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."


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.