Saturday, October 16, 2010

"[The organ] adds a wonderful splendor and a special magnificence to the ceremonies of the Church.  It moves the souls of the faithful by the grandeur and sweetness of its tones.  It gives minds an almost heavenly joy, and it lifts them up powerfully to God and to higher things."  ~Pius XII

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Popes on the pipe organ

A few months ago, The American Organist magazine included some quotes about the pipe organ.  I'll be sharing snippets from those quotes this week.

"Although the proper music of the Church is purely vocal, nevertheless, the accompaniment of an organ is allowed...Since the singing must always have the chief place, the organ and other instruments should merely sustain it and never smother it." ~St. Pius X (1903)

Through its range of pitch, timbre, and sounds, the pipe organ can express a range of moods.  By incorporating well-known hymn tunes, the music can inspire particular words and thoughts for meditation.  But the organ is at its best when joined with a choir and congregation.

Reformation Sunday is approaching, and it is one of my favorite celebratory holidays of the church year.  There will be great hymns and guest brass players and beautiful music.  I want to invite everyone to consider joining the choir for one Sunday only to swell our ranks in singing some of the great hymns of the church.  Give us a try; we sing at both services that day, but you're welcome at either.

I'll be holding a special rehearsal on Sunday, October 17th, after the late service.  We'll spend 20 - 30 minutes introducing the music for Reformation Sunday.  You're also invited to rehearse with us on Wednesday, Oct. 27th at 7:00 pm to help be ready for Reformation.  If you've enjoyed the choir's music this fall, show your support by joining us in this special festival chorus!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sounds of Home

How I love your Temple, Lord Almighty!
How I want to be there!
I long to be in the Lord's Temple.
With my whole being I sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrows have built a nest,
and the swallows have their own home...
How happy are those who live in your Temple,
Always singing praise to you.
Psalm 84: 1 - 4, TEV

The other night, we hosted a dinner party.  It was the perfect excuse not only to clean the house and cook a big meal, but also to get out the Halloween decorations and muse on the subject of the sounds of home.

All day long, I was listening to the sounds of the washing machine and the blender.  I opened and closed the refrigerator and oven a dozen times apiece.  The television provided background noise and company for the day's work.

That evening, with music in the background, the sounds of glasses clinking, silverware clanking, and a chorus of voices were the symphony of friends enjoying an evening together.  Late in the evening, one person remarked, "It sounds just like Thanksgiving."

No single voice or single sound in my memory is particularly joyful in its own right.  (Some people might consider a washing machine to be a particularly non-joyful noise, as a matter of fact.)  But the pleasant blending of domestic sounds conjures home and family, comfort and joy.  Like the sparrows in the nest described in the psalm above, we should celebrate and sing in joy for our own homes and family.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

We're singing another of my all-time favorite hymns this Sunday.  The tune "Lobe Den Herren" is among the most familiar and singable hymn tunes ever composed.  It rolls along like a pleasant folk song, meandering up and down the scale in a lilting triplet rhythm and ending each phrase with a lengthened cadence that gives it a sense of finality and arrival.  It's an absolute pleasure just to hum the tune, and I defy you not to smile when you do.

The text mirrors that joyful praise.  Many people can sing the first verse easily from memory:
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise him, for he is your health and salvation!
Let all who hear now to his temple draw near,
Joining in glad adoration!

Maybe you learned it with a different word or two along the way.  To me, the only proper text is the one sung by the St. Olaf choir in their rousing rendition.  I prefer the last line of the hymn to be "Join me in glad adoration."  The tune is so simple and pure that to me it makes sense for it to be in the first person, a call to join and share in celebration.  The final verse switches to the plural pronoun "we," which reinforces the sense of welcome to a community of believers.

The prelude this week will be an arrangement of the tune by Paul Manz, with the melody in a strong bass line, beneath a faster ritornello in the upper voices.  As with the text and the hymn itself, the entire piece builds to the joyful close:

Let the amen sound from his people again.
Gladly forever adore him!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Life with "Glee"

I know many of my readers are fellow fans of "Glee."  The show's return is one of the highlights of the fall season for me (something to cheer me up despite the cold, gray weather this week).  It's always fun to see the way the show incorporates a range of musical styles to enhance its story.

Like all movies or television programs about music, the show is full of over-produced fantasy numbers.  The recent Britney Spears episode had most of the songs as fantasy sequences, which seems redundant in a show where a glee club sings new hit songs perfectly each week, complete with back-up band, dancers, lights, and costumes.  The show depicts what we all wish we sounded like, the perfect performance that we give in the shower, the sense of joy in community and the ability to express yourself in song.

But the show isn't meant to be a realistic documentary, I know.  To me, it's meant to capture the optimism and pluckiness that can define youth, and that we all need to reclaim during times of trouble and times of joy.  Like a church choir, the characters sing to express themselves in words and tunes.  Each listener hears something different, but I think Jane Lynch (who plays Sue Sylvester) put it best in a recent interview with Larry King:

"Musicians...basically love music, and they understand the power of music.  I think it touches them all very deeply that this is a show that celebrates making a joyful noise."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

I too sing praises with a new song!

We sang one of my favorite hymns today - Earth and All Stars - and the tune has been in my head all day.  The text epitomizes my fall theme, as nature, musical instruments, workers, classrooms, and people all join together in a joyful song of praise of God's "marvelous things."  There's a running joke among the choir that it's a pretty crazy hymn for its mention of boiling test tubes, but the universality of praise from all kinds of quotidian sources is part of what makes the hymn so great to me.

I heard plenty of positive comments about the choir anthem today, and I want to thank the choir again for devoting their considerable talents and time to enhancing our worship.  We've been having a lot of fun with the descants and psalm antiphons every week, and I hope they're adding some sparkle to your Sunday mornings.

I also had a few people ask about the tune of "Blessed Jesus at Thy Word."  They noticed that it seemed just the slightest bit different from what they had grown up with, and they were right!  The Bethany hymnal has the Bach harmonization, which in typical Bach fashion has plenty of added passing tones or what some of us now hear as "extra notes" compared to the LBW version, which often simplified hymns to a quarter note based chorale.  At second service, I played plenty of other versions of the hymn tune - from the simple to the highly ornamented, traditional to dissonant.  I hope the hymn tunes from this Sunday stick with you and brighten your week with hymns of praise.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sound of Language

At first, the people of the whole world
had only one language and used the same words.
Genesis 11:1

The sound of languages has always fascinated me, from the mellifluous tones of French to the guttural sounds of German, from the dark lilting tones of the Scandinavian languages to the musicality of the Chinese tones.  That last example is often cited as a reason that perfect pitch is more common among the population of China (and other Asian cultures that share the language's emphasis on pitch and tone to provide meaning).

When I was in Montreal a couple of years back, I spent Sunday morning walking from church to church to hear the range of language and music in some of the city's most beautiful churches.  I heard the same Bible verses read that day in English, French, and Latin.  My French was nowhere good enough for me to translate, but it was a unique experience to know the gist of the text and enjoy the language as a musical interpretation of it.

I know that a sizable portion of our congregation prefers us to stick to English (and it is part of our church's name, after all).  But I can't help thinking that we're missing out on part of the musical experience if we don't get to hear other languages on occasion.  In some religions, to read a text actually means to sing.  One highlight of a bar mitzvah is the chanting of a Torah verse, and the Koran is often sung as well.  We often do the same when we chant the Psalms.  The challenge of comprehension can be part of the fun when we travel, and it can broaden our minds with a new perspective.  Then the sound of our native language can be a joyful noise when we return home.