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

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


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


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.