From China to Ohio: Singing music by a little-known composer

Beebe-Psalm-1BSome church organists and choir directors throughout the ages have been famous composers as well. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) comes to my mind first. As kantor (choirmaster) of the Thomasschule (St. Thomas Choir School) in Leipzig, Germany, Bach actually served four congregations at once: Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church), Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), Neue Kirche (The New Church) and Peterskirche (St. Peter Church). He trained the choirboys and also wrote a 20-minute cantata each week to be sung in the Sunday morning services.

On the Anglican side of the English Channel, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was a boy chorister of the Chapel Royal and later served as organist and master of the choristers of both Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal. He composed in every genre from English opera (Dido and Aeneas) to theater music (The Fairy Queen) to verse anthems often sung by our own parish choirs.

Throughout the years, even I have attempted to compose a few sacred tunes. My patience always seemed to get the best of me – I’ve always wanted to play or sing music rather than take the time to actually write it – but our modern notation software programs Sibelius and Finale have made the composition process easier and quicker. Indeed, the opus werke of David Perry Ouzts (b. 1962) consists mostly of a few children’s songs from my late teens and, in these later years, a few hymn descants and Psalm tones when the needs arose.

For all the famous church musician composers in history, there are legions of church music composers who perhaps had only a few anthems published along the way. To my best knowledge, the composer of our anthem at the Offertory this Sunday (Sept. 20) is such a composer. Edward J. Beebe’s setting of “Psalm 1” has been in our parish music library for decades, but we don’t know much about Beebe as a composer or a church musician.

Born in 1925 in Yunnan, Kuilungkiang, Edward “Ted” Beebe’s parents Lyle and Mary were Presbyterian missionaries in China. When Ted was two years old, his ordained father returned to Canton, Ohio, and took a church post. Ted graduated from high school in 1943 and was the organist of a United Methodist Church in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, during his high school years. (I was the organist of a United Methodist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, during my high school years myself.)

Beebe was called up for military service in 1944 and was a prisoner in a German Nazi camp in 1944 and 1945, the end of World War II. He returned to the states, went to college, and eventually graduated from the University of Michigan in 1956 with a master of music degree, all the while serving as an organist and choir director in various congregations. He died in his hometown of Canton in 2004 at age 79.

In his life, he published about 10 anthems through two local publishing houses in Ohio. We are singing his setting of Psalm 1 this Sunday because it is the actual Psalm appointed in our Revised Common Lectionary readings for this Sunday. Beebe’s setting is of the King James translation of the Psalm, while in the readings of our own liturgy of the word we will chant the Book of Common Prayer (1979) translation. Both the KJV and the BCP versions are printed in the 10:30 service leaflet this Sunday and are interesting to read and compare.

Was Beebe a prolific composer? Probably not. But his anthem setting that we will sing is a worthy one, I think. His text painting and dramatic choral textures run the gamut from grand to chant-like, loud to soft, complex to simple, and the organ accompaniment is interesting with full organ ensemble sounds echoed by quiet organ solo melodies.

I wish I knew more about Edward Beebe, his life, his career, and his compositions, but I am happy to have the one example of his opus werke to use this Sunday.

Beebe-Psalm-1A

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