Saturday, May 30, 2009

Happy Pentecost!

Remember to wear red this Sunday in honor of the holiday. It's Pentecost or Holy Spirit Sunday, and all of the service music will reflect that theme. The tunes of the prelude, postlude, and offertory will all invoke "Come, Holy Spirit." Hopefully they aid in your reflection this Sunday.

It's also the final Sunday of the regular choir and bell choir season. The bell choir will play the first prelude. I think the sound of bells is perfect to symbolize the Holy Spirit because the ringing has an inherently ethereal quality. Of course, it also helps that they play from the back of the church so the sound emanates from behind the congregation and reverberates through the sanctuary.

Pentecost marks a time of change in more ways than the end of the choir season. Our new summer services will begin - on both Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. We'll have new liturgical settings to learn and sing. A different sound, a different time, and the ongoing theme of the Creed - I hope all of these things intrigue and involve you in active participation at Bethany beyond this festival weekend.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Andre Gide weighs in on Memorial Day

Pastor Ferro left an insightful comment on an earlier entry, sharing a fact that I didn't know about the text of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. All my life, I have proudly sung "let us live to make men free" in verse 3, thinking that Julia Ward Howe was a genius and feeling inspired to go be a better person. It borders on disappointment to know that isn't the original text!

In our comfortable daily lives, we are rarely in physical danger. Not too many of us risk our lives for our freedoms (any of our many freedoms - religious freedom being just one of the many we enjoy). I wonder if that's part of the reason the LBW changed the text. In our society, our biggest challenge can be living the Christian life in the face of daily temptations, including the temptation to hide our light under a bushel basket.

Andre Gide wrote one of my favorite lines on this topic in his novel The Immoralist. "To free oneself is nothing. The truly arduous task is to know what to do with that freedom." Taking up a cross, in other words, can mean more than physical harm or death. When the battles are over, the workers, the inventors, the artists, and even the bureaucrats have their own work to do and their own sacrifices to make.

John Adams wrote, "I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy." On Memorial Day, we do remember the many heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice. I think we also honor them every other day of the year by the way we study and live.

So which text is better? Which one better captures the spirit of Memorial Day? As always, I encourage you to share your thoughts by leaving a comment!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Amo linguam Latinam

That would translate "I love the Latin language." Pentecost is approaching, and it is the Sunday that churches most often consider or celebrate the polyglot world we live in. I've been to churches where the Gospel lesson is read in multiple languages. The main lesson I've taken away from this: it's generally boring to hear people speak in a language you can't understand, much less three or four languages you can't understand.

That's why I do understand when people ask things like, "Why does the choir have to sing all this Latin?!" It can be frustrating, boring, even meaningless to sing or hear music that you can't understand. But as a musician, I still think it's vitally important that we do hear some pieces in foreign languages (primarily Latin), for a few reasons:

First, music is different from speech. We can intuit the meaning of a piece of music from the melody, harmony, and structure as well as the text. The best music enhances and transcends the text.

Second, some of the best choral literature is in Latin, and translation is a task that ranges from extremely difficult to impossible. Even if a brilliant translator can line up the syllable count and create poetry in English based on the original text, it still won't line up properly so that the musical imagery and climaxes occur at the appropriate points in the text. If we want to sing the best music of the past millenium, we're going to need to sing in a foreign language now and then.

Third, Latin in particular was the language of the church for hundreds and hundreds of years. Martin Luther was certainly fluent in it, and any serious student of theology spends several semesters learning ancient languages. That's one reason that the Bethel buttons say "Think Hebrew." We don't need to be fluent, but language does affect the way we think. Knowing just a few words can unlock the meaning of a text. (What a great reason to sign up for Bethel Bible study.)

I know, I know, learning Latin (or Greek or Hebrew or Chinese or even Spanish) isn't fun or cool. It isn't easy. But keeping an open mind and spending a little effort can yield huge dividends. After all, many English words are built on Latin roots. I don't expect any congregation to become fluent, but wouldn't it be great if over the course of several years we could all learn the ordinary parts of the service - the kyrie, gloria, credo, sanctus, and agnus. Just five pieces of text. This summer our services will be built around the text of the creed, and you can expect an occasional snippet of Latin here on the blog. Just enough to aid our understanding of the text and the music. I hope that with an open mind you can find it interesting, even inspiring, and that it will only enrich your relationship with church music.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom - part 5

In honor of Memorial Day, Sunday's closing hymn was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which is always a popular and rousing song because people are so familiar with it. I noticed, however, that the editors of the ELW demonstrated their reserve of the militaristic theme by retitling it "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory." The very presence of the hymn in the ELW is an example of unorthodox wisdom, since the song was first popular during the Civil War as a pro-Union anthem.

However, the militaristic nature of this hymn derives largely from the marching music to which the poetry is set. If you sit down and read Julia Ward Howe's poem, you'll see that the text refers to war primarily through symbolism. It's a rich text of imagery that includes tender moments like the opening of verse three: "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea; with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me." Set that text to a lullaby and nobody would consider it in any way militaristic!

Verse three continues with my favorite line in the hymn: "As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free." Here, the richness of the tune and text combine to allow multiple levels of meaning. As American heroes died in war, as Christ died to save us, and as early Christian martyrs died for their faith - in recognition of all those sacrifices, let us live our lives thankfully and joyfully, working to make the world a better, more loving, more Christian place. All of that meaning in such a short line of text!

That particular line of text also sent me to my boxed DVD set of The West Wing to rewatch the episode "Isaac and Ishmael." In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the show devoted one episode to a forum for discussing politics, religion, and war. In response to a student's question about martyrs, the fictional President Bartlet replied, "We don't need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he'd much rather live for it." It reminds me of another famous text that "they'll know we're Christians by the way we live." It's a sentiment I think most of us can agree with, and I think it's a sentimenet we all struggle to implement daily.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

John Wesley's Directions for Singing Hymns

John Wesley (1703 - 1791) is known to us as the founder of Methodism, but he exerted influence on all Christians through his hymn collections. He was not a prolific composer himself, and his brother Charles is more well known for writing original texts. Nonetheless, he helped shape congregational singing through his hymn translations and by editing and publishing of a number of hymnals.

His activities helped promote congregational singing as a vital part of a worship service. His old hymnals are fantastic to flip through for the variety and specificity of the hymns. Rather than headings like Easter, Lent, or Christmas, his hymnals have general sections titled Rejoicing, Praying, Watching, Suffering, and Working. There are also specific items, though, as "Graces before and after Meat," "Laying the Foundations of a Chapel," and "Exhorting Sinners to Return to God." Finally, there are century-specific headings like "For the King" and "Going on Shipboard." There's a hymn for every occasion and purpose, and families and congregations were expected to know and sing them!

This month's back page of The American Organist (published by the American Guild of Organists) included some of his singing directions for a congregation. I want to share three of his points, because they're still relevant advice for us today:

1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

2. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

3. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.

So Mr. Wesley tell us to sing everything, sing it strong, and sing it spiritually. Let's hear that advice in practice on Pentecost!

Friday, May 22, 2009

St. Olaf Sunday - Part 2

This Sunday's prelude will kick off the St. Olaf theme in a big way for anyone familiar with the choir's classic repertoire. I'll be playing "O Day Full of Grace," trying my hardest to replicate the sound and phrasing of 80 voices.

On Sunday morning, I encourage you to open your hymnals to ELW 627 to follow along. The verses are 1, then the alternate versions of 2 and 3 on the facing page, and ending with verse 5, and the arrangement provides a beautiful tone painting of that text.

The first two verses are an extended sunrise - the perfect music for a beautiful spring morning. The first verse starts in the bass voice and grows to the soprano entrance with the familiar tune, which grows to a mini-climax. It grows in both pitch and intensity out of the opening mist to the line "Children of earth in every clime may prove that the night is ended."

The second verse continues with a hushed, reverent tone. A four-part men's chorus reminds us of Christ's birth at a figurative midnight. Half-way through the verse, the women join in, providing the rays of sunshine that lead to the climax: "Then rose o'er the world that sun divine, which gloom from our hearts hath driven."

That leads to the boisterous celebration of nature in verse three. "Every tree and leaflet" sings praise to God. The melody is transferred to the men/pedal line, and the higher voices provide the glittering excitement. This is the most frantic verse, as the text depicts the soul bubbling over with joy.

Finally, the chorus of heaven takes over and the closing verse describes our final journey where we join in an endless song of praise and enjoy perpetual sunlight. The hymn has a big finish, and I will always be able to picture Dr. Anton Armstrong conducting the piece as he asked for even more intensity in the closing measures. This is a hymn of rebirth, a new day, joy, praise, and love. I hope you enjoy it and all of the mini-St. Olaf festival this weekend!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

St. Olaf Sunday - Part 1

As far as I know, I'm the only Ole at Bethany (though certainly not the only one in Cleveland, since Jayce Ogren with the Cleveland Orchestra was one of my classmates). This Sunday, though, we'll be celebrating the choral and musical influence of the St. Olaf Choir with our music.

Our opening hymn is ELW 377 "Alleluia! Jesus is Risen." The tune was composed by David Johnson, one time chair of the St. Olaf music department. (You might link the tune more directly with the text "Earth and All Stars," which is said to be a depiction of the whole campus and its activities in praise of God.)

Johnson was a prolific composer, and I often use his hymn arrangements as alternative harmonies. My accompaniment for the hymn "Son of God, Eternal Savior" will include a descant from one of his collections.

We'll also be singing "Beautiful Savior," which the St. Olaf Choir famously performs as its encore piece at Christmas Festival every year. Having sung in that event all four of my years, I never cease to be moved by the beauty of the hymn. Musically, it is a total contrast to the opening hymn - not showy and flashy musicianship, but a simple chorale and confident statement of faith. Textually, however, the hymns share much in common. Just one example is the way that nature is used as a metaphor to praise God.

I particularly appreciate the contrast between these two hymns of praise. Sometimes our praise is celebratory, youthful, and energetic. Sometimes our praise is quietly confident. But in both, we raise our voices together in beautiful music of faith.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Public Radio Part 2 - Funeral music

You might not think that the NPR show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" would spark a blog entry about church music, but you'd be wrong. One of the reasons I love the show is that its witty humor encompasses not only the main headlines from the news, but also the quirky stories from around the world. For instance, this week included news of the outrage that greeted a British crematorium that is replacing their organist with a karaoke machine. (You can read the Telegraph's article about it here.)

I suppose there are some benefits to prerecorded music. With 24 hours notice, you can have almost any piece played in almost any key - from ancient hymns to modern songs of any kind - without worrying about whether the musicians are sight reading something they've never heard before. You can control the volume, and you certainly never have to worry about wrong notes.

But there are downsides too. The music can be tinny and the arrangements weak. The vocal tracks can be almost unbearably bad, and if someone does try to sing along karaoke style we all know what a nightmare that can become. Plus, you lose any personal touches and the ability to lengthen the musical interlude of a communion service running a minute longer than the selected hymn.

The bottom line, though, is that a funeral should celebrate the life of the deceased, the family, and the congregation (in that order). People turn to the great hymns of faith because not only because they are great texts set to great music, but also because they represent the familiar and comforting tunes we have sung for generations and throughout our own lives. This past Saturday, members of Bethany gathered with friends and family to remember and celebrate our friend Harry's life in words and music, especially his favorite hymn "A Mighty Fortress." It was so fitting that a man of such faith should have such a strong association with a favorite hymn.

Whether they get sung, played on the organ, or piped through a sound system, ask yourself what hymns means the most to you. The hymnal, like the Bible, can express the joy of a beautiful day, the sorrow and the hope inherent in a funeral, and the celebration of a wedding. With that song list, who needs a karaoke machine if you have a good Lutheran organist?!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Milestones and movies

First the milestone: this past week, our little "Music at Bethany" blog had 50 unique visitors for the first time. I hope that all you readers are enjoying what you find here, that you're learning a bit more about Lutheran church music, and that you visit often in the future. You can help us continue to grow by becoming a follower, linking to us at your own blog, Facebook, or Myspace page and in general just helping spread the word. Also, join in the conversation anytime with email or comments (online or in person)!

Now for the movies: I've been at the movie theatre more than is typical for me lately, having seen both Star Trek and Angels & Demons. This isn't meant to be a review, but I did enjoy them both. They're what you expect in a summer blockbuster - fast-paced fun, adventure, etc.

I was just reminded again how much the soundtracks of summer movies rely on big Carl Orff-style vocals to underscore their most dramatic turning points. There's no particular reason that a big choir should signal the major fight scenes of Star Wars or the infinity of space in Star Trek, although I suppose Angels & Demons has a better claim for relying on such "church music" since it is set in Vatican City. However, I think that these movies are relying on our collective cultural heritage of meaning and emotion that stems from the hymns we hear and sing.

Open your ears if you're at the movie theatre this summer. See if you don't hear some "hymns" in the background. If you think of other great examples, leave a comment. I'm always curious to hear where other people hear the influence of church music outside of the santuary on Sunday mornings.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


The musical highlight of the marathon today was hearing Aretha Franklin's signature song played on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's sound system as we ran by. It was a beautiful day for a run, cool and sunny, and despite a lack of training this spring I still managed to finish in 4:35. It's certainly not a personal best, but I'm not complaining. It was a fun day.

One of the things I often notice when I travel around Cleveland is the proliferation of churches. I wonder how we stack up on a per capita basis (and how our city compared when the population was larger). There does seem to be a higher concentration than other cities I've lived in, but of course we know some of the struggles that has entailed.

I also noticed, though, that I never passed a church that appeared crowded and none of them had people outside cheering on the runners. It's such a contrast to the churches that line Summit Avenue in St. Paul during the Twin Cities Marathon - several of their choirs sing hymns and the congregations have a picnic to support the runners. Bethany isn't on the route, of course, so we can't really implement such an idea ourselves. But I'm reminded that we all generally need to continue to seek ways of engagement from our music ministry and our church in general.

Friday, May 15, 2009

This Sunday...running around Cleveland

Usually around this point in the week I write about the service music and hymns that will be coming up this Sunday. Of course, this week's services will include some great music, including a perpetual favorite from the hymnal: "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee." This week, however, it will be Cassie at the organ bench.

I will be spending my Sunday morning running the Cleveland marathon. I've run quite a few marathons now (the picture is from the Twin Cities Marathon a few years back), but it will be my first time running this particular race. Last year, I ran the half, and I'm looking forward to seeing even more of the city on the longer route.

Among the common questions I get when I tell people I'm going to run is how I keep my mind occupied for the approximately four hours it will take to complete the course. Racers are officially no longer permitted to wear headphones, but to a certain extent it still is music that gets me through the race. There will be tunes played by the race organizers as well as spectators along the route, and I often think of inspirational songs to keep me moving. (Linda Eder's version of "Man of La Mancha" alone will get me through two or three weak spots.)

The crowd is the other factor that makes a big race so much more exciting than just a typical weekend long run. There are always people with shirts proclaiming runners' favorite Bible verse, from Isaiah 40:31, "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength...they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

I'll miss you all this Sunday (perhaps offer a quick prayer for me and all the other crazy runners if you remember), and I'll see you next week!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Because God first loved us

It's been a busy week of final exams for me, so I'm just now sitting down to write a few thoughts about worship this past Sunday. It was a great week for the role of music in worship.

For one thing, I hope that the reading from 1 John conjures up memories of Sunday school or VBS for almost everyone. It's my fervent hope that all Lutheran kids should be able to sing and clap along to this simple song:

We love (clap, clap) because God first loved us.
We love (clap, clap) because God first loved us.
We love (clap, clap) We love (clap, clap) We love!
Because God first (clap) loved (clap) us! (clap, clap)

Not exactly the most profound text, is it? I'm not arguing that it should be in the ELW (in fact, such a tragic event should constitute every church musician's nightmare), but it's perfect for introducing a key tenet of our faith as well as a Bible verse to our youngest members in a fun, catchy tune that they will enjoy. It's the kind of "earworm" music that you might still be able to recall and smile about years later.

For the adults in the congregation, there were other musical lessons on Sunday: "Christ is alive, let Christians sing!" Pastor read portions of the text of that hymn during his sermon to draw our attention to it. I think the opening line alone is an important lesson!
Different music can stir our souls and teach us lessons at any age. It's one reason why we hear and sing different music in different styles each week - our faith and our music should reach everyone.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom - Part 4

It's season finale time for the television networks. One of the shows I watch regularly is "House," whose main character is about as hostile to Christianity (and any organized religion) as any character in television history. Hugh Laurie's character is acerbic and sarcastic - a deeply flawed genius. For all his flaws, I can identify at least two traits that we'd all be better off for emulating.

First, Dr. House is on a perpetual quest for understanding and knowledge. He is the ultimate skeptic philosopher. Along with Plato and Montaigne, he believes strongly in examining our lives and motives, thinking about history and science, and discovering truth. Sometimes the greatest doubters and nonbelievers eventually find their way to fervent belief through ongoing exposure to the questions in their lives. We should tackle scripture and belief ourselves with such energy and passion. We may even learn to convince others when they see our rigor.

Second, Dr. House solves cases because he has so much experience and wisdom, garnered from years of questioning and learning. In the season finale, he can diagnose pancreatic cancer from basically a bad case of the hiccups. What this exemplifies for me is the way that a broad education can bring meaning to the most mundane items. From a musical perspective, if you understand what the term "fugue" means, you hear a piece of music in an entirely different way.

Thinking about this point drove me to my bookshelf for Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music. His preface states that his goal is to allow you to answer two questions about music: 1. Are you missing anything as far as the notes...? 2. Is your reaction...quite clarified? It takes him nearly 300 pages to answer those two questions. We need a lifetime of knowledge and experience to understand great things - like music, like church, like God's love.

So House represents one more reminder that music does require some work, some knowledge, some discussion. But like House's moments of realization in so many episodes, we also need to be open to the possibilities and the magic that is beyond knowledge. Seeking plus knowledge plus listening equals epiphany.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Happy Mothers' Day

Yesterday I posted a short biography of Clara Schumann, but she isn't the only special music that I'll be playing in honor of Mothers' Day. The Meditative Prelude will be "In Memoriam" by Rosalie Bonighton, a contemporary Australian composer and organist. I'd like to dedicate it to the mothers, grandmothers, and generations of women whom we honor in our memory this weekend.

We'll be singing the hymn "For All the Faithful Women," which reminds us that the Bible isn't just about patriarchs. There are important women in the Old and New Testaments - Ruth and Naomi, Esther, Eve, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and on and on.

I will also be playing a piano arrangement of "Let Us Break Bread Together" during communion. It's one of my mother's favorite hymns. (In fact, you may recall that I played it to fill some extra time at one of the Christmas services when she was here. It's an inside joke that I know I can share with her from the organ bench.)

I know it always makes my mom smile to hear it, so even though she won't be in town this weekend I'll think of her and play it for the mothers who are in the congregation. (Incidentally, I realized yesterday when talking to Cassie that this will be her first Mothers' Day as a new mom, so be sure to wish her a happy day.)

Happy Mothers' Day, everyone.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Clara Schumann

This Sunday's prelude will be "Prelude and fugue in g minor" by Clara Schumann. On Mothers' Day, I feel it's only appropriate to ensure representation by women composers, and Clara Schumann is one of the most remarkable women ever to compose for the keyboard.

She was married to the composer Robert Schumann, but Clara was the primary breadwinner and performer in the family. She was born in 1819, and was already touring Europe at age 11. She was a respected virtuoso performer all her life, with her final concert at the age of 72. Her husband's career, in fact, was greatly aided by her support, and other Romantic composers sought her advice and collaboration - including a deep friendship with Brahms.

In addition to her musical career, as a 19th century woman she was certainly expected to run the household and care for her children, all seven of them. She later took on the responsibility of raising several of her grandchildren as well.

Clara Schumann's music is not performed anywhere near as regularly as it should be. There are a few possible reasons. First, she stopped composing at a young age to focus on performing, teaching, and her family. Second, she composed in a style that was not in fashion at the time, sounding more like the classical music of the 18th century than the new Romantic style of her own era. Third, her distaste for much Romantic music led to hostility with Liszt, Wagner, and Bruckner. Fighting with the major composers of her own generation could not have helped her own reputation.

If you just listen casually to the prelude, you might not notice anything too different this Sunday - just another classical organ composition, a lyrical prelude and a fast-paced 3 voice fugue. But its worth knowing a bit about the life of Clara Schumann, an amazing role model and a great composer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

We are descended from a long, strong line of women

I'm an unabashed fan of theatre, especially musicals. There is so much raw power available to the universe of the stage, and the best songs and characters can speak directly to your soul through music. Some performances of plays and musicals through the years linger powerfully in my memory.

Among my recent favorites was closing night of the musical Dessa Rose, from the exceedingly talented Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. I was lucky enough to be in the audience for their last performance, with the composers and other Broadway stars scattered throughout the audience. It was as close as I'll probably ever come to attending the Tony Awards, and one of the most powerful shows I've ever seen.

The musical is the story of two women, Ruth and Dessa Rose, who develop an incredibly strong but unlikely friendship during the Civil War. Ruth (Rachel York) is an abandoned wife and plantation owner, while Dessa Rose (LaChanze) is a slave. The show's concept is that these two women are nearing the end of their lives and are sharing the story of their youth with their own children. It's an oral family history set to music. They pass on the lessons of their struggles in the songs they sing. One of them prefaces her story by saying, "I hope you never will forget...we have paid for our children's place in this world; we have paid again and again."

It's Mothers' Day this Sunday, of course, a perfect chance to reflect on the strong women in our own lives and throughout the ages - from Eve to Mary Magdalene to Jane Austen to Susan B. Anthony to Sandra Day O'Connor to our own mothers. The words of the opening song from Dessa Rose remind us of the importance of history and our place in it:

We are descended
From a long, strong line of women.
And we are handing you down the story
Listen, child, to the story
Soon be yours to tell.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In praise of NPR - Part 1

Growing up near Lake Wobegon, I think it was inevitable that I became an avid fan of all public radio - NPR, MPR (now American Public Media), CBC, and BBC. One of my favorite things about my old early morning paper route was hearing Alistair Cooke's "Letter from America" at 6 am every day. Today, I download 10 weekly programs to my ipod and read Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" almost every day. (I should also put in a plug for our local station WCPN for all their excellent work as well.)

I've built up a list of topics and shows from NPR that I want to share on the blog, so I've decided to start another mini-series for the next few weeks - in addition to such other ongoing topics as Unorthodox Wisdom and the Church Tour. Today I simply want to direct my readers to the joy of a daily poem from Garrison Keillor available at the "Writer's Almanac" website. Reading it will never substitute for hearing his distinctive voice and cadence. After all, poetry should be listened just as psalms should be sung! But I encourage you to check it out regularly. Meanwhile I'll share the poem "Music" by Anne Porter from May 1, 2009, because it captures the spirit and power of music and the primal religion it represents.

When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother's piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I've never understood
Why this is so

But there's an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secrret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Church tour - the front entrance

I adore the beauty and symbolism of church architecture, from the grand sweep of a Gothic nave to the minutiae of intricate stained glass. Art and architecture serve the same goals as music in a church: to direct congregants toward God's glory, to proclaim the Gospel story in another form.

Not many of our members use the front door at Bethany, quite simply because it doesn't face the parking lot. Like many homes today, the front door hardly gets used. It's too inconvenient or too formal or just no longer makes practical sense (for our church the new addition of a welcoming room makes the side entrance imminently practical). For these reasons, as well as for anyone who might struggle with the stairs at our main entrance or for anyone trying to stay out of the elements, it only makes sense to use the side entrance.

However, if you've never used the front door to the church, you've missed an important symbolic element of the architecture. When you enter the front door, you enter a transitional space from the everyday to the sacred. The staircase symbolizes physically the mental and emotional change that should take place when we enter the sanctuary.

If it's a sunny day this Sunday, come in the front door for a change and notice the contrast with the darker space inside. Look up and glimpse the stained glass window and the altar. Allow yourself a physical prelude to accompany the musical prelude. Use both the music and the architecture to prepare for worship, rising up out of your everyday concerns to commune with God.

Coffee and friends will still be in the welcoming room between services!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Wedding season and hymns

May and June are going to be busy months at Bethany for weddings, which means a busy few weeks for me. By the time you consider all of the prelude and postlude music, most weddings involve almost as much organ music as a month of Sunday services.

This weekend's wedding featured two things I found notable. First, there was a congregational hymn. Too many weddings have shied away from direct musical participation, but I think it's a vital part of the service. A wedding congregation is not an audience; they are still part of a worship service as well as witnesses to the marriage ceremony. They make a promise to support the couple and welcome them into the community. A congregational hymn can express that collective attitude musically.

Second, Pastor Uhle's sermon referred not only to the Gospel text but also to the text of a hymn. He made explicit reference to the hymn "Abide with us, Our Savior," as it related to the readings and to his message for the couple. For me, that direct quotation of a 16th century hymn demonstrated to what degree our faith reveres our musical heritage as a source of knowledge and inspiration.

When so much wedding music is either "background music" or a familiar tune chosen from a perennial list of a few favorites, it was great to have these two examples of music serving a higher function in today's wedding service.