Monday, November 29, 2010

Sing in the choir for Christmas!

The choir has a busy season coming up.  We have different pieces to match the theme for each of the three Sundays in Advent.  We have the Vespers service on December 12th, which has a plethora of music - solos, small groups, and choir pieces.  Finally, we have the Christmas Eve service.

All of that music will only sound better if we can add a few new members.  We'd love to have people join us for the next four weeks - all ages and abilities welcome!  It would be a great way to participate in the church and to find time in this busy season to focus on the true meaning of the Christmas season.  Come together with friends and help us Make Joyful Noise in worship.

I would love nothing more than to run out of robes again at Christmas.  However, that is an even bigger challenge now since we've purchased six new robes (thanks to a generous donation from Steve B.).  At the ministry fair in September and in various conversations, people have mentioned to me that Christmas might be a time they would be willing to sing.  I hope you'll follow up those comments with actions.  We rehearse this Wednesday: Bell Choir at 6:45 and Chancel Choir at 7:15.  Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wake, Awake

It's still November; there's still no snow on the ground; I still don't have much of my Christmas shopping done; but Advent will arrive this Sunday.  It's the beginning of a new church year.  This season of expectation and preparation begins with the lighting of the first Advent wreath candle.

Sometimes in our rush to sing Christmas carols and hymns we forget about the great music of Advent, which is a shame.  There is such a variety among them as well, and I'll try to highlight a few of the greatest in the next few weeks.  This first week, I want to mention one of the best known: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  The tune and text are both hundred of years old, but the origin of each is obscure.  The Latin origin of the text and the Gregorian chant tune are perfect for the theme of the first Advent candle: prophecy.  Some people also refer to it as a symbol of hope and expectation.  In this season of darkness, we yearn for the return of the light.  The symbolism of Advent is among the most theatrical of the church year, and the hymn text previews the entire season for us.

The choir will be taking the week off in appreciation of their participation in the Thanksgiving service on Wednesday.  But we will still have special music because David will be playing trumpet throughout the service.  We'll be playing more Baroque music by Telemann for the prelude and postlude.  The Rainbow Ringers will also be playing along with one hymn.  As always, I hope you enjoy the music and that this week it deepens your appreciation for the start of this new season!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Come, Ye Thankful People, Come

This week brings Thanksgiving, and we have a special Wednesday night service for the holiday at 7:00.  Many of us spend time this week cleaning, cooking, shopping, and catching up on schoolwork.  But in the midst of that flurry, it's important to take the time to reflect on our blessings and give thanks.  In the same way we gather with family, we should set aside time to gather as a congregation.  It allows us to express thanks for our church and community and God's blessings in our lives.

We'll be singing all the classic hymns of Thanksgiving and praise, including of course "Now Thank We All Our God."  That hymn tells us to praise God with heart and hands and voices.  Singing is explicitly part of the celebration, and I hope we'll have a full church making joyful noise together.

As a special treat, we have David returning to play trumpet.  A BW alumnus and frequent visitor to Bethany, he's back in town to visit family for the holidays.  He's currently studying trumpet performance at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford.  We'll be playing several Baroque trumpet pieces by Telemann, and he'll also be playing along on many of the hymns and liturgy.

The choir will end the service with one of my favorite choral pieces, a setting of the Nunc Dimittis by Robert Scholz.  The text is sometimes referred to as the Song of Simeon, and it comes from the second chapter of Luke.  When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, Simeon utters these lines:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before all nations,
A light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

The text has a long tradition as part of compline or night prayer, and we'll be singing a particularly lyrical and beautiful setting of the text.  It will provide a quiet and contemplative ending, in contrast to the big hymns of praise.  I hope that we'll all depart into the dark night pondering the many reasons we have to be thankful this week.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Crown Him!

"His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns...He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and His name is the Word of God" ~ Revelation 19:12-13

This week is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar.  The ELCA church in which I was raised paid little heed to this particular celebration, and I wonder how common its celebration is among Lutheran churches.  After all, the festival was instituted by Pope Piux XI in 1925 as a reminder of Christ's dominion.  However, his encyclical wasn't focused on the earthly or even heavenly reign of a monarch.  Instead, his encyclical referred to Christ's reign over our wills, our hearts, and our bodies.

Despite adopting the holiday, we might have forgotten to adopt that broader message.  The hymns we'll sing this week are suffused with language about earthly rule, about kings and thrones and power.  In particular, we'll sing "Crown Him With Many Crowns," which has its own conflicted history.  Six verses of text were written by Matthew Bridges, of the Catholic faith, and six verses were later written by Godfrey Thring, an Anglican who wanted the text to align more properly with Protestant theology.  Don't worry, we won't be singing 12 verses this week, though interestingly, the ELW retains four verses from Bridges but only one from Thring.

I read the text of the hymn in vain for any depiction of Christ's influence on our own daily lives and actions.  It's purely a hymn of praise and bombast.  Then I searched through the other hymns for the week and found exactly the same.  It seems we will gather for a true festival of praise this week, leaving contemplation and application for our prayers.  We might do well to recall in those prayers the intent of Pope Pius to instruct us on Christ's reign over our lives, rather than over our country, world, or heaven.  That might better transition us toward giving thanks for our blessings, preparing for the pentitential season of Advent, and beginning a new church year.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ring Them Bells

The bell choir is re-forming, with our first rehearsal coming up this week Wednesday at 6:45.  All are welcoem and invited to come join us.  It's fun and easy to learn and a great group activity.  In fact, I once heard a member of our church describe bell choir as "the ultimate team sport."  It's quite different from playing in a band or singing in a choir, in which individual players can play or sing their own melodies and harmonies.  Instead, each player has just a few notes, and the melody is passed from player to player.  It takes coordination and teamwork to make beautiful music.

What bell choir does not require is an expensive instrument, a good voice, a strong embouchure, fast fingers, or any of the other skills and talents that you might associate with being a musician.  In other words, it can be a great way to participate in a musical ensemble without requiring lots of practice.

The bell choir will play for our first worship service at the Advent Vespers on December 12th, so we'll be hitting the ground running.  I hope to see you there - and stick around for Chancel Choir to follow!

In the meantime, hum a few measures of Liza's famous number, which is its own Joyful Noise:
Ring them bells, come on, ring them bells
Make 'em sing, you'd better ring them bells
It's such a happy thing to hear 'em ting-a-ling
You gotta swing them, ring them, swing them, ring them bells!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mark your calendars now

The Worship and Music Committee has decided to schedule an Advent Vespers service for the evening of December 12th at 7:00 PM.  We're still hard at work hammering out details, but it will be a night of meditation and prayer, candlelight and beautiful music.  It will mark the return of the bell choir and feature not just the Chancel Choir but a number of soloists and small groups.

It will be a worship service, not a concert, but it will be different from Sunday morning worship.  We will be focused on the symbols of darkness and light, waiting and preparing - all themes of Advent.  I'll be writing more about some of the specific music soon, but I hope you mark your calendar and spread the word.  It should be a beautiful service, and it would be fantastic to share it with a full church!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

O Day Full of Grace

This Sunday will feature some of the greatest hymns in the ELW: "If You But Trust in God to Guide You," "This is My Father's World," and "Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow."  The choir will also be singing a great piece by Mozart titled "To God Be Joyful."  It has the distinctly Mozart-ian sound that makes you sit up straighter in your seat and walk with a bounce in your step.  I hope it conjures images from Amadeus, the costumes and the wigs and the dances, all so much more formal and elegant than everyday life.

 But the song that I know will be my favorite is our opening hymn, "O Day Full of Grace."  Whenever I hear the text, I always hear the St. Olaf Choir singing the incredible arrangement by F. Melius Christiansen.  It's among the best vocal tone painting ever written.  The music beautifully depicts the sunrise.  The text of the first verse describes the day just appearing on earth's horizon, while the second verse takes us from the "gracious midnight hour" through dawn and the rising sun, driving gloom from our hearts.  Later verses continue the swell of activity and joy as the day continues, and it all ends with a nod toward the future and our trip to the eternal promised land.

With the amazingly beautiful fall weather in Ohio lately, it's easy to understand where the inspiration for this hymn came from.  Thanks to the end of Daylight Saving Time, we can drive to church in the early morning sunshine shining through the newly bare trees.  For me, it also brings to mind November deer hunting weekends, sitting in a tree stand as dawn came slowly to the landscape and birds began to sing.  Such beauty slips by us unnoticed so often, but tomorrow we will sing and remind ourselves that we are enjoying a day full of grace.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Glory Bound!

We heard a fantastic range of music for All Saints Sunday.  Mary's vocal prelude ("Angels, Bright and Fair" by Handel) helped create a contemplative mood in memory and honor of departed family and friends.  But the choir's anthem went in a completely different direction.  Rather than mourning our loss, the text of "I'm Glory Bound" focused on the joy of new life for our loved ones, even singing Hallelujah in a piece of music that is still appropriate for such a service of remembrance.

These two musical styles couldn't be more distinct, but they reflect the dichotomy in funeral customs.  It's reflected in the difference between sitting shiva and dancing in a New Orleans jazz funeral parade.  Individuals and cultures all have their own practices and musical styles, and there is room for them all.  We added our own ELCA point of view by singing "I Know That My Redeemer Lives" (all 8 verses) during communion.

Appropriately for this discussion, my grandma sent me a news clipping from the St. Paul Pioneer Press that made me laugh.  I'll share the gist of its story here, which summarized the difference between hymns and praise music:

An old farmer attended church one Sunday and returned home to tell his wife that they had sung praise songs instead of hymns.  "What's the difference?" she asked.  He replied, "If I say to you: 'Martha, the cows are in the corn,' that would be a hymn.  But if I were to say: 'Martha, Martha, Martha, Oh Martha, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, COWS, are in the corn, the corn, the corn, corn, CORN' and then repeat the whole thing two or three times, that would be a praise song."

The next week the woman's young nephew was visiting, attended church, and returned home to report that they sang hymns instead of his usual praise songs.  Once again, the woman asked for the difference.  The boy explained, "If I said: 'Martha, the cows are in the corn,' that would be a regular praise song.  But if I were to say instead:
"Oh Martha, dear Martha,
Hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous inimitable glorious truth..."
and go on like that for about four more verses, and then only sing verses one and four, with a key change and organ interlude in between, that would be a hymn."

I couldn't describe the difference between Glory Bound and our communion hymn any better than that!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Burning the candle at four ends

If anybody sees the second half of October lying around, be sure to let me know.  I think I misplaced it!

The fall season has been flying by, and while I've stayed on top of planning for Christmas and managed to prepare music for every service, the blog fell by the wayside for a bit.  I hope you missed it - maybe even enough to help out with content and comments sometime.

My blog post today refers to something I used to say when I was an undergrad.  My grandma would warn me against buring the candle at both ends, and I would reply that I had cut the candle in half so that I could burn it at four ends.  Of course, that was right before I was diagnosed with mono...but that's another story.

This is a busy time of year for everyone.  We've celebrated Halloween and Reformation.  We try to savor the nice days by getting outside - though too often lately it's to rake leaves or prepare for winter.  We're planning ahead for the holidays and trying to finish up school projects before the deadlines loom too close.  But rather than abandon the quiet moments of reflection (like blogging), it's important to reclaim that time for ourselves.  The burning of a candle is not the raging inferno of a wildfire; it connotes calmness and quiet.  For me, that means finding more time to listen to and create music and church music and sharing thoughts on both.  What will you do to help find calm this season?