Music fit for a King. . .

Unlike our secular calendar, which has us starting a new year on January 1st, the church’s liturgical calendar begins a new year with the First Sunday of Advent.  So this year we look forward to saying "Happy New Church Year" on November 27th.   What does that mean for this coming Sunday?  Well, November 20th marks the official end of the church year with a special celebration known as Christ the King Sunday (also called Reign of Christ the King).  On this day, we conclude the church’s liturgical journey through the life of Christ and the Gospel message.   We also commemorate the fulfillment of Christ’s mission and the purpose of His brief time on this earth, namely, Christ’s redemption of humankind and His reign over all things in heaven and on earth.

To mark this holiday, we must certainly plan activities as well as music fit for a King!   Here at Westminster, our delightful children participate, as they have for many years now, in the traditional Christ the King parade at the start of both worship services.  Marching down the aisle bearing their shoeboxes, the children offer these gifts to help others in honor of Christ the King.   At 11:00 worship, the Sunday School children sing special songs of praise to the King.   The whole congregation then joins the celebratory spirit by singing majestic, much-loved hymns like All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name! (Coronation) and Crown Him with Many Crowns (Diademata). The cumulative effect of these hymns (together with the lectionary Psalm of the day: All People that on Earth do Dwell-sung to the grand tune Old Hundredth) can truly be called dramatic, uplifting, and fit for a King!

The Chancel Choir’s offertory anthem–Crown Him King of Kings by J. S. Bach–certainly continues the theme of music fit for a King.  Hal Hopson (who, as many of you may recall, presented a musical spiritual enrichment program here at Westminster about four years ago) cleverly arranged a chorus from Bach’s Cantata 207a (Auf schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten, which translates as: Blast forth, ringing tones of lively trumpets)–a secular cantata–using a time-honored tradition: fitting secular music with a sacred text, thereby assuring its appropriateness for use in worship.   In Bach’s original, the text speaks of glorifying an earthly king ("Long live Augustus, long live the king"); the next logical step, for Hopson, was to adapt those words to speak of our heavenly King.  As all fans of Bach’s music know, there is little actual or even identifiable difference between the concepts of secular and sacred in the music of Bach, except perhaps in the purely formal sense.  Bach himself inscribed the words Soli Deo Gloria on nearly everything he wrote, taking care to give God the glory at all times.   He firmly believed that the gift of music, in all its forms, represented a sacred trust from our Creator King.  Cantata 207a was written for the name-day of the elector of Saxony and king of Poland, Friedrich August II, and was probably first performed on August 3, 1735.   According to a report in the local newspaper, Bach’s Collegium Musicum planned "most humbly to perform a solemn work. . .in Zimmermann’s garden by the Grimm Gate." Structurally, the text is based closely on that of Bach’s 1727 dramma per musica, Cantata 207, from which the music of six of the nine movements in Cantata 207a is also taken. The work is elaborately scored for three trumpets and timpani, two flutes and three oboes in addition to the usual complement of strings. I hope you enjoy the YouTube clip (see below), which features a wonderfully regal performance of some of the other movements from Cantata 207a.  If this is not music fit for a King, then nothing qualifies!

This morning’s prelude is a delightfully sunny Allegro movement from one of Bach’s six so-called Trio Sonatas for organ.  Each of these works contains three movements (in the classic fast-slow-fast pattern), and each calls upon all the coordination and technical skill an organist possesses, since all are written in three independent contrapuntal lines–one for right hand, one for left hand, and one for the feet (pedals). Not only are these pieces technically demanding, they are absolutely beautiful, elegant pieces of music.   I have always felt strongly that any organist who can play these sonatas flawlessly–from a technical and musical standpoint–is an organist who can play pretty much anything.   Hint to any organist search committee members who may read this blog: forget about all the other advice you may have been given; just ask anyone auditioning to play one of Bach’s trio sonatas for you.   Trust me, you will very quickly be able to tell whether this is a serious, gifted organist or not.  The trio sonatas spare no one and offer no place to hide!

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) will likely always be best known for his Canon in D.  I’ve often wondered whether he might be dismayed to know that this piece, of all the many things he wrote in his lifetime, is the only one most people call to mind these days.   It’s a beautiful piece, certainly, but ought to make everyone wonder what else the man wrote!   Today’s postlude offers another example, and a fine one at that.  Like the Canon in D (which is actually not a canon, but a passacaglia or ciacona (chaconne)-which simply means variations over a repeating bass line), this ciacona, like those written by Buxtehude, Bach, and many others, is a delightful tour de force for the organist. Pachelbel spent the last part of his life in southern Germany, writing all manner of keyboard, choral, and instrumental works.   Like Bach, he was a master at writing fugues (his 94 Magnificat fugues are wonderful examples of Pachelbel’s creative genius).

All hail Christ the King!