Reformation is a church musician’s dream festival!

Perhaps it’s my Lutheran background at work, but I’ve always looked forward to planning music for Reformation Sunday.  I simply love the way congregations get into the spirit of A Mighty Fortress, truly one of the strongest hymns in Christendom.  Beyond the obvious, though (after all, what reformed church does not include A Mighty Fortress–the ultimate Reformation hymn–on this day?), what other hymns and service music can be programmed to emphasize the strengths of our reformed and ever-reforming church?   How many angles can be employed to help us contemplate the achievements of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and countless other reformers?  Is there a place for us, both individually and collectively, in this great stream of history, as the body of Christ in the world?   What kind of music best helps us think about these things?

These are not easy questions, and there are no one-size-fits-all answers.   But that is the beauty of planning music for Reformation Sunday.   It’s a wide-open field, rife with possibilities.  And, as thoughtful Christians (whether musicians or not), we owe it to ourselves to explore the possibilities.   As I thought about Reformation Sunday and its relationship to Stewardship Dedication Sunday, I realized it’s not a huge or even an artificial stretch to link these two.   After all, as members of the ever-reforming church, has it not for ages been part of our calling to dedicate ourselves–including our tithes, offerings, and talents–to God?   With Westminster’s emphasis on mission, on the loving nurture of all God’s children, what could be a more natural placement?   Perhaps our clearest purpose is to share love, joy, and peace, as Fred Pratt Green suggests in his powerful text.   We sing Jane Marshall’s beautiful anthem, Love, Joy, and Peace together for a second time this morning because it is such a powerful musical expression of our Stewardship theme, The Fruit of the Spirit.  As we sing, let’s contemplate the many facets of our loving, joyful, and ever-reforming church, which after so many centuries remains vitally alive. (For more on Marshall’s anthem, see music notes for October 9th.)

Did you know that Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is our God, which first appeared in a hymnal of 1529, was–and remains–popular with composers both within and outside the organ/church music world?   Felix Mendelssohn used it in his Reformation Symphony (1830), Richard Wagner in Kaisersmarsch (1871), and Giacomo Meyerbeer in his opera Les Huguenots (1836).   This morning, four organ chorale settings of the famous tune (three as prelude, the fourth as 8:30 offertory) offer a glimpse into how Baroque composers of Bach’s time and before treated the famous Reformation tune.  It comes alive in so many ways!

This morning’s remaining hymns are iconic symbols both of Reformation and of Stewardship.  Consider Psalm 100, perhaps most familiar to us as paired with the tune Old Hundredth: if this is not a profound call to God’s people, what is?   In short order, the Psalmist calls us to sing, serve, praise, and rejoice, reminding us that God created everything (without our help, lest we forget!), that God is our Shepherd, that our God is good, merciful, and endures from age to age.  That about sums it all up, doesn’t it?   What a perfect backdrop for the offering of our pledges on this special Sunday!  At 11:00 worship, we’re privileged to share in Vaughan Williams’ marvelous setting of Old Hundredth.  He wrote this for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey in 1953, and his arrangement has all the hallmarks of true British grandeur.  Vaughan Williams, himself renowned as the most important English composer of his generation, pays homage to earlier musical traditions (verse 4 includes music directly quoted from John Dowland, 1621), thereby broadening this beautiful hymn-anthem’s reach to include centuries of tradition, and thus reminding us that we are part of a great tapestry that grows ever more beautiful through the ages.

Our closing hymn, Today We all are Called to be Disciples, is another example of Vaughan Williams’ profound influence on English hymnody.   In this instance, he took a traditional English tune, named it Kingsfold (for a village in Surrey, where he heard a variant of the tune), and turned it into a beautiful hymn.  The tune is often sung to the text I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say, but Hymn 434 pairs it with a wonderful text that has come to symbolize Westminster’s mission-centered focus.   H. Kenn Carmichael, a retired Presbyterian minister, wrote these words in 1985 as part of a Stewardship campaign entitled "Called to be Disciples."  May the power of these words inspire us to be true disciples as we go forth into the world!

If you think I threw in Jan Bender’s wonderfully rhythmic setting of Erhalt uns, Herr (Lord, Keep us Steadfast) as an afterthought among today’s postludes, I must say you underestimate me!   This hymn tune, though not as well known to Presbyterians, was one of the early success stories among Lutheran chorales.  Martin Luther wrote the text and possibly the tune as well.   Like A Mighty Fortress, it is a symbol of Reformation theology, and was one of a handful of hymns routinely included in the earliest printed Lutheran hymnals.

We are so fortunate to have Jack Walker joining us again this morning, providing uplifting and inspiring trumpet music.   Trumpets have always been powerful symbols of strength and praise, a perfect fit on Reformation Sunday.  It is not by accident that the Psalmist continually refers to praising God with the trumpet, as here: With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. (Ps. 98: 6).  Jack’s prelude is from one of Handel’s best-known collections: The Water Music is a set of orchestral movements which premiered on July 17, 1717 after King George I requested a concert on the River Thames.   The concert was performed by 50 musicians playing on a barge near the royal barge from which the King and his entourage listened.  The barges, heading for Chelsea or Lambeth and leaving the party after midnight, used the tides of the river.   Legend has it that George I enjoyed the Water Music suites so much, he made the exhausted musicians play them three times over the course of the outing.

Charpentier’s powerful Te Deum was written in the late 17th century during the time Charpentier served as musical director at the Jesuit Church of Saint-Louis in Paris.  Exceptionally prolific and versatile, Charpentier (1643-1704) is perhaps best known for this Te Deum, but he was hailed by his contemporaries for his mastery in writing a wide variety of sacred vocal music as well.