Joy in the Kingdom of God. . .
How many ways are there to express joy? Too many to count? Of course! Well, what about joy expressed musically? Still too many ways to count? Certainly! But for those of you who like to tabulate things, this Sunday will be a great opportunity to give it a try. Our hymns, anthems, preludes, and postludes all express joy in unique, life-affirming ways, using a wide variety of styles and techniques.
The Kingdom by André J. Thomas is one of our Chancel Choir’s all-time favorite anthems. Dr. Thomas, a prolific composer/arranger, teaches at Florida State University. For reasons that are obvious to all who have worked with him–his musical sensitivity, amazing charisma, and gift for teaching–Thomas remains in great demand as a choral clinician and adjudicator, not only in the USA, but around the world. When I introduced this anthem to the choir many years ago (if I remember correctly, it was during my first season at Westminster), I wasn’t sure how it would be received. After all, my image as a serious classical musician might lead the choir and congregation to expect only serious classical music from me, right? Wrong. Thomas’ wonderful Gospel-style piece captured my heart the very first time I heard and sang it, and the effect on our choir was contagious. This anthem’s message of universal connection, of righteousness, peace, joy, and love–That’s the Kingdom of God!–could not be simpler or more profound. The text even has an environmental message: Lest we forget our place in nature’s great scheme, we are reminded that God’s Kingdom includes the entirety of God’s creation–our mother earth with its perfumed flowers, creatures, and rivers–and we are part of it all. The implied message, of course, especially fitting on Earth Day, is that we are responsible for doing our part to protect God’s wonderful creation. Over the years, our choir has never tired of singing The Kingdom. Its musical style is very appealing. It is so much fun to sing, in fact, that we will include it in our May 6th concert program as well. Believe me when I say it sounds really great in the music room! I hope you enjoy the video (see below) showing Dr. Thomas at work in an international setting–music crosses all borders!
This morning’s hymns truly celebrate the ongoing joy of Eastertide. Our strong opening and closing hymns address the centrality of Christ’s victory over death: As we celebrate that This is the Feast of Victory, we Lift High the Cross as we go about our daily lives. Though separated by many decades, both of these are 20th- century hymns. Easter joy is also abundantly evident in our middle hymn, That Easter Day with Joy was Bright, a 5th-century Latin hymn text sung to a delightful, dance-based tune from a famous 15th-century manuscript. I challenge you to sing these spirited hymns with gusto this morning, expressing your joy in Christ’s resurrection through powerful congregational unity. It is virtually impossible not to get swept up in the grandeur of these hymns. And remember, this is no time to be shy–let your voices ring out!
This morning’s organ preludes consist of two movements from Craig A. Penfield’s beautiful French Suite for Organ. Penfield was born in Connecticut in 1948 and began serious studies in piano, organ, and music theory while still in high school. His compositions show a love and mastery of the French impressionistic style. Many of you are familiar with J. S. Bach’s famous French Suites for keyboard. In similar fashion, Penfield gives us an organ suite, consisting of commonly used stylized dance forms like the Allemande, Bourree, Minuet, and Courante. It is certainly no stretch to equate dancing (even stylized, formal dancing) with joy. The Allemande is one of the most popular instrumental dances in Baroque music, and is usually the standard opening movement in a dance suite. Originating in the 16th century as a duple meter dance of moderate tempo, it was derived from dances favored in Germany at the time (thus its name). French composers of the 17th century experimented with the allemande, shifting to quadruple meter, and ranging more widely in tempo. Traditionally, the allemande was considered a rather serious dance, but this did not prevent its development late in the 18th century to include dances in triple meter, similar to a waltz. The bourree is of French origin, typically danced in quick double time and somewhat resembling the gavotte.
And then there is Buxtehude. . .what could be more joyful than one of his big toccatas played with gusto on the king of instruments? Those of you who have heard me play for a while know that I am very fond of Buxtehude’s organ works. In fact, together with Bach’s marvelous organ pieces, they are my very favorites for the instrument. For more on Buxtehude’s style, particularly the stylus fantasticus displayed in this morning’s postlude, see music notes from October 16th. Perhaps you’ll agree that Buxtehude’s energetic Toccata in D is a foremost example of the organ’s natural expression of joy in the kingdom!