Friday, January 29, 2010

Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty

The opening hymn this weekend is providing the inspiration for much of the service music. I was rereading the text of the hymn "Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty," confident in my memory of a simple and straightforward hymn, just a joyous gathering tune and text. And that certainly is the overall mood of the hymn.

The middle of the first verse, however, caught my attention with these words, "...where my soul in joyful duty waits for God who answers prayer." The concept of "joyful duty" doesn't pervade the zeitgeist of modern America. Our psyches and daily actions are more geared toward "the pursuit of happiness." But it has long been my belief that the Christian faith is, at its heart, about joy in all things, even foreign ideas to us like "duty."

Suddenly the hymn took on more depth as I continued my reading. The final verse begins, "Speak, O God, and I will hear thee, let thy will be done indeed." Coming together at worship on Sunday is about duty and joy, praise and service, and all those ideas should be ever-present in our prayers.

Both the meditative prelude and the postlude will be arrangements of this hymn tune, the former by Jan Bender and the latter by Paul Manz, both well-known modern organ composers. I hope the music helps you hear the tune in a new way and that you pay special attention to the text when we sing it so that the music helps guide your prayer and worship.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In praise of church music

I came across this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and I thought it would be perfect to share here:

"The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy."

To put the same idea in my own vernacular version, I'd paraphrase the musical "Nine": What good is church without le singing? (And that idea is even more fun if you can hear Judi Dench singing it in your head.)

So is it true that music is greater than any other art when it comes to religious value? Can we even measure the value of Michelangelo's Pieta against Mozart's Requiem? Or perhaps the value simply in the weekly direct participation of the congregation in music.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Understanding Bach

One of the comments from last week's Bach debate was basically that his music is too difficult. Not everyone can hear what's going on in his complicated fugues. The hymn tune can get lost in ornamentation, and it's generally a new sound for most people.

I'd like to draw an analogy to visual art in our churches. There are church traditions that have vehemently rejected all forms of idols, icons, and representation, largely the American Puritans and their spiritual descendents, along with the Mormon church. The difference between a Methodist or UCC church is visually obvious, when compared to the more "symbolically oriented" churches, the Orthodox, Catholic, and (to some extent) Lutheran churches.

I've had debates with people who say that all artistic representations, even the stained glass windows at Bethany, are inappropriate idolatry. Now, I won't dispute the fact that some of the churches I have mentioned do venerate relics and idols to a questionable degree, but I'd like to offer a different point of view. The great cathedrals of Europe were built at a time when the masses were illiterate, and the art and architecture of a church were meant to help explain the Biblical stories symbolically. The scenes depicted in our windows are similarly there as reminders to guide our prayer. We may not notice them every week. We may not ever examine them closely, but if at any time you choose to take a closer look, you will find that they point you toward the Bible.

Similarly, the great classical music (and in particular much of the music of Bach) is another way to point toward the stories, the text, the Bible. It's a very Lutheran concept to use music and the visual arts to point toward Scripture. We may not always hear every detail or "understand" every aspect of the music, but it is worthy music that holds up to scrutiny at many levels. It's pleasant to hear, and it enlightens and enlivens prayer and meditation.

Do you have a favorite example of music or art aiding your spiritual journey? For members of Bethany, when did you last notice the windows - any favorites? I hope this blog is helping people connect more directly with the music you hear each week so that you're always able to continue growing both musically and spiritually.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The classical-country divide

My entry about Bach last week drew a few comments that might be called evidence of a cultural divide. To be very broad, I'd suggest that most people fall into one of three classifications: There are people who love classical music and look down on country music. There are people who love country music and dismiss classical music as elitist. And there are people who are eclectic and love a variety of music, including some classical and some country. Of course, country and classical are chosen here simply as examplars from two broader categories (plus they have a nice alliterative quality, don't you think?).

Reality or talent shows sometimes play on this division. The finale of the most recent season of "America's Got Talent" featured an opera singer and a country singer. I didn't hear either of them sing, but I predicted the winner. Always bet on country music in a popularity contest!

Of course, there is beauty in simple melodies, folk music, gospel, jazz, country, bluegrass. Most of the American innovations in music have bubbled up from the people as popular expressions of music, rather than the European tradition of court music. We do want to include that sound in church. One difficulty from my point of view is that it often isn't appropriate for congregational singing or isn't written with a text that lines up with Lutheran theology. And so, as members of my congregation know, I play a variety of music but the majority stems from classical sources, and much of our hymnal reflects centuries of European musicians. I don't think I've played any Amy Grant. Since her music came up in the comments last week, I'll have to search out something as an offertory or communion piece, perhaps. Any other suggestions? Music you miss or music you'd love to hear? You can always share online or in person!

But keep in mind that maybe it's not a bad thing that church music is often different from what we hear in our daily lives. It helps create a sense of the sacred. We'll keep inviting in new sounds and aim for variety, and I'll have more to say on the debate tomorrow. But to close today, a simple country tune that I sang along with to a commercial the other day (much to the amazement of my significant other). Sing along!

Stick shifts and safety belts,
Bucket seats have all got to go.
When I'm riding in my car,
It makes my baby feel so far...

And God bless Lynne Rossetto Kasper at MN Public Radio for putting that hummable, memorable tune in my mind most weeks!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A royal march, et al.

I thought I'd start my entry on this week's music by proceeding backward from the postlude. I'll be playing "Festive Voluntry" by Henry Purcell, who is a 17th century British composer. Purcell is not known as a church composer; he was principally a court musician and composed music for the royal family. Because of that, he's known mostly for marches and voluntaries.

It's precisely the non-sacred source of the music that made me stop to think this week. Why do we (meaning church organists, principally) still play non-sacred classical music like this for a postlude? It can be difficult to justify in some situations. My answer would be threefold: 1. it's good music that has stood the test of time; 2. not a lot of people are paying much attention to a postlude anyway; 3. royal marches symbolize Christ as king. Do you agree with those reasons? Do you have more of your own to add?

There's no such sense of unease about this week's prelude, which is a fugue by Walcha on the tune "Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern." The most common text to this tune is "O Morning Star How Fair and Bright." This particular arrangement doesn't literally spell out the whole tune, but you can hear snatches of the well-known tune among each of the three voices in the fugue. Listen carefully for how Walcha has updated and added to the tune, or hum along when you hear familiar snippets.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Even genius millionaires used to sing and dance

During my time in Florida, we visited the winter home and laboratory of Thomas Edison and his next door neighbor Henry Ford. It's a beautiful estate, of course, and the variety of plants is amazing, particularly the huge banyan tree that no visitor there ever forgets. (That tree was among the things that had stuck with me from an earlier visit years ago.)

On my tour this time, however, I especially noticed our tour guide's comments about the important roles of music and dance in Edison's life. Edison enjoyed playing the piano in his spare time, and he met his second wife at a party when she played a piece by Chopin that caught his attention. His grand piano is still on display at the house.

The guide also told stories about parties at the estate, when the carpets would be rolled up so that the people could square dance. Edison and Ford apparently both loved to square dance, and it was a requirement for their employees to know how to dance.

Ironically, Edison's own inventions have distanced us today from such active participation in our own entertainment, both music and dance. Musical recordings and movies and television (not all direct Edison inventions, I realize, but certainly all stemming from his work) create unrealistically perfect performances and encourage our passive, private enjoyment of the arts. I doubt that parties at Bill Gate's home still involve rolling up the carpets to square dance. A societal shift away from participation in the arts is a great loss for all of us. It's important for our spiritual health to maintain our connection with the arts, and church is one venue where we can still sing with family and friends. Where else in your life do you still sing (or dance)? That's just one more reason to sing with gusto this Sunday!

Monday, January 18, 2010

A paean to Bach

During my holiday break, I finally started to catch up on reading the pile of books that had accumulated on my bedside table. Among them was the excellent novel Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby. One of my favorite passages is the narrator's praise of Bach's music:

"...when the music fills the air, it is as if God himself has entered the concert hall. Forget all those sermons the ministers used to go on at length about week after week, trying to hammer the word of God and make it stick. If there is a God, this is how he communicates. Through music. And if there is a vehicle through which God speaks best, it is Johann Sebastian Bach."

In the past 250 years of enjoying Bach's music, many people have agreed that his genius communicates the essence of our faith. But I also had the time on my break to rediscover the joy of a variety of music on my ipod. Many composers and styles speak to us, and sometimes the most powerful and memorable music simply depends on our mood and state of mind. What composers, hymns, and songs speak most directly to you?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Old winter folk tunes

No, we won't be singing any Woody Guthrie tunes this Sunday. The English and French folk tunes you'll hear are centuries old. The English tune Greensleeves is highly recognizable as the melody of "What Child is This?" It's a popular tune in the hymnal with multiple texts. This week we'll be singing the communion text "What Feast of Love."

The French folk tune is not as well known. "Une jeune pucelle" is the tune of the hymn 'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime. We won't actually be singing the hymn, but the tune is the basis of my prelude this week.

The influence of French music and composers on Lutheran church music has always been less than the German, and to a lesser extent English influence. It's not surprising that the sounds of Luther and Bach are still with us, after all. But it can be a nice change of pace to go outside that traditional musical literature for a different sound.

The prelude is a theme and variation on the traditional tune, composed by Jean-Francois Dandrieu. He was a French composer from the Baroque period, and you can hear the traditional counterpoint of the era in the way the soprano melody interacts with counter-melodies below it. Listen for the folk tune within the more complex music and sing with gusto during communion this week.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Choir notes from Cassie

This Sunday, the choir will be singing an anthem by the 16th century composer Michael Praetorius. Edited down to four verses, this piece is an anthem for the season of Epiphany. What is very interesting is that the three verses omitted from the piece, when placed back in order, present the music as a nighttime offering. Here are the missing verses:

All-holy Lord, in humble prayer,
We ask tonight Thy watchful care.
Oh, grant us calm repose in Thee,
A quiet night, from perils free.

Our sleep be pure from sinful stain;
Let not the Tempter vantage gain,
Or our unguarded flesh surprise
And make us guilty in Thine eyes.

Asleep though wearied eyes may be,
Still keep the heart awake to Thee;
Let Thy right hand outstretched above
Guard those who serve the Lord they love.

With these added verses, it is restored to a prayer before bed, in darkness, with the contrast and comfort of Christ as Light. We look forward to presenting verses 1, 5, 6, and 7 at the 8:30 service.

Personally, in our household, we have started a tradition of lighting lamps and candles at sundown to remind us of Christ, our Light and Day. The picture above is our kitchen table. What traditions do you have that remind you of this?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Back in northeast Ohio

I've been back less than 48 hours, but it feels like a week has gone by. This past fall I heard Myron Scholes give a lecture in which he stated that understanding the markets means understanding "volatility-time." By that he meant that markets react differently based on how much trading activity is going on. I think it's a powerful analogy if only because we can all relate to it; time does seem to compress and expand based on how busy we are!

Last night was the first worship and music committee meeting of 2010, and we made plans and selected hymns through Palm Sunday. For me this is a season of anticipation and planning - the semester is about to begin, a new church season is only a few weeks away, and of course the New Year always brings renewed resolve. Our lives are full of such moments where we pause and form plans for the short term.

Recently, though, I was reminded of the macro picture of time. A recent acquaintance of mine works as a military consultant in Afghanistan, and he said the biggest problem in the Middle East isn't anything that the average person would normally list. The biggest problem, he argued, was the lack of consistent long-term goals, as administrations and personnel change at all levels from enlisted men and women to the President. How can you work effectively on a daily level if you don't know where you're headed next year?

What's true in that setting is also true in so many aspects of the world. How can elementary school teachers create standards and lesson plans when the next pedagogical revolution or testing regime might be just around the corner? How can a church grow in faith and community if there is no long term vision? We've made our plans for the spring now, and it's important that we plan for next Sunday and also for 10 years from now.

Back on the micro level, music is shaped in time. Rhythm defines the structure by which we sing liturgy and hymns. I found a hymn text that reminds us of the importance of perspective on time that I thought I'd share in closing today:

Life at best is very brief,
Like the falling of a leaf,
Like the binding of a sheaf,
Be in time!
Fleeting days are telling fast
That the die will soon be cast,
And the fatal line be passed,
Be in time!

Friday, January 8, 2010

This Sunday...on the beach!

The state of Florida must know that I'm coming to visit because they're going to have one of the coldest weeks of the year. For some reason, a blast of arctic air always seems to accompany my visits. But I'll be out of town this weekend, enjoying time with family and a chance to relax for a few days.

Hopefully the sun will shine enough that I can at least enjoy a walk on the beach. I love the rhythm of the waves and the blended music and sounds of people enjoying the day. It's nice to get a break from hearing the same sounds all the time, to have a short break from the cycle of music every week.

I'm sure that Cassie will be playing great music this Sunday in my place. While I will miss the church, I won't miss the snow! I'll be back next week, rejuvenated and ready to make big plans for Lent, Easter, and a great 2010.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Concert reminder

I think that fellowship, participation, and a sense of community are vital aspects of a thriving church congregation. Clearly, my particular passion is to get people excited about Lutheran church music. I hope that every month there is something in the music that is a memorable highlight for every member - whether it's the chance to sing a favorite hymn, a prelude or postlude that stands out, or a choir anthem that you find yourself humming all week long.

For the same reasons, I'm really hoping that people will be interested in attending the St. Olaf Choir concert on Monday, Feb. 1st. Tickets are $25, and there is a sign up sheet on the bulletin board at church. The concert is sure to include plenty of great sacred music in a variety of styles. The night should provide spiritual refreshment as well as the fellowship of attending with members of our church. Please consider joining us. Check your calendar, and you can contact me with any questions.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Augustine, Luther, and the National Guard

I went to see the film "Avatar" the other day. (As an aside: It was quite good, though I found it to paint quite a bleak picture of humanity.) Before the movie, though, there was a fascinating ad from the National Guard.

In many ways, it was the typical military recruitment sequence: men and women in various inspiring situations, from climbing mountains to crawling through mud, from flying planes to working at a computer. What I found fascinating was the background music. It was neither a military march nor a patriotic tune. It was a large orchestral and choral work that could only summon the opening strains of Carmina Burana to my mind. It gave the message a unique power to capture my attention during previews I would typically ignore. Yet the incongruence of the music and the images unsettled me and made me marvel at the choice.

The issue of that contrast reminded me of the contrasting philosophies of church music of Augustine and Luther. Augustine largely argued against music in church, viewing it as a distraction from the theological message. In his "Confessions," he wrote, "Yet when it happens to me that the music movesme more than the subject of the song, I confess myself to commit a sin deserving punishment, and then I would prefer not to have heard the singer." By contrast, Luther said "Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us."

They both have a point. Music is powerful, and that power can be used to enhance a message, but it can sometimes distract us from a true understanding. It's always good to be reminded of the true purpose of worship and music, even when the source is an unorthodox reminder.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Quiet, snowy afternoons

It just won't quit snowing! I was happy to have a white Christmas, but I wouldn't mind a couple of days without shoveling. I am spending much of my break catching up on things around home. The Christmas decorations are coming down, books are getting read, and of course plans are being made for church music in the coming weeks and months.

As I was digging through a pile of music, I came across the November issue of "The American Organist." (See what I mean about catching up?) One article was about a new retreat for organists that opened last year. Sometimes we all need a break and a bit of silence to find the core of our passion again, the driving purpose for what we do.

The article included the text of a hymn that spoke to me at this time of the year as I work among stacks of books and tubs of Christmas decorations:

Come and find the quiet center,
In the crowded life we lead.
Find the room for hope to enter,
Find the frame where we are freed:
Clear the chaos and the clutter,
Clear our eyes that we may see
All the things that really matter,
Be at peace and simply be.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In Dulci Jubilo

We're starting to wind down on Christmas carols as we approach Epiphany. We're starting to sing some of the lesser-known tunes. This week much of the service music is inspired by the hymn tune "In Dulci Jubilo," which is now typically translated "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice." I'll be playing arrangements of the tune by Manz and Durufle.

The original tune is nearly 700 years old, a jaunty waltz with an original German/Latin text. It's one of my favorites for a couple of reasons. First, it's a Chritmas hymn that we don't hear endlessly repeated in the mall, sung by everyone from the cast of American Idol to barking dogs. It's a tune that still belongs to the church. I think that's one reason that Lent and Easter music are typically more popular among church musicians: we can still make our own mark and do something interesting with it.

Second, it focuses on the joy of Christmas with its strong waltz rhythm. It makes you want to move, and the tune sticks with you through the rest of the day. In this regard, it will contrast nicely with the quartet we'll be singing, which instead focuses on the mystery of Christmas. Overall, the service should provide a balanced wrap-up to the season - joy and mystery in this snowy holiday season. Then we'll close the service with "Go Tell It on the Mountain." It's one of my sister's favorite hymns and a great reminder of what to do with the Good News we celebrate each Sunday.