The Holy Trinity According to Bach

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A standard joke among seminarians and first-year priests is that the “newbie” is traditionally assigned the sermon on Trinity Sunday, as any attempt to explain the Holy Trinity (“three in one and one in three”) always ends up in a revolving circle.

Musicologists in the organ world have also attempted to correlate Trinitarian symbolism in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach with respect to key signatures, time signatures, and musical forms. Many believe that Bach’s Trinitarian symbolism may be found in the key of E-flat (3 flats), the key of A Major (3 sharps), time signatures of 3/4 and 3/2, and fugues that consist of three distinct sections rather than the standard through-composed fugal form. Alas, very little of this implied symbolism has musicological documentation and is probably a bit of a stretch at best, and we, therefore, wind back up revolving in a circle.

However, of the 350-plus compositions that exist today in Bach’s collected surviving works (and we know there were more that did not survive), some 11 of his organ chorale preludes are settings of Allein Gott in der Höh (All glory be to God on high), that great German hymn in praise of the Holy Trinity. While many are considered miscellaneous chorale settings, three Bach’s Allein Gott settings are found back-to-back in The Leipzig Chorales: two of those are in the key of A Major (3 sharps), and the middle one is a trio in 3/2 time. Trinitarian symbolism? Hmmm.

Our opening voluntary this Trinity Sunday (May 31) is one of these miscellaneous chorale settings with the catalog number BWV 711, which is a rather late number in Bach’s organ works. BWV numbers refer to the cataloging system of all of Bach’s works, the Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Directory of Bach Works). This setting is for two-part manualiter (organ keyboards only, no pedals) and lines out the chorale tune prominently. This great chorale Allein Gott in der Höh is also found as Hymn 421 in The Hymnal 1982.

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What’s in a (Tune) Name…

IMG_9201One of the great Holy Spirit hymns in The Hymnal 1982 is “Come down, O Love divine,” with its tune Down Ampney composed by the English master Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). We sing this hymn most Pentecost Sundays, as the text extols our desire for the Holy Spirit to burn within us. This text is captivating, with its vivid images of verse: freely burning, kindling holy flame, heat consuming, glorious light, path illumining.

The text originated as the poem Discendi amor santo by Italian mystic poet Bianco of Siena (ca. 1350-1399), then appeared in a collection of Italian poetry in 1851, and was subsequently translated and included in the Anglican hymnal The People’s Hymnal (London, 1867) by Richard F. Littledale.

Vaughan Williams composed Down Ampney for The English Hymnal (1906), one of the most important hymnals of the 20th century and for which he served as editor along with the great hymnist Percy Dearmer. The hymn tune was originally attributed to “anonymous” (Vaughan Williams’ own personal joke), but the tune was correctly attributed to Vaughan Williams in 20th-century hymnals that followed. Vaughan Williams enjoyed these playful moments: for the great hymn “For all the saints,” he titled his tune Sine Nomine, Latin for “without a name.”

RVWandCatAs many composers choose hymn tune names that are personal to them or represent an important place, Vaughan Williams named Down Ampney after his birthplace, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England. Likewise, composer William Bradley Roberts named our new parish hymn, “Come, new heav’n, new earth descending” after the street location of this parish, Walnut Grove.

While the final stanza is the culmination of the text, I believe the literary pinnacle is found in the phrases of stanza 2:

O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Photo of Ralph Vaughan Williams from The Telegraph

The Composer Who Listened to Birds

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Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a major French composer of the 20th century. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and his music was greatly influenced by his faith with respect to style, introspection, spirituality and use of chant. He traveled extensively worldwide, and he incorporated everything into his work, from Japanese melodies to birdsong (he was a learned ornithologist), to attempts to capture colors in sound. Beyond the simple musical scale, he used his own conceived “modes of limited transposition,” and experimented with time and rhythm, harmony and serialism.

Messiaen’s organ works, while somewhat unusual to the ear, are completely experiential in that they produce an effect, a setting, a mood or a spiritual cushion upon which worshippers may find exhilaration or pathos or conflict or restfulness. Many of his organ works are specific to liturgical seasons or feast days: The Heavenly Banquet, Vision of the Eternal Church, Hymn to the Holy Sacrament, The Nativity of the Lord, The Glorious Bodies, Mass for Pentecost, Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, just to name a few.

For the Sunday after Ascension Day (May 17), worshippers at the 10:30 a.m. service will hear two movements from Messiaen’s organ suite L’Ascension (“The Ascension”). The opening voluntary is the movement Priére du Christ montant vers son Pére (“Prayer from Christ ascending towards His Father”). Messiaen attached to this movement’s title a quote from Gospel according to St. John: “And now, O Father, I have manifested Thy name unto men… and now, I am no more in the world, but these are in the world and I come to Thee.” This movement uses a slow, expanded melody that rises and rises. And the last chord of the piece sounds completely unfinished and is unresolved, allowing Christ to ascend to the clouds in majesty and glory.

The closing voluntary is the boldest movement of the entire suite: Transports de joie d’une âme devant la glorie du Christ qui est la sienne (“Outburst of joy from a soul before the Glory of Christ which is its own glory”). To this piece Messiaen attaches phrases of scripture from Colossians and Ephesians: “Giving thanks unto The Father which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the Saints in light… has raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The composer simply indicates Full Organ for the registration and Vif (“Quick”) for the tempo marking. Indeed, this is the movement in which the player is commanded by the composer to merely “launch” and not hold back.

Historic recordings of Gaston Litaize (1909-1991), organist of the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Paris, who was blind from infancy and who studied and taught for most of his life at the National Institute for the Blind in Paris:

“Prayer from Christ” from L’Ascension

“Outburst of joy” from L’Ascension

A Joyful Noise!

CongregationAfter a spirit-filled weekend of art, writing, and music in the “Alleluia Be Our Measure” sacred arts festival, we regrouped on Sunday morning for what I like to call “regular church,” which turned out to be anything but regular. Following a Sunday morning adult forum in which our guest clinicians again defined the sacred in a discussion of art, writing and music, we celebrated Choir Appreciation Sunday, the one Sunday each year when our parish says thank you to our choirs for their hard work and dedication this past season.

Upon viewing the photograph above, one of my friends said, “These people appear to be applauding; are you sure they’re REAL Episcopalians?” I jokingly maintain that Choir Sunday is the one Sunday each year when the congregation is allowed to turn around and wave at us in the choir gallery at the rear of the nave. This year there was much more: thunderous applause, an impromptu standing ovation, and yes, waving. One father and his toddler son in his arms even pointed and waved at us.

Our parish choirs (Parish Choir, Motet Choir, Children’s Choir, Taizé Schola, Holy Communion Ringers) reported for duty this choir season for 42 Sundays (morning and evening liturgies), 3 Christmas Eve services, 7 Holy Week and Easter liturgies, 8 Choral Evensongs, a Thanksgiving Day morning service, a Thanksgiving Interfaith evening service, an ordination to the priesthood, a day-long handbell festival, a three-day sacred arts festival, and a collective of 108 Wednesday evening and 60 Sunday evening rehearsals. The dedicated proof is, indeed, in the pudding. Though our choristers and ringers would not report for such duties if they did not love music-making, we are greatly appreciative for the all the pointing and waving and applauding.

However, the truth in the story is that only half of the job is done by those in the choir gallery. The pointing-and-waving-and-applauding people downstairs are the other half of music-making in divine liturgy. Many years ago a beloved professor said to me, “The purest form of liturgical music is congregational song,” something I have always tried to remember, enable and uphold. Our choirs work hard to effectively lead the congregational song, which is a blessed privilege, but the end result must be a combination of choir and congregation.

We love what we do and we are blessed by this sacred task. But we know that we are upstairs in the gallery to enable you to do what you in the nave downstairs. Perhaps one of these Sundays the choirs should point and wave and applaud all of you.

ChildrenChoirSingingParishChoirEdited ChildrenChoirGroup