out the church door humming a hymn tune with a smile on your face, rejuvenated by the worship experience for the week ahead.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I sound my barbaric yawp

The New York Times has jumped on the bandwagon of media covering the supposed rise of atheism. I'm not surprised by the continued coverage; after all, it's not the first time these observations have been made. Three things struck me about that particular article. First of all, the pictured board member of the Secular Humanists of Lowcountry is also a church musician, which I find ironic and mildly troubling.

Second, the organizers likened the new-found visibility of atheists and agnostics to "coming out of the closet." This group (and others like it) are getting attention simply because people are willing to stand up and announce their beliefs (or lack of belief). How many of us are willing to do the same? Even simple things matter: does your Facebook page state your religious affiliation and link to Bethany's web site? Atheists and agnostics may have been an invisible minority for quite some time, but are mainstream Christians becoming an invisible majority as we turn our attention inwards to ever-smaller congregations?

Third, people who join an agnostic group are missing the irony. They often become dogmatic and orthodox in their own way, coming together as a group for mutual support, acting nearly "religious" in their fervor, and resembling the purpose of a church in several respects - community, conversation, and a shared quest for meaning.

Refrains of Whitman's Leaves of Grass kept drifting through my mind as I read the article. I dug out my old copy from my undergrad days and was struck again by the pagan/deistic/pantheistic theology that suffuses the verses. Like the best poets and musicians, Whitman asks more questions than he gives answers. One line that I particularly like is the confession that "I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least." (Follow the link to read the whole thing - it's infinitely more brilliant than any of my ramblings!)

MacDowell composed a Requiem Mass using Whitman's poetry, and I think for many troubled agnostics the thrilling language of a thinking seeker may be the perfect remedy for a confused agnosticism. We need to help point the way, as always, by "coming out" in our own way, sounding a Christian yawp with our bells and our hymns and our daily actions.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why do we sing?

I just read an article titled "Musical Fellowship and Spiritual Teamwork" that gave one important answer to the question of why we sing hymns and we have choirs and bell choirs and special music like brass during our worship services.

It isn't a moot question. I was reminded of that at Easter dinner, when an agnostic, a Mormon, and a Lutheran organist sat down to dinner. There was quite a discussion about the theology and motivation (as well as the tradition) behind several aspects of worship. Guests who worship at our church do ask questions about all kinds of things that we take for granted. It's important for our own faith development and apologetics that we can articulate answers to questions such as why we sing.

The answer the aformentioned article advanced was the community building aspect. In corporate worship, we raise our voices together. Often, we are told to focus on the text and to consider the hymn a musical prayer, with our mind and heart focused on God. However, there's more to it than that; there is also the blending of the voices of the people around you and the fellowship and camaraderie of a community. Singing should always be a joyful experience from that perspective.

A member of Bethany once referred to playing in the bell choir as the ultimate team sport. That's a great analogy. We work together when we sing and make music, and we simultaneously are the audience as well, harmonizing our sounds together, with all of that raised in prayer, praise, petition, and proclamation of our faith. What a powerful and complex task it is to sing a hymn with all that in mind!

And yet, we cannot always be thinking quite so hard. It's also true that our songs give voice to our faith, thoughts, and emotions. In simpler, musical language, we can also answer the question in this way:

"I sing because I'm happy,
And I sing because I'm free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches over me."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Writing about music

Writing about music is like writing about wine. It's a Sissyphean task to describe such sensory experiences in words. That's why I want to share this poem by Irene McKinney from today's edition of Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac. She captures the essence of music in her couplets of Homage to Roy Orbison. Among my favorite lines are these: "the singing we do gives us a taste and not a meal...So why not sing as hard and deep as we can?"

Friday, April 24, 2009

Llanfair and Truro and Bohm (oh my!)

The Easter celebration continues! One of the great things about Easter is that we don't have to hear our greatest hymns corrupted by pop singers, Muzak, and even barking dogs for weeks and weeks prior to the holiday, so we can instead continue to sing them with gusto and glee for several Sundays.

Llanfair is the tune of the hymn "Christ the Lord is Risen Today; Alleluia!" (ELW 369), which we'll be singing and which you can also hear in the postlude. It's a perrenial favorite, and in the best tradition of Easter hymns it includes plenty of Alleluias. We have to make up for Lent, after all. So as always I encourage everyone to sing it loud and proud - even if you don't think you have a "great voice," follow Luther's advice and sin boldly. Wrong notes are awfully minor sins.

Truro is another great Easter hymn. You'll hear phrases from it in the prelude. The prelude is a musical rendition of both Good Friday and Easter. Echoes of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" at the beginning remind us of the confusion and fear that surrounded Holy Week, but the piece resolves in a joyous ending of another familiar Easter hymn.

Finally, Bohm is the composer of the second prelude. He was a 17th century precursor to Bach, and I'll be playing one of his arrangements of the Lord's Prayer. (Incidentally, that spot in our service could really use a name - is it the second prelude, the short prelude, contemplation music? Leave a suggestion in the comments!)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom - Part 3

All of the good theatrical spoofs about religion seem to be about the Catholics - Nunsense, Monk-y Business, and today's unorthodox source: Altar Boyz. The show is a hillarious off-Broadway story about a Christian boy band made up of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham (their Jewish friend).

I've seen the show a bunch of times (although there always seems to be a story about how I manage to get free tickets). It's full of laughs and fun upbeat music. Truthfully, they mock Christianity and Catholocism pretty gently, and it's a lot of fun to watch them parody the boy bands with their liberal, Christian rock songs.

You can't help but notice that as foolish as they seem, the characters are also heartfelt and devoted Christians. The underlying wisdom they share throughout the show is that you don't have to be a Bible-thumping, holier-than-thou, politically protesting Christian. We've let that narrow, exclusionary vision take over the public image of what being a Christian is all about, when everyone should be welcomed (and invited!) to be a part of God's family. As a member of a minority, I'm biased of course, but my experience with Lutheranism has been primarily about inclusion in a Gospel message of hope and joy. I think this portion of the song "It Doesn't Matter" sums that up pretty well:

It doesn't matter
If you're different and out of place
It doesn't matter
If there's acne upon your face
It doesn't matter
Take my hand and then
You will see
Everybody fits in God's great family.

In the family of God you'll learn
That there is no such thing as others
All the women and men on Earth
Can be your sisters and your brothers.

It doesn't matter
If you're wrinkled and old and grey
It doesn't matter
If you face Mecca when you pray
It doesn't matter
If you're yellow or white or red
It doesn't matter
If you're pregnant and you're unwed
It doesn't matter
Cause the truth it can set you free
Everybody fits in God's great family.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

One year later

It's hard to believe, but I've been the organist at Bethany for about one year now. I honestly don't remember the exact date, but I know it was mid-April. Today is as good a day as any to note the anniversary.

There were numerous musical highlights of the past year, including Advent Vespers, the Service of Healing, and of course Good Friday and Easter. It's been great getting to know members of the church (and choir in particular).

I was trying to estimate what proportion of the ELW we used in the past year. Assuming 70 services and 4 hymns each (both generous assumptions), that's 280 hymns out of approximately 650 in the ELW. Of course, we also sing out of the Bethany hymnal and we repeat some hymns. Chances are that even if you attended every service, you only sang 250 hymns - basically the core repertoire of a traditional Lutheran church.

The year ahead will be a chance to retain that base while adding some variety as well - a new liturgy this summer for starters. Post-Easter is always an exciting time to plan the remainder of the spring and summer and start daydreaming for the fall. Share your favorites and your own list of druthers anytime - that's the only way we know about them!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lutheran Wind Ensemble concert

Clearly, one of my favorite things about being a life-long Lutheran is our rich musical heritage. I'm also a huge supporter of amateur or part-time musicians, who play just for the love of music and the camaraderie of performing together. I think it's so important that lovers of Lutheran music support and encourage each other, so I'm using my blog entry today to let you know about an upcoming concert by the Lutheran Wind Ensemble.

I've never heard the group play, but Tim who played trumpet for us on Easter is a member and that alone is a pretty good endorsement! I'm going to the event, and I'll probably write more about it next week.

In the meantime, here's the concert info for anyone else who might be interested:
Saturday, April 18th, 7:30 PM
St. Paul Lutheran Stage
27981 Detroit Rd
Admission: $3

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Was that as loud as the organ can play?

I heard this question a few times following the Easter services. During such a celebratory service, singing some of the most rousing and beautiful hymns of praise with a full church, I did let the organ pipes roar beyond what I would do on a typical Sunday, of course. In the last verse of the opening hymn ("Jesus Christ is Risen Today"), you heard the organ at approximately 90% of its theoretical full volume.

Why only 90%? Well, first I'll ask you: wasn't it loud enough already? Second, not all pipes on an organ can be played at the same time and sound good together. The salicional and vox humana don't get along well with the flutes and diapasons (to put it in geeky organ language).

Also, our unique mix of pipe organ and electronic keyboard means that I can add in as much volume as the lectern-side speakers will pump out. On Easter, I was using the electronic pipes mostly for the 16 foot and 32 foot pipe sounds - in other words, that low rumble you might have felt in your chest during some of the hymns.

Given the contraints of what sounds good, there's really no need to go beyond 90% capacity of the instrument, and we probably won't hit that mark again until next Easter or at least until Reformation Sunday or Thanksgiving!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Easter!

Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed! I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday, likely eating too much good food with family and friends. We are, as always, a post-Easter people, living joyously in these beautiful spring days.

I want to thank everyone who helped fill Lent, Holy Week, and Easter with such wonderful services: the choir, who sang superbly on some challenging repertoire; Cassie and David, for their beautiful solos on Easter; Tim, who enhanced our Easter worship with his trumpet playing; Linda and the volunteers of the altar guild, who did so much work during and between services; Pastor, ushers, acolytes...and everyone else I may be forgetting. It's amazing how many people put forth their effort to serve our church.

I've heard some positive feedback about this blog lately, and I really appreciate knowing that my readers are connecting with Bethany and our music ministry in particular. Your comments and participation are always welcome.

Since I've been asked recently, the way to add your comment (and read others' comments) on the blog is to click on the word "comment" at the bottom of any given link. But you're also welcome to converse with me or any member of the WAM committee anytime. We won't put too much pressure on you to join the choir, I promise, but we sure do welcome participation and suggestions in any form!

Once again, Happy Easter, and we sure hope to see you all back in church next week. Check back here to find out more about the music we'll be singing!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter prelude

Some organists love to begin Easter Sunday with a bang - a bombastic, praiseful piece of music. That's not me. Don't get me wrong, there will be plenty of joyous, loud music, with trumpet descant and all our voices raised in celebration.

But I believe that the celebration and joy we feel as disciples of Christ on Easter is best experienced in contrast to the sorrow of Good Friday, the confusion of His early followers following the crucifixion, and the quiet faith that sustatined the women who discovered the empty tomb.

My Easter prelude this year will be "Credo in unum Deum" by Samuel Scheidt, a 16th century German composer. It is a chorale setting of the Creed, the centerpiece of worship.

The liturgical mass parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus) make it clear that the Creed is the heart of worship. Musicians throughout the ages have placed it in the center of their mass settings. This is, incidentally, one of my isues with the ELW and its division of the service into Gathering, Word, Meal, and Sending. It omits the explicit mention of the recitation of the tenets of our faith!

How difficult it must have been for the followers of Christ to have faith, in the aftermath of His death and because of their own persecution. We all face challenges to our faith, personally and as a body of Christians (see the recent cover of Newsweek, for just the latest example of the latter). We are an Easter people, though, with confidence in our faith and a bold statement of belief.

So sing your heart out this Sunday on some of our greatest hymns! But use the prelude to consider as well the quiet voice of faith within us that can boldly state "I believe in one God..." Then let the celebration begin!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Faure, Liszt, and Silence

The Good Friday service at Bethany will include a wealth of good music, scriptural readings, and silence. The choir will perform selections from Faure's Requiem. It is a dramatic and challenging choral work that uses the text for the Catholic mass for the dead. I encourage you not to let the Latin text create distance between yourself and the music. Instead, use the beauty and drama of the work to enhance your Good Friday meditation.

I will be playing Liszt's Consolation III on the piano during the worship service. It's a piece that I have played numerous times for Holy Week over the years. To my ears, it conveys not just the heartbreak of the Passion week but also the hope and calm - the "fear not" message of Christ's ministry.

Finally, the service will include a great deal of silence for meditation. There will be no prelude and no postlude because Good Friday is part of the larger worship experience of Holy Week, not an independent service. For musicians, silence is the necessary space that surrounds a piece of music and that gives it shape, definition, and meaning. The moment before a musician plays is universally a time to take a deep breath and prepare. The moment after a piece ends - before any applause or movement begins - that is often the most beautiful and sacred moment of a piece of music.

Music is literally all around us - not just the junk elevator music and the noise from our ipods. Our hearts keep a beat; trees rustle and the wind whistles; trains and traffic and the conversations of passers-by can coalesce into a symphony; our homes and offices are filled with the sounds of furnaces and the hum and clicking of computers. Even when we are alone and quiet, there is a current of music running through our lives. The silence of Good Friday is a needed corrective to get past the "noise" of life to the contemplation of the beauty of the music of our lives and the story of the Passion narrative.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Helmut Walcha

Lest all you American Idol fans think that Scott McIntyre is the only famous blind musician, I want to introduce you to one of the great organists of the 20th century, Helmut Walcha.

Walcha was born in Germany in 1907 and became blind as a teenager due to a smallpox vaccination. Amazingly, he went on to a brilliant career as organist and is known as one of the preeminent interpreters of Bach's organ music.

Bach's music is famously complex, with interwoven voices in the fugues being difficult for any listener to identify. Walcha would listen to each line played independently and then hear the piece performed as a whole. His musical gifts allowed him to learn and memorize the music, and he had a famous gift for organ registration on Baroque instruments across Europe. His accomplishments are enough to make any organist gape in awe.

In addition to his playing career, Walcha composed a number of chorale preludes, one of which I will play on Thursday night. It's easy for us to be complacent when listening to preludes - all the German chorales can start to sound alike to a casual listener. But even if the tune or the style of music don't speak to you, briefly meditate on the amazing accomplishment and trials of this man as well as the incredible suffering and gift of Christ as the Passion narrative continues this week.

Lutheran Blog Directory

Just a quick note that "Music at Bethany" has been added to the Lutheran Blog Directory.

If you're a new visitor, welcome! If you're a regular reader, you may want to use the directory to find other blogs by Lutherans that you might find interesting. For everyone, I always encourage you to join in the discussion with your comments, and consider linking to this blog or becoming a follower.

The Internet is sometimes metaphorically referred to as the Old West. To stretch that metaphor, I think it's important that churches establish a presence, connect with each other, and influence and participate in the community.

Being a Lutheran is about more than what we do on Sunday morning. I hope this blog might be just a small part of extending your faith life and especially your connection with Lutheran music!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Church marketing

Some people get deeply offended at the combination of the words "church" and "marketing." However, as I mentioned in an earlier post, church attendance and membership is shrinking around the country. The only time the Plain Dealer puts a church on its front page is when it's closing. We'll never see the headline "Growing attendance at Bethany's Wednesday Lenten services" even though it's true. Churches sometimes act like the people will simply come through their doors because they always have. We know that isn't true, though; we know intuitively that something must be done to keep from becoming irrelevant.

I always hope that music can help draw people to the church. However, I have occasional doubts since the press also loves to run stories about some business using Bach's music to drive teenagers away. In my family's own experience, children won't approach a house on Halloween if Bach's "Tocatta and Fugue in d minor" is playing loudly on the porch! Whoopi Goldberg scares her students in Sister Act 2 when she announces they will sing in a choir.

What can a church musician do? Some churches switch to contemporary music or even "Christian Rock." The ELW uses inclusive language and world music. My approach is to use the widest possible variety of sounds within the Lutheran tradition, to write this blog as an attempt to communicate and connect with musicians and congregants, and simply to keep asking questions and searching for new ideas. Some days that seems like frustratingly little, but it's worth the struggle for the one person who enjoys a prelude or a new reader who connects with the church and its music differently.

Pastor's sermon on the 9th and 10th commandments pointed out the dangers of marketing, but I'd like to suggest that marketing is simply a tool for sharing information. The product can be of any quality. We might, like John Stuart Mill, distinguish between the higher and lower goods and activities available to us. What a shame if only the lowest quality, least fulfilling things are marketed! Let's pick up the tools and use them for good instead. How will people know about our church if we don't ever spread the word?

On Palm Sunday, Pastor noted that Christ asks us who we say he is. Maybe some of the best "marketing" is simply to follow his example and keep asking that question of the world and those around us. I don't claim to have a brilliant solution to any of the problems churches face, but it is so important that we keep thinking about them and exploring new options. What is our purpose? How will we measure our success? (One of my favorite blogs on this topic is here.)

Have a brilliant idea of how music ministry can help with marketing and outreach? Have a favorite piece of music you want to hear? Leave a comment or send an email anytime!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Stan Hywet's organ

I'm expanding the definition of the phrase "around Cleveland" to include the Akron area. Perhaps that's a stretch for a local and "around Northeast Ohio" would be more appropriate. I'm still learning the geography and language of the area, after all!

At any rate, the Akron Beacon Journal had a nice article about the organ at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens. They're celebrating a major overhaul of the instrument and its return this spring with an upcoming concert.

Pipe organs are rare and expensive instruments. Outside of churches, they are only occasionally found in good working order in theatres or private homes. To maintain those instruments properly requires that they be played and maintained at great cost, so it is important news and a cause for celebration when an organ is restored. Too many of them fall into disrepair and are lost.

There are a number of unique and significant instruments around Cleveland: Trinity Lutheran, Severance Hall, Public Auditorium, the Masonic Auditorium, and now Stan Hywet Hall. I encourage you to go listen to them if you ever get the chance and to enjoy the fact that Bethany has a pipe organ of its own for us to enjoy every week.

Friday, April 3, 2009

All Glory, Laud, and Honor!

It's Palm Sunday this weekend, which means it's time to dust off the great hymn "All Glory, Laud, and Honor" to sing as our opening hymn. I'll be playing a modern, multi-tonal arrangement of it as the postlude as well.

It's one of the great hymns of faith, and the tune has been around for hundred of years. The text, however, is even older - among the oldest in the hymnal. The author Theodulph of Orleans was a French bishop during the time of Charlemagne.

Political accusations and suspicions landed him in prison, and it was from inside a prison cell that he wrote the original Latin text of praise. My favorite verse is the final one, where God is referred to as a great author. It's reminiscent of the Gospel of John, and the symbolism of God as a creator, artist, and author can inspire us to raise our voices in song:

ELW 344, verse 5:

Their praises you accepted;
Accept the prayers we bring,
Great author of all goodness,
O good and gracious King.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A nation of agnostics?

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey came out a few weeks ago. Unsurprisingly, it found fewer religious Americans. People claiming no religion constituted 15% of the sample or an estimated 4.7 million people in the country. Christians declined to 76.7% of the population.

The statistician in me would revel in better data, the ability to drill down within that "no religion" group to find out if they're among the people who consider themselves "spiritual, just not religious." CNN noted that the trend may be partially due to individualism and discomfort with the seeming burden of "Thou shalt not" commandments.

It might also be partly due to the social acceptability of being agnostic or an atheist. I'm told anecdotally that some people in Brazil will answer the question of "Do you have a religion?" with "No, I'm Catholic." Religion can become simply a cultural expectation rather than a deep belief. It seems that every church is struggling with filling the pews and staying relevant.

It's often repeated that weddings, baptisms, and funerals bring people back to the church. For funerals especially, I give partial credit to the music that we want to hear, the comfort and the solace that familiar hymns and songs can provide. Maybe it's "Amazing Grace" or maybe it's "Tears in Heaven" or even "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (for you fans of The Big Chill).

A great hymn of stewardship and ministry is ELW 696, "Jesus Calls Us; o'er the Tumult." We need to hear it for ourselves and spread it to others:

Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world's golden store,
from each idol that would keep us, saying, 'Christian, love me more' (verse 3)

Jesus calls us! By your mercy, Savior, may we hear your call,
Give our hearts to your obedience, serve and love you best of all. (verse 5)