Walnut Grove: The History of a Hymn (or, “Coming Clean”)

20150423_104552_resized CROPPED EDITED HIGH BRIGHT LOW CONTRASTThis Sunday (Aug. 23) is “that great Episcopal feast day” in our parish known as Rally Day. Indeed, Rally Day is an old term that has probably past its prime; however, we all love Rally Day and its significance to the start-up of our program year. In Episcopal decades of yore, Rally Day was often the first Sunday after Labor Day, when all Episcopalians closed up their beach houses, mountain houses or lake houses and returned home to school and work and church. In this day of school terms beginning earlier in August, our Rally Day has also moved to an earlier date.

Rally Day 2015 at Church of the Holy Communion is a special one, as it is the Sunday when our Bishop of West Tennessee will be with us to formally seat Fr. Sandy Webb as our 6th Rector. The liturgical music for this Sunday will be quite festive, and we will use our newly-composed parish hymn “Come, new heav’n, new earth descending” as the processional hymn. The birth of this beautiful hymn is a great story in itself.

As I do each summer, in June 2014 I attended the Association of Anglican Musicians conference, which was held in Washington, D.C. During the week, the conference attended an Evensong at the historic Christ Church, Alexandria (Va.), the parish church in which George Washington rented a box pew for his family and where Robert E. Lee attended church from age three through adulthood.

For the Evensong, I was seated in a pew at the rear of the nave and beneath the wrap-around balcony; seated behind me happened to be two very good personal friends, Dr. William Bradley Roberts (professor of church music, Virginia Theological Seminary, a.k.a. my longtime friend “Bill”) and the wife of the Bishop of Virginia, also a longtime friend and church music colleague. We rose to sing a glorious new hymn, tune name Christ Church Alexandria and composed by Bill, who is a prolific composer and widely published. When the hymn ended, I turned around and said, “Bill, I want you to write us a parish hymn!” In reply, Bill made fun of my Southern accent (he’s a native Mississippian and has little room to talk), the bishop’s wife snickered at us both, and we quickly sat down as the liturgy continued.

After I returned to Memphis, Fr. Sandy and I began to assemble a committee to plan and design this past spring’s Alleluia Be Our Measure sacred arts festival. We originally had in mind the commissioning of a new choral anthem for this festival. However, when I related the story about how touched I had been by the Christ Church parish hymn, we decided that a hymn was most appropriate for Holy Communion parish in this season of new energy, new growth and new direction.

At this point I should probably mention that Bill was also Fr. Sandy’s liturgy and church music professor in seminary. (Yes, the Episcopal Church world is very, very small.) When Fr. Sandy and I contacted Bill about the hymn project, he suggested to us the writings of Susan Palo Cherwien.  After assembling a list of some 10 hymn texts as finalists, Susan’s text “Come, new heav’n, new earth descending” was the unanimous choice by our committee, in a true God-moment I believe. This text speaks of all things new, has numerous references to visions found in the Revelation to John, and ends with the stanza that begins “Alleluia be our measure,” from which we titled our sacred arts festival. In her presentation at our festival, Susan also pointed out that the first words of each of the five stanzas of her text comprise a sentence: “Come be here now. Alleluia.”

In the end, Bill wrote for us far more than for which we could have asked. He not only wrote the new hymn tune Walnut Grove, but he also wrote a choral stanza for our choir and a hymn concertato setting (organ, brass, timpani) for the festival. Bill also graciously allowed me to suggest the name Walnut Grove, after the beautiful street where our parish is located. We have used the hymn in various occasions in our services, but this Rally Day will be the first time that we have sung the hymn in procession as the entrance rite. I look forward to these verses and voices soaring in praise to God as we enter for worship on this special Sunday.

Above: the illuminated manuscript created by Mel Ahlborn, our third resident artist for Alleluia Be Our Measure, based on Susan Cherwien’s text.

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