Fanfares and flag-waving: How to be Episcopalian for the 4th of July

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As a liturgist, the Sunday nearest to the fourth of July is always a Sunday of great compromise. As an Episcopal parish, we do not just throw out the readings (AKA “the propers”) for the day: that’s “liturgically illegal” according to the Book of Common Prayer and actually requires permission of “the Diocesan” (a.k.a. the Bishop).

On the other hand, in a country in which we give thanks for our religious freedom, praying in church for our country and its leaders is quite acceptable. Moreover, our hymnal, The Hymnal 1982, contains a small section of “National Songs,” those hymns that we all love and probably learned as school children. In fact, our Book of Common Prayer contains an entire set of proper readings for liturgies if held on the exact day of Independence Day in a given year; these propers never supplant the Sunday propers but are available for use, even as private devotions.

This Sunday (July 5), with our hymns we will attempt to find the middle ground, the via media, as good Episcopalians and Anglicans always try to do. To support the Gospel reading from Mark in which Jesus tells his disciples to “shake off the dust that is on your feet,” the Sequence Hymn is a wonderful contemporary text, “We all are one in mission,” set to that beautiful Finnish folk tune Nyland. And at the end of Communion, we will sing “My country, ’tis of thee.” Framing the liturgy will be two great Protestant favorites, “God of our fathers” (the one with the big trumpet fanfares) and “O God, our help in ages past.”

And as usual, our Prayers of the People at all services will include prayers for our country. At 8:00 a.m., in the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church and the World, we will pray “for those who bear the authority of government in this and every land.” In the 10:30 a.m. service, we will pray “for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world.” And in the 5:30 p.m. Taizé liturgy, we will pray for God “to guide the nations in the ways of justice and of peace.”

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9) and the Sunday nearest to Independence Day: all bases covered.

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Remembering the musicians who have gone before

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Last week was one of the two weeks of continuing education I spend annually away from the parish office. Professional sacred musicians are usually affiliated with hosts of professional organizations, all of which seem to be known by acronyms: AGO, AAM, ACDA, RSCM, OHS, HMA, CG and LPM, just to name a few from my personal list. With time and money short, each year I make choices about which conferences to attend and which ones will benefit my own ministry and work the most.

For decades now, I have attended the annual conference of the Association of Anglican Musicians (AAM), the professional organization for Episcopal and Anglican musicians. Last week’s conference was held in Tampa, Florida, where we spent a week singing (300 sacred musicians functioning as a congregation can really raise the roof) and worshipping at all hours of the day and evening, listening to organ recitals, listening to choral concerts, hearing premiers of new choral and organ works, attending plenary sessions and workshops and regional meetings and, of course, renewing relationships with friends whom we have not seen in a year or more.

Throughout the years, I have been asked to wear a number of AAM hats in service to the organization, for which I am humbled and grateful. This year, however, a unique opportunity came my way when I was asked to serve as a lector in the Closing Eucharist. As a career parish musician who always has to “play for church,” I am delighted whenever asked to do something in the liturgy that is non-musical. I happily ascended to the lectern to read my lesson, which I had specifically “practiced with care” (as Father Andrew would say… see below). It is always best to not flub, especially in front of 300 colleagues.

The Closing Eucharist of each AAM conference is when the officers of the AAM Board are installed and when the names of those AAM members who have died in the previous year are read out in the Prayers of the People. This year’s list sadly included many names of personal friends and mentors, people who I will miss and think of often: Rich Mays (president of Sonare Recordings and assistant musician of St. John’s, Savannah), Lois Fyfe (president of Lois Fyfe Music in Nashville from where I still order lots of music to this day), Paul Reynolds (longtime parish musician of St. Paul’s, Chattanooga), the Reverend John Andrew (longtime rector of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, NYC), Myles Criss (my predecessor as cathedral musician of Grace Cathedral, Topeka, whose psalm settings I still use), Beal Thomas (one of the legacy parish musicians of Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven) and Neil Robinson (longtime organist of St. Mary the Virgin, NYC, and organ improvisateur and professor of the Manhattan School of Music whom I heard improvise at the organ numerous times).

As members of any local parish remember those who have gone before and who built the church  communities in which we live and work, sacred musicians also stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before and from whom we learned and were inspired.

Brahms, Bach, Schumann and the Music of Grief

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Bach and Brahms: composer names that are not often found in the same sentence. Baroque and Romantic, they are not found in the same stylistic periods of music history – 18th and 19th centuries, they are not even found in the same century. And as far as orgelwerke (organ works) go, many would say they are not in the same league. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) left us 350-plus works for the organ, many of which are chorale preludes (pieces based upon German chorale or hymn tunes), while Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote very little organ music and left us with only one set of chorale preludes, his significant Eleven Choral Preludes, Op. 122.

Of the numerous sets of Bach chorale preludes, his planned (but less than half finished) Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), is the volume with which all beginning organ student cut their teeth. Though only 46 pieces were completed, Bach’s originally conceived project was 164 choral preludes covering every liturgical season and feast day of the Christian year. Some believe that he intended these to be used as teaching pieces. Whether true or not, every compositional texture of Bach’s mastery is found in the Orgelbüchlein: hands together on the same manual (organ keyboard) with an integral accompanying pedal part; a solo melody on one manual, with an accompanying figure with the other hand on another manual, also with pedal; a solo melody in the pedal with accompaniment figures in the manuals, either together or separate; and even duet melodies played by either one hand or both feet independently at the same time. These beautiful but short chorale preludes are, indeed, not as simple as many of us initially think they are.

Comparable in size and form to Bach’s Orgelbuchlein, Brahms’ chorale preludes were written in the summer of 1896 after the death of his close friend Clara Schumann (1819-1896), wife of composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Schumann dealt with mental illness most of his life and was hospitalized by his own request near the end. Brahms had great respect for Robert Schumann and for Clara Schumann, herself a fine composer and musician. Many believe that the elder Clara was the great love of Brahms’ life, which is why he poured his grief into composing these chorale preludes the summer after she died. Indeed, most of these preludes are settings of Passiontide and burial choral tunes, which adds to the mystique of the Brahms and Clara Schumann story.

Because they are beautiful and are exemplary in technique and style, I will offer a number of these Bach and Brahms chorale preludes as service music on Sunday, June 21. (I managed to work “Bach and Brahms” into the same sentence and into the same Sunday morning liturgy, did I not?)

Wanted: Music for the mustard seed

Mustard_plantFor years I have joked about “mustard seed anthems.” I have said that contemporary choral composers need to write us a good mustard seed anthem or two, and I have even thought about commissioning a composer to write a mustard seed parable anthem. When Jesus starts off on one of his stories (parables) with “The kingdom of God is like,” the esoteric images usually follow and I get nervous, as often there is not a specific hymn or anthem text to match the story.

The 18th-century carol text “Jesus Christ the apple tree” works with the mustard seed parable, but I suppose that would actually be an apple seed. You see, we still need a mustard seed carol, text, anthem or hymn. If the parables get too involved, we wind up singing a generic hymn of praise or one of the numerous Ave verum corpus anthem settings or the like.

Truth be told, there are two wonderful hymn texts in our hymnal that fit this bill. Dated ca. 110, the Greek text “Father, we thank thee who has planted” (Hymn 302) is actually one of the oldest texts in the book. Using the “seed” and “kingdom” images, the prayer from stanza 2 of this text is poignant: “As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in this broken bread made one, so from all lands thy Church be gathered into thy kingdom by thy Son.” Hits the nail on the head, I’d say.

Moreover, our closing hymn this Sunday speaks specifically to the kingdom of God, and it also conjures up old grad school memories for me. “I love thy kingdom, Lord” (Hymn 524), is a text by Timothy Dwight (1725-1817), president of Yale University from 1795 until his death and for whom Timothy Dwight College at Yale is named. This hymn is sung for Yale College opening convocation each fall, accompanied by the magnificent 197-rank historic Skinner organ in Woolsey Hall. Dwight’s text even includes the seed/planting image in its final stanza: “…to Zion shall be given the brightest glories earth can yield.” This hymn text is a solid affirmation of our love and constant prayer for the Church.

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Rocking the Ages (or, Summer Hymn Singing)

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“Why don’t we sing more of the old favorites?”
“I didn’t know even one of those hymns this morning.”
“I wish we would sing more hymns that I know.”

Getting to know a parish’s hymn repertoire is one of those things that any parish musician worth his/her salt has to do quickly when arriving in a new parish music post. In the 14th year in my present post, I hope that I have learned our hymn repertoire and perhaps managed to teach us a new hymn or three. And when you attempt to plan hymns that relate to the lectionary readings, sometimes we have to work a little harder to sing one that is not so familiar.

Hymns are very personal and emotional with respect to one’s faith experience. We associate hymns with particular moments in life, a particular beloved family member, a favorite church we attended, or a favorite church choir in which we sang. And because the Episcopal Church is comprised mainly of converts like me (sorry, cradle Episcopalians are no longer the majority), trying to identify a parish’s standard hymn repertoire can be touchy.

While most Protestants love the hymn tune Hyfrydol, Episcopalians will call it “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus” while Methodists and Presbyterians call it “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.” Baptists will call it “Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore him” and UCC/Congregationalists will call it “Love divine, all loves excelling.” By the way, Episcopalians will also call it by that title.) And Lutherans sing it to four different texts all out of the very same book. So, good luck.

In the summer we usually try to throw in a few of the old favorites, like “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace” and even “Just As I Am.” (Yes, the one from the Billy Graham Crusades, but we sing it as a Communion hymn.) This summer we will sing The Church’s one foundation; O God, our help in ages past; God of grace and God of glory; The King of love my shepherd is; I come with joy to meet my Lord; Immortal, invisible, God only wise; Jesus shall reign where’er the sun; Be thou my vision and I am the bread of life, just to name a few. Come to church this summer and sing your favorites!

However, I have to admit to a little delight when I plan some of our other parish favorites, tunes such as Westminster Abbey, Abbot’s Leigh, Ton-y-Botel (“Tune in a Bottle” according to its Celtic legend), Rendez a Dieu, Old 113th, Hollingside, St. Flavian, Sicilian Mariners, Rockingham, Stuttgart, and our newly composed parish hymn Walnut Grove. And it seems that we now have so much service music (Gloria, Psalm tones, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Fraction Anthem) in our repertoire that I have trouble keeping us practiced-up on all the choices by changing only seasonally. For a parish musician, these are wonderful problems to have, indeed.

Photo credit: Church pews, Old Brick Church, Mooresville, AL, image by Marjorie Kaufman; from Wikimedia Commons.